WASHINGTON – The Afghan chieftain looked older than his 60-odd years, and his bearded face bore the creases of a man burdened with duties as tribal patriarch and husband to four younger women. His visitor, a CIA officer, reached in his bag for a small gift.
Four blue pills: Viagra.
“Take one of these,” the officer said. “You’ll love it.”
The officer returned days later to an enthusiastic reception, he said. The chief offered information about Taliban movements – and asked for more pills.
For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are won. The growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining in some of the country’s roughest neighborhoods, according to officials involved in such operations.
In their efforts to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, the officials say, the agency’s operatives have used a variety of personal touches. These include pocket knives and tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys and school equipment, tooth extractions, travel visas and, occasionally, pharmaceutical enhancements for aging patriarchs with slumping libidos, the officials said.
“Whatever it takes to make friends and influence people – whether it’s building a school or handing out Viagra,” said one longtime agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Like other field officers interviewed for the story, he spoke on condition of anonymity when describing tactics and operations.
Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their cooperation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don’t offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and Iranian agents.
The usual bribes of choice – cash and weapons – aren’t always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say. Guns too often fall into the wrong hands, they say, and showy gifts such as money, jewelry and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.
“If you give an asset $1,000, he’ll go out and buy the shiniest junk he can find, and it will be apparent that he has suddenly come into a lot of money from someone,” said Jamie Smith, a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive officer of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company. “Even if he doesn’t get killed, he becomes ineffective as an informant because everyone knows where he got it.”
The key, Mr. Smith said, is to meet the informant’s personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little trace.
“You’re trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century,” he said, “so you look for those common things in the form of material aid that motivate people everywhere.”
Among the world’s intelligence agencies, there’s a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted that the Soviet spy service was notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants.
“The KGB has always used ‘honey traps,’ and it works,” Mr. Baer said.
For American officers, a more common practice was to offer medical care for potential informants and their loved ones, he said. For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra are just one of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Two veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra is offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials for whom the drug would hold special appeal.
While such sexual performance drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency’s teams have operated, they have been sold in some Kabul street markets since at least 2003, and are known by reputation elsewhere.
“You didn’t hand it out to younger guys, but it could be a silver bullet to make connections to the older ones,” said one retired operative familiar with the drug’s use in Afghanistan. Afghan tribal leaders often have four wives – the maximum number allowed by the Quran – and some village patriarchs are easily sold on the pill.
But not everyone in Afghanistan’s hinterlands has heard of the drug, leading to some awkward encounters when Americans try to explain its effects.
Such was the case with the 60-something chieftain who received the four pills from a U.S. operative. The operative, now retired, said he talked to the clan leader for a long time through an interpreter, looking for ways to secure loyalty.
A discussion of the man’s family and wives provided inspiration. Once it was established that the man was in good health, the pills were offered and accepted.
Four days later, when the Americans returned, the gift had worked its magic, the operative recalled.
“He came up to us beaming,” the official said. “He said, ‘You are a great man.’ ”
“And after that we could do whatever we wanted in his area.”
The Washington Post