December 26, 2008

Viagra Used to Entice Afghan Warlords

A CIA officer gave an Afghan chieftain Viagra in an attempt to obtain information about Taliban movements.

The bearded Afghan, looking to be in his late 60s, returned enthusiastically with information and asking for more pills, after receiving the four blue Viagra pills from a CIA officer earlier.

According to officials involved in Afghanistan, this is how some battles are won, through novel incentives and creative bargaining in some of the country's roughest neighborhoods.  

The officials say that to win over notoriously fickle warlords and chieftains, 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.

"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.

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 easy as changing tunics, according to officials.  If the Americans do not offer incentives, there are others who will, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and Iranian agents.

Cash and weapons are the usual bribes of choice, but are not always the best options, Afghanistan veterans say.  Guns often fall into the wrong hands, 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."

Smith said, that the key 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."

There is a long tradition of using sex as a motivator among the world's intelligence agency.  A retired CIA officer and author of several books on Intelligence, Robert Baer, 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.

He said that for American officers, a more common practice was to offer medical care for potential informants and their loved ones.  Some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan said, Western drugs such as Viagra are just one of the long list of enticements available for use in special cases.  Veteran officers familiar with such practices said Viagra is offered rarely, and only to older tribal officials to whom the drug would hold special appeal.

While these drugs are generally unavailable in the remote areas where the agency's team have operated, they have been sold in Kabul street markets since 2003, and are known by reputation in other places.

"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.

Not everyone in Afghanistan's hinterlands has heard of the drug, making it awkward when Americans try to explain its effects.

This was the case with the 60-year-old 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, finding ways to secure loyalty.

A conversation 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.

When the Americans returned four days later, the gift had worked its magic, the operative said.

"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."


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