Saturday, December 27, 2008

Little blue pills mean big boost for spies

CIA creative in its effort to win over fickle Afghan warlords, even offering doses of Viagra as a reward

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, saw an opportunity, and reached in his bag for a small gift.

Four blue pills. Viagra.

"Take one of these. You'll love it," the officer said. "Compliments of Uncle Sam."

The enticement worked. The officer, who described the encounter, returned four days later to an enthusiastic reception. The grinning chief offered up a bonanza of information about Taliban movements and supply routes – followed by a request for more pills.

For U.S. intelligence officials, this is how some crucial battles in Afghanistan are fought and won. While the CIA has a long history buying information with cash, the growing Taliban insurgency has prompted the use of novel incentives and creative bargaining to gain support in some of the country's roughest neighbourhoods, according to officials directly 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 services. These include tools, medicine or surgeries for ailing family members, toys, 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 long-time agency operative and veteran of several Afghanistan tours. Officials say these inducements are necessary in Afghanistan, a country where warlords and tribal leaders expect to be paid for their co-operation, and where, for some, switching sides can be as easy as changing tunics. If the Americans don't offer incentives, there are others, including Taliban commanders, drug dealers and even Iranian agents, who will.

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 like money, jewellery and cars tend to draw unwanted attention.

Jamie Smith is a veteran of CIA covert operations in Afghanistan and now chief executive officer of SCG International, a private security and intelligence company.

He said the key is to meet the informant's personal needs in a way that keeps him firmly on your side but leaves little or no visible trace.

"You're trying to bridge a gap between people living in the 18th century and people coming in from the 21st century," Smith 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 is a long tradition of using sex as a motivator. Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer and author of several books on intelligence, noted the Soviets were notorious for using attractive women as bait when seeking to turn foreign diplomats into informants.

For some U.S. operatives in Afghanistan, Western drugs such as Viagra were just one of a long list of enticements available for use in special cases. Afghan tribal leaders often had four wives, and aging village patriarchs were easily sold on a pill that could "put them back in an authoritative position," said one retired operative familiar with the drug's use in Afghanistan.

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