Afghanistan Confirms Officials Embezzle $8 Million Daily

An employee at a money changer counts USD 100 bills in Manila on October 25, 2012. AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS
AFP PHOTO/NOEL CELIS

The administration of President Joe Biden faced mounting concerns this week about the details of its post-withdrawal Afghanistan plan — set to feature extensive subsidizing of the government in Kabul — after officials admitted last week to evidence that millions in government revenue disappear on a daily basis.

“Now that a final departure is in sight, questions about clarity have shifted to Biden’s post-withdrawal plan,” the Associated Press observed Monday, referring to Biden’s announcement in April that he would break an agreement his predecessor Donald Trump made with the legitimate government of Afghanistan and the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country on May 1, 2021. Instead, Biden would prolong the American presence there through September 11, the 20th anniversary of the al-Qaeda jihadist attacks that prompted America’s invasion of the country.

While Biden vowed an end to the American military presence in the country by that date, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has repeatedly stated that the Biden administration would still invest millions in American taxpayers’ dollars on the stability of the Afghan government and be a looming presence in the country in a civilian capacity. Given the decades of evidence of widespread corruption in the Afghan government, among the many concerns facing the Biden administration is where the money Blinken promised Kabul will go.

Speaking to Afghanistan’s parliament on Wednesday, acting Finance Minister Mohammad Khalid Painda confirmed he had reason to believe Afghan customs officials embezzle $8 million a day and that 80 percent of the revenue generated by Afghan customs agents goes “to the mafia and the Taliban.”

“$8 million is being embezzled at customs on a daily basis, I think it is not less than the oppression and treason that the armed opponents impose on the Afghan people,” lawmaker Mir Haidar Afzali reportedly said, a claim that Painda did not deny, according to the Afghan Tolo News agency.

“Unfortunately, in some areas, it is the governors, the local police commanders, commissioners and anyone who has the power [doing corruption],” Tolo quoted Painda as saying. “For instance, in one province where the president had made a trip — after his trip, one of the heads of the Haj and Pilgrimage department telephoned and told his colleague: ‘I did not disclose your name and now you must send me my share.’”

“Everywhere there is plundering; they are looting the businessmen,” another testifying official, Commerce and Industries Minister Nisar Ahmad Ghoryani, told Parliament. Ghoryani also said false roadblocks where officials extort travelers for money have also become an increasingly alarming problem.

The officials and the lawmakers they testified to appeared to agree that the situation is contributing to a lack of foreign interest in investing in Afghanistan, scaring away potential investors and sending the few currently involved in the country abroad.

The Tolo News report, as well as reports from the Afghan outlet Khaama Press, appeared to suggest that much of the money plundered comes from extorted private businessmen, not government coffers. The corruption nonetheless affects Afghanistan’s ability to fund itself as business interests who may otherwise help fund Kabul flee.

Blinken, following a visit to Kabul in April, announced that the Biden administration would invest “nearly $300 million” in Afghanistan through civilian programs as the United States withdraws.

“As part of our commitment to invest in and support the Afghan people, we are working with Congress to provide nearly $300 million in additional civilian assistance for Afghanistan in 2021 from both the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development,” Blinken announced through his Twitter account at the time. “This assistance, which we announced at the quadrennial donors’ conference in November 2020 as potentially being available at a future date, is being made available now to demonstrate our enduring support for the Afghan people.”

Blinken did not mention any protocol to ensure that the money goes directly to the programs it is intended for, which he listed as “promoting economic growth, improving health and educational services, supporting women’s empowerment, facilitating human rights, strengthening Afghan civil society and independent media.” He did note some of the funding would be dedicated to “fighting corruption and narcotics,” without elaborating.

The Associated Press report Monday expressed concern for America’s role in the country in the event that, following a U.S. military withdrawal, the Taliban retakes control of the country. The Taliban terrorist organization, which is allied with al-Qaeda, ran Afghanistan prior to the 2001 American invasion and continues to consider itself the only legitimate government of Afghanistan. It refers to itself as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

“What would the United States do, for example, if the Taliban took advantage of the U.S. military departure by seizing power?” the AP asked of the Biden administration. “And, can the United States and the international community, through diplomacy and financial aid alone, prevent a worsening of the instability in Afghanistan that kept American and coalition troops there for two decades?”

The AP report concluded that the answer ranged “from the disastrous to the merely difficult.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, who has served as a special American envoy on the Afghan issue under both Biden and Trump, expressed optimism in remarks last week that the Afghan government would be able to maintain power without American troops risking their lives to keep Kabul’s officials in power.

“The statements that their [the Afghan government] forces will disintegrate and the Talibs will take over in short order are mistaken,” Khalilzad asserted.

The Biden administration has urged Kabul to cooperate with the Taliban, at least on fighting the Islamic State, a mutual foe.

“We call on the Taliban and Afghan leaders to engage seriously in the ongoing peace process to ensure the Afghan people enjoy a future free of terrorism and of senseless violence,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said following an attack on a girls’ school in Kabul in mid-May that killed at least 85 people. The Afghan government and the Taliban blamed each other for the attack; the Islamic State took responsibility.

“The United States remains committed to the Afghan peace process, which presents the best opportunity for Afghans to reach a just and durable political settlement, and to ensure a future for Afghanistan that is free of terrorism and of senseless violence,” Price concluded.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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