Report: Ex-Afghan Officials Smuggled Nearly $1 Billion out Before Taliban Takeover

FILE - Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is seated after his meeting with U.S. President Joe B
AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

A bombshell report citing customs reports and other documents published by Business Insider on Tuesday accused the collapsed government of Afghanistan of allowing nearly $1 billion in cash, gold, jewelry, and other valuables to be smuggled out of the country shortly before the Taliban takeover.

The report notes that customs forms and alleged Afghan government documents indicate the smuggling appeared to be happening under former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani officials and Afghan lawmakers. The items allegedly smuggled out of the country crossed the Uzbek border – where Uzbek customs documents appear to show their arrival – and largely ended up, the report claims, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). On August 15, 2021, when the Taliban entered Kabul, Ghani fled via helicopter to the UAE, where he is believed to remain today.

Business Insider’s report adds to an ever-mounting body of evidence of widespread corruption in the previous, U.S.-backed Afghan government. It also indicates that Ghani may have benefitted from a corruption operation featuring many other high-profile politicians in the country in the days before his government collapsed – rather than merely smuggling money into the helicopter he used to flee, as had been previously reported.

Ghani ceased being the president of the country after fleeing. The return of the Taliban, a jihadist terrorist organization, to power in Afghanistan was preceded by leftist American President Joe Biden breaking an agreement with the group that would have seen U.S. troops leave the country on May 1, 2021. Biden extended the 20-year-old Afghan War into September 2021, but ultimately was forced to remove all troops a month earlier. The Taliban responded to pushing back the May deadline with a campaign of national conquest that ended at the city limits of Kabul. Upon the arrival of Taliban leadership there, Ghani abruptly fled.

Ghani still insisted that he is the legitimate president of Afghanistan as recently as last August, despite wielding no power in the country and living abroad.

FILE - In this Aug. 15, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi, File)

FILE – In this Aug. 15, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi, File)

Following his departure from Kabul, reports began surfacing – most from Russian government sources – that Ghani had stuffed his helicopter with as much as $169 million in cash. The Business Insider report suggests that he and several other high-ranking government officials would not have had any need to do such a thing as a long-term smuggling operation had already taken hundreds of millions of dollars of wealth out of the country.

“Documents assembled by Afghanistan’s now-defunct government and obtained by Insider show that $59.7 million in cash and gold went from Afghanistan to Uzbekistan through the port of Hairatan during the first three months of 2021,” the report detaimed. “During a 13-month period running from May 2019 through May 2020, the total was a staggering $824 million.”

“Insider obtained 457 pages of customs records showing that more than $824 million in cash and gold illegally crossed the border there during the second half of 2019 and the first half of 2020,” the report continued, “roughly four percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and more than the total amount of humanitarian assistance that the U.S. government was providing to the country each year.”

The money, it claims, mostly ended up in the UAE. Business Insider stated the documents appeared to accuse former deputy parliament speaker Mirza Mohammad Katawazai of “directing” the operation.

The report noted that the records are from Uzbekistan, no equivalent Afghan documents seem to exist, and they do not detail exactly where this money came from or who it belongs to. It cited several former lower-level Afghan officials who said they noticed irregularities and attempted to get approval from Ghani to investigate corruption but were mostly ignored. Evidence of corruption also appeared to do little to alarm the American government, which had spent into the trillions of dollars on the Afghan government since the war began in 2001.

Business Insider noted that its reporting followed up on similar revelations first published by the Afghan network Tolo News last year. Tolo News found evidence in March 2021, five months before the Taliban takeover, of “hundreds of kilograms of gold” being illicitly funneled out of Afghanistan through the same port Business Insider claimed had documented suspicious customs intakes.

“Based on the documents, which have been confirmed by credible government sources, in the first three months of 2021, 329 kg of gold, worth 59.6 million dollars, was smuggled abroad,” Tolo News reported at the time. “Sources at Sarai Shahzada (Kabul’s main exchange center) have said that each day various currencies more than 8 million dollars are being smuggled to Uzbekistan and then on to other countries.”

The Tolo report also named Mirza Mohammad Katawazai as being implicated in smuggling operations but noted that Katawazai had denied all allegations.

“There are people inside the parliament who are involved in smuggling gold and money,” a then-member of Parliament, Abdul Sattar Hussaini, said at the time. “There are also people within the government who are involved in the smuggling of money and national assets.”

America’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a watchdog office set up to follow up on U.S. taxpayer expenses in the country, published a report a year after the fall of Kabul appearing to exonerate Ghani of reports that he filled his fleeing helicopter with cash, but suggesting his inner circle nonetheless smuggled millions, if not billions, out of the country shortly before ceding control.

“The allegations that former President Ghani and his senior advisors fled Afghanistan aboard helicopters with millions in cash are unlikely to be true,” SIGAR concluded. “The hurried nature of their departure, the emphasis on passengers over cargo, the payload and performance limitations of the helicopters, and the consistent alignment in detailed accounts from witnesses on the ground and in the air all suggest that there was little more than $500,000 in cash on board the helicopters.”

“That being said,” the report continued, “it remains a strong possibility that significant amounts of U.S. currency disappeared from Afghan government property in the chaos of the Taliban takeover—including millions from the presidential palace and the National Directorate of Security vault.”

The vault, it continued, was mostly empty when the Taliban opened it, and the whereabouts of the millions stored there remain a mystery.

“I want to categorically state, I did not take any money out of the country,” Ghani said in December 2021, his first extensive remarks since fleeing to UAE. “My style of life is known to everyone. What would I do with money?”

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