Accounts of the former Afghan president and his top advisers fleeing the country in helicopters loaded with millions of US dollars, as Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul, seem exaggerated, according to an interim report by US investigators.
The Russian Embassy in Kabul first launched the allegations of theft of money from Afghanistan on August 16, a day after the departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his top aides, telling the RIA news agency that the ex-president had left the country with four cars and a helicopter full of money. , worth an estimated $169 million.
The accusations were later taken up by the Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan. But in a statement less than a month later, Ghani denied the accusations, calling them “completely and categorically false”.
Now, interim findings from the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reveal that the truth likely lies somewhere in between.
“Although SIGAR discovered that cash was taken from the palace grounds and loaded onto these helicopters, the evidence indicates that this number did not exceed $1 million and could have been closer to $500,000” , said John Sopko, the special inspector general. wrote in a letter to key US lawmakers.
“Most of this money would come from several Afghan government operating budgets normally managed at the [presidential] palace,” Sopko added, noting that an additional $5 million is also believed to have gone missing after being left behind.
“The origins and purpose of this money are disputed, but it was reportedly split by members of the Presidential Protective Service after the helicopters left but before the Taliban took over the palace,” Sopko wrote.
SIGAR’s interim report, released on Tuesday, was compiled without any input or explanation from Ghani, who has so far not answered a series of questions.
Former Afghan officials
More than 30 other former Afghan officials, many in key offices, however, spoke out, telling US investigators that luggage was minimal on at least three of the helicopters used to flee the presidential palace.
Only a suitcase belonging to the head of the Presidential Protective Service, General Qahar Kochai, and a backpack belonging to Deputy National Security Adviser Rafi Fazil, contained cash, they said, with SIGAR estimating that the bags contained a total of approximately $440,000.
The rest of the money was held by the officials themselves.
“Everyone had between $5,000 and $10,000 in their pockets,” a former senior Afghan official told SIGAR. “Nobody had millions.”
This admission contradicts previous claims by some former senior Afghan officials, such as former national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who, when asked by CBS News in December 2021 about allegations of taking money from Kabul, said: “Absolutely no…we just caught ourselves.
Last February, however, Mohib told VOA he was cooperating with the SIGAR investigation.
“I also gave [SIGAR] my bank accounts and details of all my assets,” he said at the time.
Despite these initial discrepancies, SIGAR investigators found little evidence to support Russian claims that the fugitive Afghan officials got away with $169 million.
“This sum of money would have been difficult to conceal,” the SIGAR report said, explaining that a lot of money would have weighed almost 2 tons.
“According to both SIGAR interviews and press reports, the helicopters were already overloaded with passengers and fuel and could not have taken off with any significant additional weight,” the report added. “The fact that these helicopters were allegedly armored for presidential travel would have further reduced their payload capacity.”
Additionally, the SIGAR report says the Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan who publicly backed the Russian claims, Zahir Aghbar, refused to speak to investigators or provide evidence.
The estimated $500,000 in cash didn’t last long.
Senior Afghan officials told SIGAR that $120,000 was used to charter a flight from Uzbekistan, where four helicopters with a total of 54 passengers landed after running out of fuel, bound for Abu Dhabi.
After he arrived in Abu Dhabi, the remaining money was reportedly divided among the 54 Afghans, most of whom spent weeks at the St. Regis hotel.
“Some were sent to PPS family members [Presidential Protective Service] guards still in Afghanistan, some were sent to senior staff still in Afghanistan, some were given to senior staff for commercial airline tickets to third countries where they had citizenship, and the rest were distributed among the group upon leaving the St. Regis,” the report said.
While SIGAR is confident in its findings that Ghani and other senior aides did not smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars out of Afghanistan as they fled the country, questions remain about other funds who would have disappeared.
SIGAR, citing multiple and sometimes conflicting testimonies from various eyewitnesses, said it could not draw a “definitive conclusion” about the fate of the $5 million allegedly left at the presidential palace in Kabul.
A former senior official told SIGAR that the money was split into three or four bags and loaded into cars belonging to Ghani’s motorcade.
Another official, who was unaware of the allegations that the cars were carrying bags of cash, said he was told the motorcade was then sent to pick up former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which which the manager called weird.
Yet other officials differed on the origins of the $5million, with some saying it was Ghani’s personal money while others suggested it could have been provided by the Arab Emirates. united for Ghani’s 2019 re-election campaign.
Likewise, investigators have unresolved questions about the fate of the operating budget of the former Afghan government’s National Directorate of Security, which reportedly had as much as $70 million in cash in the months before the takeover. Taliban control.
An official told SIGAR that much of the money was spent until the end.
“We used a lot of money to send and buy weapons,” the official said. “The governors told us to push people to help them protect different areas. … We brought a lot of money to different people, like the tribal chiefs.
But other officials told SIGAR the money may well have been stolen by corrupt officials.