Whodunnit: U.S. investigators probe theft of millions from Afghan government during Taliban takeover

Whodunnit: U.S. investigators probe theft of millions from Afghan government during Taliban takeover

Afghanistan’s president didn’t make off with oodles of cash as he fled the country last summer, but someone seems to have, according to a new inspector general’s report Monday that says a meaningful security account was drained of funds the day before the Taliban took over.

Allegations that former President Ashraf Ghani made off with $169 million in his helicopter can’t be true, America’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said. The chopper simply couldn’t have hid and carried what would have amounted to nearly two tons of cash, investigators said.

But someone did manage to get to “tens of millions of dollars” that were in a vault at the National Directorate of Security. The money disappeared on Aug. 14, a day before Mr. Ghani fled and the Taliban arrived in Kabul.

Investigators weren’t able to figure out who did take the money, nor could they definitively say it was U.S. taxpayers’ money in the first place — but they hinted it was a pretty good bet. Half of Afghanistan’s budget came from donors, of which the U.S. was the largest operator, and public reports said the CIA funded the National Directorate of Security.

The new report delivers a fascinating look at the Afghan government as it collapsed in August, in anticipation of the U.S. troop withdrawal.

Investigators said Mr. Ghani had to flee so quickly that he was barefoot, and someone had to run and find him a pair of his shoes. His staff feared his own guard might turn on him and execute him, given the speed of the Taliban takeover.

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The president was whisked to the airport, where helicopters flew him out of the city.

But they realized they didn’t have a plan for where to go once in the air. Expectations of heading to areas nevertheless believed to be friendly to the government faded, and the helicopters limped to Uzbekistan, where they landed as their fuel ran out.

Investigators said the president and his entourage, about 54 people, had limited cash on them. They had to use $120,000 to charter a flight to Abu Dhabi, where they were quarantined by the government.

The inspector general concluded that no more than $1 million, and maybe as little as $500,000, was spirited away from the presidential palace during the president’s evacuation.

Arrangements for the charter flight out of Uzbekistan and for accommodations ate up much of that, the investigators said.

Russian officials, echoed by an Afghan ambassador, had suggested $169 million was flown out on the helicopters, but investigators said that couldn’t have happened.

“This amount of cash would have been difficult to conceal,” the inspector general concluded.

Investigators spoke with a number of former Afghan officials to piece together their accounts of what happened, but said there were limits. For one thing, the people they were talking to were often the ones accused by others of stealing money.

Two former officials said $5 million in cash had been stashed at the presidential palace and was discovered by guards. Some officials said it was Mr. Ghani’s personal fortune, while others said it was leftover campaign money for him, provided by the United Arab Emirates.

What became of the cash is also in doubt.

“SIGAR was unable to draw any definitive conclusion about the provenance, purpose or fate of the funds allegedly left behind at the palace,” the audit said.

Monday’s report is based on interim findings, and investigators said they hope to have more answers before their final report.

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