Tales of Afghanistan’s former president and his senior advisers fleeing the country in helicopters laden with millions of U.S. dollars, as Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul, appear to be overblown, according to an interim report by American investigators.
Russia’s embassy in Kabul first floated the allegations of the Afghan cash heist August 16, a day after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and senior aides departed, telling the RIA news agency that the ex-president left the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash, worth an estimated $169 million.
The charges were then echoed by Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan. But in a statement less than a month later Ghani denied the accusations, labeling them as “completely and categorically false.”
Now, interim findings from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) finds the truth is likely somewhere in between.
“Although SIGAR found that some cash was taken from the grounds of the palace and loaded onto these helicopters, evidence indicates that this number did not exceed $1 million and may have been closer in value to $500,000,” John Sopko, the special inspector general, wrote in a letter to top U.S. lawmakers.
“Most of this money was believed to have come from several Afghan government operating budgets normally managed at the [presidential] palace,” Sopko added, noting another $5 million also reportedly went missing after being left behind.
“The origins and purpose of this money are disputed, but it was supposedly divided by members of the Presidential Protective Service after the helicopters departed but before the Taliban captured the palace,” Sopko wrote.
SIGAR’s interim report, published Tuesday, was compiled without any input or explanation from Ghani, who has so far not responded to a series of questions.
Former Afghan officials
More than 30 other former Afghan officials, many in key offices, did talk however, telling the U.S. investigators that luggage was minimal on at least three of the helicopters used to flee the Presidential Palace.
Only a suitcase belonging to Presidential Protective Service chief, 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 about $440,000 worth of money.
The rest of the cash was held by the officials themselves.
“Everyone had $5,000 to $10,000 in their pockets,” a former senior Afghan official told SIGAR. “No one had millions.”
The admission contradicts earlier assertions by some former senior Afghan officials, like ex-National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who when asked by CBS News in December 2021 about the allegations of cash being taken from Kabul, said, “absolutely not … we just took ourselves.”
This past February, though, 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 such initial discrepancies, SIGAR investigators found little to back up the Russian claims that the fleeing Afghan officials made off with a sum of $169 million.
“This amount of cash would have been difficult to conceal,” the SIGAR report said, explaining that much money would have weighed nearly 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 significant additional weight,” the report added. “That these helicopters were allegedly armored for presidential travel would have reduced their payload capacity even further.”
Additionally, the SIGAR report said the Afghan ambassador to Tajikistan who publicly backed the Russian claims, Zahir Aghbar, refused to talk to investigators or provide any evidence.
The estimated $500,000 in cash did not 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, to Abu Dhabi.
After arriving in Abu Dhabi, the remaining cash was reportedly divided among the 54 Afghans, most of whom spent weeks at the St. Regis Hotel.
“Some was sent to family members of PPS [Presidential Protective Service] guards still in Afghanistan, some was sent to senior staff still in Afghanistan, some was given to senior staff for commercial airfare to third countries where they had citizenship, and the rest was distributed among the group as they departed the St. Regis,” the report said.
Although SIGAR is confident in its findings that Ghani and other top aides did not smuggle hundreds of millions of dollars out of Afghanistan as they fled the country, questions remain about other money that reportedly disappeared.
SIGAR, citing multiple and sometimes contradictory accounts of various eyewitnesses, said it could not draw a “definitive conclusion” about the fate of the $5 million that reportedly was left at the Presidential Palace in Kabul.
One former senior official told SIGAR the money was divided into three to four bags and loaded into cars belonging to Ghani’s motorcade.
Another official, who was unaware of allegations the cars carried bags of cash, said he was told the motorcade was then sent to pick up former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which the official described as bizarre.
Yet other officials differed on the origins of the $5 million, with some saying it was Ghani’s personal money while others suggested it may have been provided by the United Arab Emirates for Ghani’s 2019 reelection campaign.
Similarly, investigators have unresolved questions about the fate of the former Afghan government’s operating budget of the National Directorate of Security, which reportedly had as much as $70 million in cash in the months before the Taliban takeover.
One official told SIGAR much of the money was being spent right up until the end.
“We used a lot of money to send and buy weapons,” the official said. “The governors told us to push the people to help them protect different areas. … We carried a lot of money to different people, like tribal leaders.”
But other officials told SIGAR the money may well have been stolen by corrupt officials.