Ashraf Ghani, former Afghan president, breaks silence, defends decision to flee

Ashraf Ghani, former Afghan president, breaks silence, defends decision to flee

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said Thursday he was left with few options before fleeing the country in mid-August as Taliban fighters closed in on Kabul and denied allegations that he absconded with millions of dollars belonging to the people of Afghanistan.

Speaking to the BBC in his first interview since leaving Afghanistan, Mr. Ghani said he feared the country would be brought to its knees in a protracted conflict between his security forces and the Taliban.

“Two different factions of the Taliban were closing in from two different directions,” Mr. Ghani told BBC Radio 4. “And the possibility of a massive conflict between them that would destroy the city of 5 million and bring havoc to the people was enormous.”

Mr. Ghani fled Afghanistan to the United Arab Emirates on Aug. 15, just before Kabul fell to a swift Taliban offensive that toppled his government.

He has been heavily criticized by many who say he abandoned his country.

Mr. Ghani’s vice president, Amrullah Saleh, remained in Afghanistan after Mr. Ghani fled, declaring himself to be the “acting president” on Aug. 17. He joined the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front (NRF) in the rugged Panjshir Valley north of Kabul.

Other members of the government and political establishment, including former President Hamid Karzai and former top negotiator Abdullah Abdullah, remained in Kabul to negotiate with Taliban leaders.

On Thursday, Mr. Ghani said he had no plan to leave the country until just before he departed. He said his initial plan had been to flee to Khost province in southeastern Afghanistan before it was revealed that the region had fallen to the Taliban.

“I did not know where we [would] go,” he said. “Only when we took off, it became clear that we were leaving [Afghanistan]. So this really was sudden.”

Mr. Ghani also has been accused of absconding with millions of dollars belonging to the Afghan government, a claim he has vehemently denied.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko told a House subcommittee in October that his office is looking into the allegations.

“There are allegations not only with President Ghani, there are allegations with senior officials in their finance ministry, their central bank, and a number of other ministries walking off with millions of dollars,” Mr. Sopko said. “We have not confirmed any of those yet.”

Mr. Ghani said Thursday that the claims are categorically false.

“I want to categorically state, I did not take any money out of the country,” he said. “My style of life is known to everyone. What would I do with money?”

Mr. Ghani has maintained a low profile since leaving Afghanistan, emerging only periodically with statements on social media. Thursday’s interview was his most detailed account of his decision to flee.

Since Mr. Ghani has fled, the fundamentalist Taliban government has taken control of the country, which remains on the precipice of an economic and humanitarian disaster.

“My life’s work has been destroyed,” he said. “My values had been trampled on. And I have been made a scapegoat.”