Search for missing Afghanistan cash comes up empty

Search for missing Afghanistan cash comes up empty

Afghanistan’s former president didn’t make off with millions of dollars of American money last year, but other people likely did, a U.S. inspector general said Tuesday in a report detailing his yearlong effort to track down what happened.

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said former President Ashraf Ghani and his entourage did try to take money with them on their emergency flight out of the country, but it appears to have been left behind amid other luggage.

All told, it’s likely the entourage had less than $1 million aboard its four helicopters, and much of that was spent paying for the evacuation effort itself.

But Mr. Sopko and his team said there’s a good chance someone else did make off with a lot of money.

Some $5 million in cash left behind at the presidential palace went missing, as did potentially tens of millions of dollars in other government offices.

One former senior Afghan official told the inspector general that his cash-heavy department had about $39 million in its account, and in the week before the government fully collapsed on Aug. 15 he was being pressured to loot the money.

And the National Directorate of Security (NDS) may have had tens of millions of dollars in a vault that went missing in the final days, the audit said.

How much of the money originally came from American taxpayers is difficult to determine, Mr. Sopko said, since the security directorate never shared details of its budget.

“That being said, 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 NDS vault,” investigators said.

“Attempts to loot other government funds appear to have been common. Yet with Afghan government records and surveillance videos from those final days likely in Taliban hands, SIGAR is unable to determine how much money was ultimately stolen, and by whom,” the audit concluded.

The probe was hamstrung by a host of issues, including the fact that there were few documentary sources available, which meant investigators had to rely on witnesses. In many cases, the witnesses were themselves accused by others of being involved in theft of the money.

Russian officials raised claims of stolen money in the wake of the Afghan government collapse, saying $169 million in cash flew out on board Mr. Ghani’s helicopters.

Investigators said they were able to rule that out based on sheer weight.

A block of $169 million in hundred-dollar bills would be larger than a three-seater couch and would weigh nearly two tons — far more capacity than the helicopters had, given the overload of people they were already carrying.

Besides, when the copters first landed in Uzbekistan authorities there cataloged everything, down to the contents of pockets and the bullets in the weapons carried by the Afghan security forces.

There was no evidence of a tranche of money, the inspector general concluded.

Investigators said the 54 people on the four helicopters had no more than $1 million, and likely closer to $500,000 with them. They paid $120,000 for a charter flight from Uzbekistan to the United Arab Emirates, where the remaining money was divided among the 54.