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Reporter's Notebook

Report: Kabul airport still a sieve for disappearing money

Money is distributed in Afghanistan in September 2012.

KABUL — A report slamming Kabul’s airport for doing little to combat money laundering came as no surprise to anyone living in this graft-beset capital.

In fact, in a country where corruption is more entrenched than just about anywhere else in the world — it tied with North Korea and Somalia at the bottom of Transparency International’s list this year — the airport is where it is sometimes at its most blatant. The past two times I’ve come through Kabul International, security guards have held my passport and tried to shake me down (unsuccessfully) for a bribe on the pretext that I was missing some invented document.

More disturbingly, if you want to avoid a security check of your baggage, all you need to do is pay. The fact that some of the security guards are illiterate and look at documents upside down, pretending to read them, before waving you through checkpoints seems the least sinister problem at the airport.

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The recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction is disturbing, especially its finding that “VIPs,” largely government officials, are able to bypass money laundering controls, even though much of the cash siphoned out of the country is thought to go through those very officials.

An estimated $4.5 billion was taken out of Afghanistan in 2011, often one suitcase full of cash at a time. It’s an astonishing number given the country’s gross domestic product of around $30 billion, but one that surprises no Afghans, who have become almost numb to the daily reality that many in their government are steadily looting the country.

The SIGAR report noted that airport staff did not appear to be using currency counting machines, which also track bill serial numbers, that are key to tracking the flow of money in and out of the country. The machines they had were not even connected to the internet, which prevents them from sending data to the Financial Transactions and Records Analysis Center of Afghanistan.

Fighting money laundering is made much more difficult when the very people who are entrusted to fight graft are the same ones bringing stacks of bills through the airport and the people meant to stop them can be bought for next to nothing.

All of this might not be news to Afghans or Westerners living in the country, but it won’t impress donor nations, who pledged $16 billion in civilian aid to Afghanistan at the Tokyo Conference in July, with a major caveat being that the Afghan government show tangible steps toward combating corruption.

druzinh@estripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

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