In November 2020, Tajik customs officials found 90 kilograms of gold (nearly 200 pounds) and $15 million about to be loaded onto a Dushanbe-Dubai flight.
By February 2021, Tajik authorities announced the arrest of an initial seven people alleged to be involved in the smuggling of gold and cash from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and on to Dubai. Shortly after, an Afghan TV channel aired its own allegations: that a high-ranking Afghan politician was involved.
Mohammad Mirza Katawazai, at the time deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament, denied any involvement. The TV channel alleged that Katawazai had met one-on-one with the Tajik ambassador in Kabul in an attempt to smooth the smuggling matter over. As RFE/RL noted, the channel did not provide its evidence for the allegations, but had aired them strategically to coincide with Katawazai arriving in Dushanbe as part of a parliamentary delegation on February 27. Katawazai reportedly resigned his post after returning to Kabul. Afghan authorities said they were investigating the claims.
This week, according to RFE/RL, a Tajik court has sentenced nine people for smuggling gold and cash from Dushanbe to Dubai and Istanbul. Five men were convicted of the smuggling, totaling 1.4 tons of gold bars and $100 million in cash between early September and mid-November 2020. Three border guards and a police officer were also convicted of aiding the scheme. The sentences handed down last week ranged from two to 5 1/2 years.
Tajik authorities, RFE/RL noted, have never mentioned Katawazai in connection with the case. Tajik media focused on local culprits until the authorities’ statement in February pointed to Afghanistan as the source of the gold and cash.
The Afghan-Tajik border has long been a smugglers’ paradise, despite significant sums invested in equipping and training the Tajik and Afghan border services by the United States, China, and Russia. U.S., Chinese, and Russian interests overlap in some ways along the border, with terrorist movements a priority, followed by drug smuggling.
The Afghan-Tajik border is not the only border to watch in the region, however. According to a TOLO News report in March 2021, millions of dollars and thousands of kilograms of gold have been smuggled out of Afghanistan in various schemes. One case TOLO News highlighted was of $66 million and 329 kilograms of gold smuggled through the port in Hairatan, a town in Balkh province on the banks of the Amu Darya. The cash and gold was apparently taken across the river into Uzbekistan and then on to the United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan.
As Afghanistan enters a new phase of uncertainty on the back of persistent violence, an impending U.S. withdrawal, and a sluggish peace process, the opportunities for looting and smuggling of state coffers arguably will rise. Central Asia, where corruption is rampant and regular, remains a well-trod pathway out of the region for those willing to pay. From the potential looting of historical treasures to the smuggling of literal gold bars, under the cover of insecurity and instability some will seek to profit.