How much space does $169 million in cash take up? According to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction in an recently released interim report on the alleged theft of millions from Afghanistan as the government collapsed in August 2021, “$169 million in hundred dollar bills, stacked end to end, would form a block 7.5 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet tall.” A helpful visualization: “[I]t would be somewhat larger than a standard American three-seater couch.”
One of the more damning reports as the Afghan government collapsed was that President Ashraf Ghani had fled the country in a helicopter packed with cash. The source for the claim was a statement on August 16 by a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Kabul, routed through Russian media into the Western press. Reuters, for example, carried the story.
It was a claim difficult to either verify or dispute, and it fit easily into established understanding of the Afghan government as deeply corrupt. But was the story true?
According to SIGAR, which interviewed more than 30 former Afghan officials and compared their accounts along with available documentary evidence and media reports, the amount of cash flown out of Afghanistan with Ghani did not exceed $1 million “and may have been closer in value to $500,000.”
The report acknowledges the difficulty of establishing the truth in such a matter. Cash is difficult to trace and “[m]any of the officials in a position to witness the alleged theft of money were alleged by other officials to have stolen it,” SIGAR notes. The officials were interviewed separately, so SIGAR could compare their accounts for inconsistencies.
People can misremember or lie. But the physical realities of the objects in question — cash, helicopters, cars — help root SIGAR’s analysis in reality, even amid attempts by officials to position themselves in a more favorable light.
It’s important to remember that space exists between the extremes of millions and nothing.
National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib, for example, insisted in a CBS interview that there was no cash on the helicopters. One official SIGAR interviewed contended that “Everyone had $5,000 to $10,000 in their pockets… No one had millions.”
The Mi-17 helicopters the group flew in did not have cargo holds and two were reportedly configured for VIPs, typically able to carry 6-10 people. Ghani, his wife, Mohib, and Qahar Kochai, director of the Afghan President Protective Service (PPS), boarded one helicopter, around 10 others boarded a second and as many as 25 PPS guards boarded the third, configured to carry the president’s protective detail. Although some of those who fled carried luggage, none of the accounts SIGAR heard suggested where millions in cash could have been stashed. The third helicopter was apparently so overloaded that it stayed behind to unload some people and equipment and still barely made it off the ground.
According to SIGAR, $169 million in cash would have weighed 3,722 pounds, nearly two tons. The Russian account mentioned cars loaded with cash. SIGAR’s account states that two armored Land Cruisers, standard in the president’s detail, carried Mohib and Ghani’s wife to the helicopter landing area from the palace. “An armored Land Cruiser has a payload capacity of approximately 2,000 pounds,” SIGAR notes, concluding that “3,722 pounds of cash would have to be divided between multiple, largely empty vehicles, and possibly loaded with special equipment.” Transferring that much cash would have been logistically difficult and arguably visible to witnesses.
If the helicopters were fully fueled (they eventually landed in Uzbekistan, suggesting they were), they would have been carrying 720 gallons of fuel, which SIGAR points out would have nearly halved their payload capacity. If the helicopters were armored (and they likely were), that would further reduce the weight they could take on.
The physical details make it difficult to envision millions lifting off from the presidential palace in Kabul, before even factoring in what witnesses had to say.
SIGAR’s report details other reports of stolen cash, which are both more significant and more difficult to sort out: $5 million allegedly left at the palace that vanished before the Taliban arrived and the National Directorate of Security budget, which may have been in the tens of millions. This particular report is an interim document, with a final full version expected in the fall.