Empty Mansions in Afghanistan Prompt Calls for Accountability
In a mansion in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif that was recently profiled on YouTube, all the windows and doors are bulletproof — a testament to the former residents’ security fears in a country where tens of thousands of people were killed each year in a war that took almost two decades to end.
In other videos, properties are shown having private jails, helipads, gardens with exotic plants, gyms, sauna and steam rooms, pools and other amenities that defy the description of Afghanistan as one of the world’s poorest countries, where most of the population cannot afford food.
Now vacant, these mini palaces belong to former warlords, government officials and lawmakers who fled the country before or immediately after the Taliban seized power in August 2021.
Despite their long-standing animosity toward the owners of these mansions, de facto Taliban authorities have not confiscated them so far, calling them private properties. Most are even protected against ransack and plunder, practices often seen during the many regime changes Afghanistan has experienced over the past few decades.
While the former Afghan elites are scattered around the world, most of them have regularly spoken against the Taliban, and some have even sought foreign assistance to wage another war against the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The United States, which fought the Taliban for two decades, has said it does not support armed opposition against the Taliban, but has also repeatedly demanded the formation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan.
Symbols of corruption
Videos of the mansions posted on YouTube and other social platforms receive large viewership and generate passionate comments about corruption and abuse in the upper ranks of the former Afghan government.
“These places were built with corruption. … These mansions were built by the money [stolen] from the poor,” YouTube blogger Hamayon Afghan, who has produced videos from different parts of Afghanistan before and after the Taliban’s return to power, told VOA from Kabul.
For about 20 years, the United States and European donors invested heavily in building a democratic government, the rule of law and public accountability in Afghanistan, but the efforts largely failed because of endemic corruption.
Investigations by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) “identified corruption at virtually every level of the Afghan state — from salaries paid by international donors for Afghan soldiers and police who do not really exist to theft of U.S.-military-provided fuel on a massive scale.”
Of the $146.68 billion the United States appropriated for the reconstruction of Afghanistan between 2002 and 2022, SIGAR reviewed the spending of $63 billion and discovered that a staggering $19 billion, 30%, was lost to waste, fraud and abuse, a spokesperson told VOA.
Other independent organizations have made similar assessments.
“Corruption was central to the failure of the international effort to establish peace and security in Afghanistan,” Ilham Mohamed, a regional adviser at corruption watchdog Transparency International, told VOA.
“It undermined the legitimacy and capability of the Afghan government, hollowed out the Afghan military, and channelled resources to and strengthened popular support for the Taliban,” Mohamed said.
Speaking to a VOA television host, Atta Mohammad Noor, a former governor of Balkh province whose lavish lifestyle has been reported in the media, accused the Taliban of using several of his properties for various military and administrative purposes.
“Only my residence has been vacated,” Noor told the host via video link from the United Arab Emirates, adding that he would not return to Afghanistan to claim his properties.
The Taliban claim they have offered a blanket amnesty to all their former enemies, but the U.N. said some former Afghan military personnel have been killed, detained or tortured by Taliban gunmen over the past 18 months.
Taliban authorities have also indicated they would not prosecute former Afghan officials on charges of past corruption and abuse unless there are individual complainants seeking reparation and justice.
There is no anti-corruption entity in the Taliban’s interim administration, and it is unclear how the group investigates and handles corruption within its own ranks.
In the comments posted under the videos showing the houses of the former officials, many called for some sort of accountability.
“Eight out of 10 Afghans we speak to demand accountability from previous officials and leaders,” YouTuber Afghan said.
It is unclear if the former elites can sell their real estate in Afghanistan and take the funds abroad.
For some owners, potential risks from the Taliban outweigh the financial attraction of their properties.
“I call on the Taliban to identify all my properties and either sell them or destroy them by bombs and mines. They do not have the value of the wing of a fly or a mosquito for me,” Noor said.
When the VOA host asked him about his collection of expensive watches, Noor smiled and said, “I have taken them with me.”
— by Akmal Dawi, VOA, Mar 2023
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