Elites Still Bypassing Measures to Combat Money Laundering

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Idle bulk-currency counters at Kabul International Airport

Machines that count huge stacks of cash and are used to identify money laundering are not being used when “very important persons” and “very very important persons” leave Afghanistan via Kabul International Airport (KBL), according to a new Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report.

In 2011 alone, an estimated $4.5 billion was spirited out of Afghanistan to places like Dubai, where many of the ruling Afghan elite have bank accounts and there is a significant amount of bank secrecy.

This massive outflow of cash, much of it provided by the U.S. and other nations, fuels concerns there is quite a bit of money laundering and bulk cash smuggling, “tools often used to finance terrorist, narcotics, and other illicit operations,” SIGAR reports. The outflow also means much of the money that should be spent developing post-war Afghanistan, including its security forces, justice system, and infrastructure is instead being pilfered to enrich well-connected bandits. Perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise: Afghanistan is in a three-way tie with Somalia and North Korea as the most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bulk-currency counters are a key means of detecting and preventing money laundering and cash smuggling, especially in a cash-based society where fewer than 5% of Afghans use banks and 90% rely on the more informal hawala system. The counters bought by the Kabul International Airport can count 900 bills a minute, record serial numbers, create databases of cash movements, and are designed to report all this to Afghanistan’s Central Bank’s Financial Transactions and Records Analysis Center of Afghanistan (FinTRACA).

SIGAR found that “more than 1 year since our last visit to KBL, the cash counters are still not being used for their intended purpose, and VIPs continue to bypass key controls.” Even though the machines worked, and Afghan officials were trained to use them, SIGAR never observed any use of the machines, which are being stored in a “small closet-like area.” The counters were not connected to Internet, defeating one of their main purposes: reporting info to FinTRACA, the agency responsible for identifying data trends to assist in the investigation and prosecution of financial crimes. Meanwhile, other systems at the airport are being connected to the internet. A U.S. official told SIGAR that Afghan customs officials at the airport “were afraid that they would experience negative repercussions” from the Afghan government “if progress in instituting controls at the airport was made.”

And it looks like the hobbling of such screening isn’t being done for your everyday Pashtun villager. According to the report:

— No bulk currency counter was available for the counting or data collection of currency declared by VIPs, who do not undergo main customs or security screenings. According to a DHS [U.S. Department of Homeland Security] official, many of the individuals who traffic money leave from the VIP area.

— A new Very Very Important Persons (VVIP) lounge was built to provide easier boarding access for high-ranking officials, again allowing transit without main customs screenings or use of a bulk currency counter.

Video cameras — while installed in the regular baggage screening area of the airport — are not installed in the VIP baggage and cargo screening areas.

The Afghan government has been hindering these efforts for a long time. In 2011 report, SIGAR found:

— Although the contract to install these bulk currency counters at airport customs areas was awarded in July 2010, they were not installed until April 2011, in part because U.S. and Afghan officials disagreed on where to put them.

— When we visited the airport in April 2011, the machines were being used to count declared cash, but not to record currency serial numbers and report financial data to FinTRACA.

—  Passengers designated by GIRoA [Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] as Very Important Persons (VIPs) could bypass the main security and customs screenings and instead use a separate facility to enter the airport’s secured area. While these VIPs were required to declare the amount of currency they were carrying, their cash was not scanned through bulk currency counters, and Afghan officials reportedly had no plans to do so.

This isn’t mere money-laundering. It appears more like industrial-strength dry-cleaning. Unfortunately, U.S. taxpayers are the ones being taken to the cleaners.