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Ashraf Ghani says he fled to deny Taliban another chance to 'humiliate' a President
Washington, Aug 14 - Former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has broken his silence and said that he fled the country last August because he did not want to give the Taliban an opportunity to "humiliate" another former President, as he forcefully rejected rumors that he took millions of dollars with him.
Ghani lives in Abu Dhabi and spoke to CNN's Fareed Zakaria remotely in an interview that aired on Sunday. He showed no bitterness about being abandoned by the United States under President Joe Biden, which led to his flight and the return of the Taliban.
But Ghani slammed the Donald Trump administration for, one, hijacking an Afghan-owned peace process; two, keeping his government out of the Doha peace talks; and, three, foisting on the Afghan government terms agreed by the US with the Taliban.
Ghani left Afghanistan on August 15, 2021, the day Taliban fighters entered Kabul and the United States began evacuating its diplomats from the embassy.
The Taliban retook the capital, 20 years after being chased out by US-led international forces, and the country, without a fight. Their return was captured on pictures of its fighters inside the presidential palace.
Ghani had no plans of fleeing. But he said it became impossible to stay and "defend" the city from the presidential palace as all the guards had "melted away" putting on civilian clothes and even the minister of defence had left.
He was prepared to go to the ministry of defence to lead the fight, but couldn't. He has spoken of this before to the BBC, but not in as much detail.
"The reason I left was because I did not want to give the Taliban and their supporters the pleasure of yet again humiliating an Afghan President and making him sign over the legitimacy of the government," Ghani said in a detailed response to a question about his departure.
Ghani did not name anyone, but he was referring possibly to the 1996 encounter between the Taliban and another former Afghan President, Mohammad Najibullah.
Taliban fighters had snatched him from the UN compound in Kabul where he had sheltered since leaving office in 1992 -- after failing to flee to India -- tortured and castrated him before hanging him. His body was dragged through the streets of Kabul tied to a truck.
"I've never been afraid. You've seen repeatedly rockets have landed around me and I've not moved. And it was a split second decision because they'd entered Kabul and the US embassy had already (been) evacuated," Ghani told Zakaria.
The US evacuation was messy even though it had been months in planning. Comparisons have been drawn to the ignominious US departure from Saigon ending the Vietnam War in April 1975.
"Now you know there are these rumors that you left with $169 million in cash," Zakaria said, asking Ghani for his response.
The former President rejected it, citing a June 2022 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). It found that while people accompanying Ghani in the helicopters that left Kabul did individually carry money, "This amount of cash ($169 mn) would have been difficult to conceal. It would be quite substantial in terms of bulk and heft: $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.
"In other words, it would be somewhat larger than a standard American three-seater couch. This block would have weighed 3,722 pounds, or nearly two tonnes. The Mi-17 helicopters that the group flew on do not have separate cargo holds. Therefore, all of the cargo would have been visible in the cabin next to the passengers."
Ghani said he left in just his clothes -- an Afghan dress with a waistcoat -- and shoes. He was not even carrying a book, which, he said, is something that people who know him always expect him to be carrying on a flight.
Asked about comparisons with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, in the face of Russian invasion in February, decided to stay and lead the fight instead of fleeing, the former Afghan President pointed to several crucial differences in terms of time, context and situation.
"Well, the comparison should be made between 2014, when I became President, not 2021. We have been fighting for 42 years. Our trauma was deep. Our people were tired of killings. And our people wanted an end to the bloodshed," Ghani said.
He added, "Zelensky had the advantage of being forewarned of the Russian invasion by the US, specially the CIA. We were not offered a single piece of paper by our allies. The US itself was unaware of the progress of the Taliban forces. American defence and intelligence were convinced that Kabul would be able to hold out for months, and they were taken off-guard by the swift progress of the Taliban."
And then, Ghani pointed to the unprecedented support Zelensky has received from the US and its allies. Billions of dollars worth of military support has poured into Ukraine since, together with immeasurable diplomatic backing.
Afghanistan got similar support from the world when it was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1979. But in 2021 there was none, after it became clear President Biden's decision to leave Afghanistan was irreversible, Ghani said.
"People fundamentally ask you, if you're going to fight another round of civil war, what's the end? What's the conclusion," Ghani answered rhetorically with questions.
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