$50 million in U.S. funds stolen from Afghan bank account

Fifty million dollars in stolen U.S. funds that investigators had located in an Afghan bank account last year have suddenly gone missing while under the Afghan government's watch, according to a top federal watchdog.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko made the stunning revelation in a scathing speech accusing the Afghan government of being a "criminal patronage network" from civil servant to the highest officials. Sopko, warning of an inept oversight of American taxpayer funds, claimed on Wednesday that the millions went missing after his office served the Afghan government an order to freeze the account.

"Briefly put, we identified roughly $50 million stolen from the U.S. government which was sitting in an Afghan bank account," Sopko said, in prepared remarks of a speech delivered at the New America Foundation. 

"We obtained a court order here in the United States and served it on the Afghan government to get them to seize the money.  For months we pressed the Afghan attorney general's office to freeze the account and begin the legal process to allow us to seize the cash. At first, we were told the bank account was frozen and the money protected. Unfortunately, as is too many times the case, a few weeks ago we learned that the money was mysteriously unfrozen by some powerful bureaucrat in Kabul.  Now, most of it is gone."

Spoko, in his speech, said the case was one of many examples of why it was time for the U.S. to consider withholding vital aid to Afghanistan in order to pressure Kabul into adopting stronger financial protections.

Philip LaVelle, spokesman for the SIGAR, said Sopko first revealed that the funds were missing during questioning before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on April 10. But the case went unreported in the media as it was one of several examples of Afghan corruption and mismanagement Sopko mentioned that day. SIGAR had not publicized the case further because it remains sealed by a federal U.S. judge, according to LaVelle.

Sopko only referenced it again on Wednesday, but in last month's exchange with House Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., made clear his sense of being hoodwinked. 

"It was supposed to be frozen. For six months, we've been negotiating with the attorney general's office in Afghanistan. And, lo and behold, last weekend, mysteriously, the money was unfrozen and it's gone.

"This, I fear, is the future in Afghanistan."

Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images