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Treasure flight: Afghan’s baffling gold exodus

Treasure flight: Afghan’s baffling gold exodus
Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, has reportedly seen travelers taking large quantities of gold out of the country, mostly to Dubai. Heroin money laundering and sanctions evasions by Iran are the rumored causes.

The surge in gold trafficking began this past summer, the New York Times reported. Passengers carry bags full of gold on commercial flights leaving Kabul, most of them to Dubai.

One passenger reportedly boarded a morning flight in mid-October with 37 kilograms of gold bars. The load was worth more than $1.5 million. Over the last two weeks of October, more than 250 kg of gold – worth $14 million – left the country through the airport.

The gold is fully declared and legal to fly. Some of it, if not most, is being sent by gold dealers seeking to have jewelry refashioned by craftsmen in the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region, an Afghan official said.

But Noorullah Delawari, the governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, acknowledged that the spike in gold transport was suspicious. “I don’t know where so much gold would come from,” he told the New York Times. Delawari said that an investigation into the issue is underway, and that Afghan authorities are prepared to intervene if they find evidence of money laundering.

Establishing the truth may prove difficult, as Afghanistan’s economy operates with little oversight. Nearly 90 percent of financial activity is done outside of formal banks. Written contracts and bookkeeping are rare, leaving Afghan officials unable to track down how much gold is taken out of the country – or how much comes in.

Money laundering in the country often serves corrupt officials, drug lords and even the Taliban’s taxes collected from the territories it controls. Much of it involves the smuggling of bulk loads of paper bills. Afghanistan’s central bank estimated that roughly $4.5 billion worth of bank notes of different currencies exited the country last year through the Kabul International Airport. Gold is speculated to be an alternative to these plots.

“Right now you’re stuck in that situation we usually are: Is there something bad going on here or is this just the Afghan way of commerce?”
a senior American official who tracks illicit financial networks told the New York Times.

Dubai is a popular destination for both cash and gold. The emirate's lax oversight standards allows well-to-do Afghans park their wealth there, especially as tensions rise over the planned US withdrawal in 2014. The surge in gold trading may be evidence of rich Afghans taking precautions against the Taliban retaking the country.

Other speculation points to Iran, which may be trafficking in gold to circumvent US and EU sanctions. A dealer in Kabul told NYT that Afghan gold dealers exchange Iranian gold for oil or the Iranian rial, and then sell it in Dubai for dollars. The money is then allegedly transferred to China and used to buy goods, or is funneled back to Iran.

An airport customs official who spoke with the newspaper on the condition of anonymity cryptically said that one day he would share “the real story of what is happening to the gold.”

The phenomenon is more geographically widespread than the report indicates, political analyst and former Afghan MP Daoud Sultanzoy told RT.

“Not only Dubai, but India also is a destination for gold. No one knows how much gold is going to India. This is just one avenue that they’ve discovered; there are many other places that gold would go to,” he said. Sultanzoy claimed that the gold is most likely used to launder profits from illegal drug and arms trades, and other criminal activities.