Exclusive: The Untold Story of How Afghan President Ashraf Ghani Fled the Country
By Sanjar Sohail
Note: This article is the result of a conversation between Sanjar Sohail, the publisher of 8am and one of the 53 people who fled Kabul with Ashraf Ghani on August 15. In this article, he recounts all the events that an eyewitness observed from 8 a.m. Sunday (August 15) to Monday night. Obviously, one person’s experience and testimony cannot provide enough details to all the factors and reasons for Ashraf Ghani’s escape. Just because parts of the details of this report may need to be reviewed or approved by Ashraf Ghani’s companions. However, this article reveals the unspoken details of Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan to such an extent that the eyes of an eyewitness have seen it. The source has asked for his identity to be anonymous, but what you are reading is the source’s first-person account. Sanjar Sohail has shared parts of this story with two of Ashraf Ghani’s companions to evaluate its validity, which is mentioned in the text. It should be noted that this narrative is undoubtedly not the whole story, and we are ready to publish any article by Ashraf Ghani’s companions regarding the August 15 incident, for the audience of 8am.
Sunday morning, August 15th
As usual, I left home at around 8 a.m. to go to work at the Presidential Palace (ARG). Unlike other days, Kabul seemed more secluded that day. Few people were patrolling in the streets and fewer police checkpoints in the city. However, due to first-category security warnings and preparations, the number of police forces had to be higher than usual. When I got to my office, the situation there also seemed unusual. Although a large number of employees were present at their duties, the majority of them, unlike in the past, either wore Shalwar kameez or casual clothes.
Every day, as usual, a meeting was held at 9:00 a.m., attended by Ashraf Ghani, Hamdullah Muhib, National Security Advisor, Matin Beg, Head of the presidential Office, Fazl Mahmood Fazli, Head of the Administrative Office of the President, and others. At this meeting, it was decided that cabinet members should be called immediately for an emergency meeting. The purpose of the cabinet meeting was to find a way to prevent panic, confusion, and chaos in Kabul, inviting civilians to calmness.
Employees at the Office of the President immediately invited the ministers to attend an emergency cabinet meeting. Shortly thereafter, it was reported that about 50 percent of cabinet members were either outside Kabul (some in the provinces) or living abroad. At the same time, it was reported that Amrullah Saleh, the first vice president, had gone to Panjshir two days ago and had not yet returned. Sarwar Danish, the second vice president, also attended a pre-scheduled public meeting in the west of Kabul.
While it was concluded that a cabinet meeting was not possible, Ashraf Ghani decided to go to the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense, which was located near the Presidential Palace. To that end, soldiers from the President Protective Service (PPS) were deployed to the Ministry of Defense to prepare for Ashraf Ghani’s arrival. At the same time, it was reported that Defense Minister Bismillah Mohammadi was not present at the ministry headquarters and had gone to Kabul airport to visit the air force. Meanwhile, Army Chief of Staff Haibatullah Alizai was busy meeting with some US officials. Therefore, it was decided to postpone Ashraf Ghani’s visit to the Ministry of Defense due to the absence of the Minister of Defense and the busy schedule of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
It was about noon when the employees of the citadel and some other departments left their jobs in groups and went home. At the same time, based on the famous Afghan saying “We cannot fight with the hungry stomach”, it was decided to have lunch. The problem, however, was that when we got to the kitchen, the pots of cooked food were all ready and intact on the stoves and ovens, but there was no kitchen service staff at the citadel. They had already escaped. At that moment, the sound of gunfire was heard around the citadel, causing even more panic. Some said the sound of gunfire was to disperse people who had gathered around the banks to withdraw their money.[Another of Ashraf Ghani’s companions told 8am that the shooting took place near the citadel around 11 or 11:30. This confused the staff of the citadel, and at that moment most of the staff came out of the citadel with the sound of gunfire].
Ashraf Ghani’s senior advisor on peace, Salam Rahimi, contacted Taliban representatives and Khalilzad’s colleagues in Doha, Qatar, urging them not to allow Taliban forces to enter Kabul. Rahimi, after a few minutes of conversation, returned, saying that the Taliban won’t enter Kabul. People affiliated with the presidential palace had already been informed that Taliban forces had moved toward Kabul. The Taliban side, however, said that these people may not be their forces, adding that others may use their name to enter Kabul and plunder the city. The agreement between Salam Rahimi and the Taliban and Khalilzad’s representatives was that due to the population density in Kabul, the diplomatic presence of the countries and the existence of people’s capital if any chaos occurs in Kabul, the situation will be devastating and out of control. Following the talks, the Taliban issued a statement saying their forces won’t enter Kabul.
At that moment, Matin Beg, the head of the presidential office, returned with a strong attitude, sitting down next to Hamdullah Muhib, the national security advisor. Matin Beg picked up his mobile phone and tweeted “Kabul is safe, people should not worry!” Meanwhile, one of the men was ordered to call a security spokesman and ask him to record a reassuring video message and send it to the visual media. Necessary arrangements were made for this and a spokesman for the security forces stepped in. This was while the bodyguards of the president were changing their clothes and wearing more comfortable clothes.
At that moment, they ordered us to go to the helicopters. Since some of the President’s bodyguards were still stationed at the Ministry of Defense headquarters, waiting for the President to arrive, I thought we would fly to the Ministry of Defense. We all hurried to the four waiting helicopters on the grounds of the Presidential Palace. The helicopters flew and, contrary to our expectations, not to the Defense Ministry. Instead, they flew to the north of the country.[“His second vice-president Sarwar Danish, Abdul Salam Rahimi, senior presidential advisor on peace and a member of the government’s negotiating team, Matin Beg, head of the presidential office, and Wahid Omar, senior presidential advisor on strategic communications, were not aware of the planned escape,” a companion to Ashraf Ghani told 8am. According to this source, Sarwar Danish went to Kabul Airport with a convoy of his cars one hour before. Wahid Omar also arrived at the last minute and was told that the president was going to go to the Ministry of Defense. The convoy of cars moved and he got into one of the cars. Salam Rahimi and Matin Beg were left behind while they were busy eating lunch. Hanif Atmar arrived at the citadel at the last minute and had the president’s passport in his pocket, but the president’s helicopters had flown. Atmar told Rahimi and Beg that the first person was gone. For this reason, they first went to Rahimi’s house and from there to Kabul Airport].
“Of the 54 people who landed in the four helicopters in the Termez, Uzbekistan, 22 were pilots, co-pilots, and Air Force technicians, and the other 22 were the president’s bodyguards, and none of them had passports.”
Towards the Helicopters
As mentioned earlier, the situation inside the citadel (ARG) on Sunday, 24 of Assad 1400 (SH), coinciding with August 15, 2021, was becoming more chaotic every moment. Many staff of the Security Council and the Citadel had gathered near the National Security Advisor building hours earlier.
I later found out that some senior government officials, including Hamdullah Muhib, had planned a few days ago to transfer some of Ashraf Ghani’s relatives to the United Arab Emirates. They also contacted the Afghan embassy in the UAE and informed the embassy of the group’s visit. The group consisted of 13 people, including Rula Ghani, Ashraf Ghani’s wife, Hamdullah Muhib, national security advisor and one of his deputies, and some of Rula Ghani’s relatives.
At that moment, Matin Beg, the head of the presidential office, returned with a strong attitude, sitting down next to Hamdullah Muhib, the national security advisor. Matin Beg picked up his mobile phone and tweeted “Kabul is safe, people should not worry!”
[Unfortunately, the source didn’t provide further details on the identities of the other 10, stressing that the rest of the group included “close relatives and assistants” of Rula Ghani].
On the same day (Sunday, August 15), seats were booked for 13 people on the Emirates flights. As usual, the Emirate Flight was scheduled to land at Kabul Airport at 1:30 p.m., leaving Kabul with its passengers for Dubai at 4:20 p.m. The Emirates plane, which flew from Dubai to Kabul, could not land due to chaos at Kabul airport and the gathering of thousands of people who stormed the airport. The plane returned to Dubai, leaving the departure of 13 people canceled.
It should be noted that for many years, due to special security protocols, four helicopters were always ready to fly at any time, whether at Kabul Airport or the Presidential Palace. This included special security protocols for the president. There are usually special security measures for presidents anywhere in the world. Given the security and political situation in Afghanistan, this has been the case for many years, and it was the responsibility of the President Protective Service (PPS) Personnel.
There were also four helicopters in the citadel that day. Of course, I knew that day that one of the helicopters was going to take 13 of the mentioned people to Kabul airport to fly to Dubai. The other two helicopters were transporting the president’s bodyguards, all of whom were required to accompany the president to the Ministry of Defense headquarters.
I saw from a distance that the helicopters’ wings were moving and ready to fly. I got to one of them, got on it, and sat by one of the windows. Another helicopter was occupied by Hamdullah Muhib, General Qahir Kuchi, head of the Presidential Guards, Rula Ghani, and others. I guessed that the helicopters will fly to Kabul airport, but that didn’t happen.
On the other hand, until that moment, it was thought that we were going to the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. Suddenly, I saw Hamdullah Muhib, the national security adviser, and General Qahir Kuchi, the PPS commander, running toward a car parked nearby. They drove to Ashraf Ghani’s mansion near the citadel. Seven minutes later, they returned in the same car, and I saw from the window that they were taking Ashraf Ghani with them.
To me, this unusual departure of the president and transporting him by an ordinary car seemed strange. The fact is that in addition to the four helicopters always ready to fly, the transportation of the president inside the citadel was done through a special protocol and vehicles. Usually, several vehicles always waited full-time at the citadel, the entrances, and exits of the mansion where the president was present at the time. Even if the president walked from one mansion to another in the citadel, several cars followed him in different directions.
Confrontation Among PPS Personnel
When that ordinary white car returned to the first helicopter that Hamdullah Muhib and the PPS commander, had occupied a few minutes earlier, I saw that Ashraf Ghani had been added to them. They hurriedly boarded. At that moment, a large number of the president’s bodyguards rushed to the helicopters.
From the window of the helicopter, I was in, I witnessed a physical confrontation between the president’s bodyguards, each trying to get on the helicopters by pushing the others aside. It was then that the helicopters began to take off. I saw that the president’s bodyguards punched and kicked each other, each trying to push the other out of his way and board into the helicopters. As the helicopters peaked, several PPS members, despite many efforts, were unable to board and remained in the citadel.[Another of Ashraf Ghani’s companions told 8am that the number of bodyguards was large, adding that helicopters didn’t have that capacity. As a result, out of about 30 bodyguards, half were able to board. The source also confirmed that hours before and after hearing the sound of gunfire around the citadel, most of the president’s bodyguards changed their clothes and others left the citadel. According to the source, PPS forces had disintegrated at the time, and none of them cared about the military hierarchy anymore.]
In the very first moments, I realized that, contrary to my expectations, our helicopters were not moving toward the headquarters of the Ministry of Defense. I had not yet come out of the shock of the president being carried in an ordinary car, witnessing the scenes of clashes between PPS personnel and leaving some of them behind in the citadel. I saw us moving towards the Hindu Kush mountains. This confused me even more, I didn’t understand why we are going to the north of the country.
Hours ago, Salam Rahimi, the president’s top advisor on peace, and Matin Beg, the head of the presidential office, tried to sort things out. The commander of the president’s protection unit quickly decided to move to the helicopters. For this reason, they didn’t even have the opportunity or didn’t want to inform Rahimi and Matin Beg of this decision, and eventually, they were left behind in the citadel.
Russian-made M-17 helicopters typically have three flight crews: a pilot, a co-pilot, and a technician. I asked the technical staff about our destination. He didn’t help me. He only said that the airspace of Afghanistan is in the possession of American forces and they have not yet been provided with the opportunity to fly without coordination with the Americans. For this reason, he didn’t know where the destination was. This affected the morale of the helicopter technician so that I could see the signs of fear on his face. He went on to say that flying without coordination with the US military, which controls Afghanistan’s airspace, could even be deadly. The technical staff said that even the plane carrying the President of Afghanistan could not fly in the airspace of Afghanistan without coordination with the US military.
Minutes after the flight, the same technician came up to us, saying that the weight of the helicopter was too much and that we should lose some weight. Some PPS personnel looked at each other and then decided to throw their protective armor vests out of the plane to lighten the weight a bit. Their protective vests weighed five to six kilograms each. Moments later, I noticed from the window some armored vests, guns, and other items were ejected from the other two helicopters. I guessed we were on the slopes of the Hindu Kush or somewhere in Kunduz province.
It should also be noted that due to the lack of coordination with US officials [who controlled Afghanistan’s airspace], the overloading of the helicopters, and the lack of sufficient fuel, they flew at very low altitudes. The pilots contacted Tajik officials through their own communications devices. They wanted to have an emergency landing in that country. The Tajik side didn’t respond, and that was the moment when the weight of the helicopters was slightly reduced. We were flying along the Amu Darya route. Despite several other contacts, no contact was made with the Tajik side. At that moment, it was decided to go to the Termez airport in Uzbekistan.
As we flew along the Amu Darya, the pilots contacted Uzbek officials, asking for an emergency landing at the Termez airport [on the borders of Afghanistan]. The Uzbek side didn’t respond either. Despite repeated attempts, no communication was established. The pilots announced on the radio that the helicopters were carrying the first president of Afghanistan and needed an emergency landing. Again, no answer. The pilot of Ashraf Ghani’s plane, ignoring the lack of contact with Uzbek officials, called the other helicopters, saying that regardless of what was happening, they would land on the Termez airport because the helicopters were running out of fuel. With this decision, all four helicopters landed one after another in one of the corners of Termez Airport in the territory of Uzbekistan.[Ashraf Ghani’s other companion told 8am that they had not intended to land in Tajikistan. According to him, they flew through the territory of Kunduz province, flying along the Amu Darya and landing at the Termez airfield without even informing the Uzbek border and security officials].
Of the 54 people who landed in Termez, along with other officials, 22 were pilots, co-pilots and Air Force technicians, and 22 were presidential bodyguards, none of whom had passports. As soon as we landed at Termez Airport, about 200 to 300 Uzbek border guards and military personnel moved around our four helicopters.
Every one of them was ready for any reaction with their guns. We stayed in the helicopter for about an hour, and after that time, General Qahir Kochi, the head of Ashraf Ghani’s security unit, came down. He walked toward the commander of the Uzbek forces, who was waiting in a car behind his forces, expressing that he was unarmed and intending to talk. Uzbek soldiers allowed him to go to their commander after making a physical effort and ensuring that he was not armed. They talked for two or three minutes and then I saw that the commander called someone through his radio. Uzbek soldiers were also on standby on all four sides of the helicopters.
It took about 10 to 15 minutes, after which a black car carrying the driver and another man in civilian clothes approached the Uzbek commander. The man sitting in the front seat next to the driver got out of the car, greeting briefly with the Uzbek commander and the commander of the PPS. They talked for a few moments. Then they went to the helicopter carrying Ashraf Ghani. They went into the helicopter and after two or three minutes, they got out of the helicopter with Ashraf Ghani, Rula Ghani and Hamdullah Muhib, moving towards the car that the civilian had brought. All four people in the same car went to the other side of the airport. About 10 to 15 minutes later, another car approached us, picking up Fazl Mahmood Fazli, the chief of the Administrative Office of the President.
Then we disembarked one by one from the helicopters. The Uzbek soldiers immediately began searching our bodies and asked us to put the weapons, ammunition and other military equipment, including our personal belongings, in front of us, staying away from them.
During our physical inspection, those of our companions who held passports or residence permits in other countries were less likely to be humiliated. However, the physical search of me and others who had only the Afghan identity cards was very offensive and violent. The Uzbek soldiers took all our military equipment and the PPS’s personnel and put them in the special boxes they had with them. They then took out some other equipment, while we were still standing around the helicopters. After evacuating the helicopters, they locked the gates of all four helicopters with equipment.[It should be noted that the Russian embassy in Afghanistan has previously stated that the convoy carrying Ashraf Ghani and his entourage has transferred $169 million from Afghanistan [.
Without being told or taken away from the helicopters, the remaining 50 people, including the head of the PPS Guards, Rafi Fazel, the deputy secretary of the Security Council, and others, including special assistants and the president’s bodyguards, waited in the same location. An hour later they brought us dinner.
After that, without allowing us to buy food, water, or even to go to the bathroom, they kept us in custody for 31 hours, during which time the Uzbek soldiers, with rifles ready, watched our every single move. They didn’t even allow us to talk to each other.
Those 31 hours of waiting were the longest and most painful moments of my life. We had no bread to eat and no water to drink. There was no toilet, and in addition, more than 200 Uzbek soldiers guarded us with rifles ready to fire. Each of us, when we needed to go to a toilet, had to do that behind one of the helicopters with the permission of the soldiers.
I don’t know why people need to go to the bathroom frequently when they are upset and anxious. While we had neither food to eat nor water to drink, I didn’t know why, with a hungry stomach and a thirsty mouth, so many of my companions needed to defecate every 10 to 15 minutes. Less than two or three hours after we arrived at the airport, the smell of the feces of 50 people spread everywhere. However, the Uzbek soldiers still surrounded us, not allowing us to get away from the helicopters.
We just knew that we had fled, and hours after we left, the citadel fell to the Taliban, and then the behavior of the Uzbek military made sense to me. At that moment, on the one hand, they were showing the consequences of landing illegally in their territory, and on the other hand, they were dealing with some employees of a failed state whose regime had ended a few hours before.
Perhaps in their eyes, we seemed like coward fugitives who had abandoned a country that had been supported by the international community and its people for 20 years. Even worse, none of the Uzbek soldiers and military officials knew our language, nor were we able to speak their language.
A Small White Plane
We spent the night right there by helicopter and outdoors. It was very cold in the middle of the night. The cold became so unbearable that we had to shake our legs to get keep warm where we were standing. It was so cold that I felt I would not survive that night. The night, with all its coldness, uncertainty, hunger, thirst, insomnia, irrelevant news, ignorance, and worst of all, the smell of our feces had driven everyone to the brink of madness.
The scorching sun added to the stench of feces stored around the helicopters during the next day. Although the Uzbek soldiers moved after a few hours, they also seemed a little angry. It was pretty clear that our miserable situation and the unbearable heat had also put them in an unexpected situation.
Around dinner on Monday, after 31 hours of uncertainty, a small white plane with no government or trademark landed at Termez Airport. Minutes later, Ashraf Ghani, Hamdullah Muhib, Fazl Mahmood Fazli, and Rula Ghani returned in the same car that had been transported the day before. They first boarded this small plane, which had a total of 60 seats, and then we boarded one after the other with the same hungry stomachs, thirsty mouths, miserable conditions, and tangled hairs. They only returned our personal belongings to us, refusing to hand over the military equipment they had taken from us.
The inside of the plane seemed normal and there were no special cabins for the president and other officials. They sat in the seats near the cockpit, making us move to the back seats. Nobody was talking and we didn’t know where we were heading. Minutes later, the plane took off and they announced that we were leaving for the United Arab Emirates. Inside the plane, for the first time in 28 hours, we got some water and food.[According to Flight Radar, the Flight FJK-1255 that left Termez for Abu Dhabi the same day was a FlyJet from Kazakhstan. The company has offices on five continents, operating in charter flights. It was the plane that Ashraf Ghani and 53 companions flew to Abu Dhabi at 23:00 on August 16 after a 31-hour stop in Termez. A detailed report on how to rent this aircraft is another issue that needs further investigation].
After three and a half hours, the plane landed at Abu Dhabi Airport. As soon as the gates of the plane opened, several Arab men approached us and, after greeting Ashraf Ghani and Hamdullah Muhib, took a handful of Afghan officials with them in a respectful manner, including Fazl Mahmood Fazli, Rula Ghani, and a number of their close aides. The attitude of the Arabs toward us, in comparison to the Uzbeks, was respectful. They welcomed Ashraf Ghani and his companions with luxury vehicles. About forty people got in the car waiting for us and headed to the hotel.
From the moment Ashraf Ghani left the airport, I didn’t see him or other officials. After arriving at the hotel, I slept that night. On Tuesday morning, some UAE officials visited us and asked us where we were going. They said there is no way for us to live in that country. Several companions, including pilots, co-pilots, and helicopter technicians, had no documents other than military IDs. They had to be transported to one of the camps recently set up for Afghan citizens by US forces in Abu Dhabi. The others each went their own way.