Saturday 9 October 2021

'I saw Afghan president escape with millions': Ex-chief bodyguard claims Ashraf Ghani left him to hide in squalid cellars from Taliban manhunt in Kabul

 Cross-legged in the half-light, on a threadbare rug covering an otherwise bare concrete floor, the general of the presidential palace guard is no longer in his natural environment.

He is surrounded by large, white bags of rice, plastic buckets, dusty kettles, empty bird cages, power tools, broken machinery and other items of bric-a-brac to be found in the cellar of a modest Afghan home in a shabby neighbourhood. Such as this one.

Brigadier General Piraz Ata Sharifi is a huge man. Perhaps 20st: moon-faced and shaven-headed. In other words, he's distinctive. 

And distinctive is not good in his case. Since the Taliban seized power on August 15, he has become one of the most wanted fugitives in Afghanistan.

Less than five months ago, the general was sharing a Kabul conference table with General Sir Nick Carter, Britain's most senior soldier. He has a photo on his phone to prove it.

Until a few weeks ago he was in charge of the day-to-day security of President Ashraf Ghani, who — as head of state — was the personification, in theory at least, of the West's efforts to secure a democratic, pluralistic Afghanistan.

General Ata Sharifi pictured in the Jalalabad basement where he is in hiding from the Taliban

General Ata Sharifi pictured in the Jalalabad basement where he is in hiding from the Taliban

Now the president has fled, the Western-backed government is history and General Sharifi — who, to his chagrin, was not privy to the VIP evacuation — has a price on his head. Wanted posters to that effect have appeared at Taliban security positions all over Kabul.

They show the general's mugshot and the following words: '[This is] General Piraz Sharifi, who also has the nickname 'Ata'. 

'He was the special guard of the president. He has 300 weapons with him now. If you know about the person or his location, you should inform the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. 

'There is a reward for such information of one million Afghanis.'

One million Afghanis is the equivalent of £10,000 — a fortune in a country in which 90 per cent of the people are surviving on less than £1.60 a day.

So the general has been reduced to living — quite literally — an underground existence; moving from cellar to squalid cellar.

It was in one such hideaway that Mail photographer Jamie Wiseman and I met him last week.

Ours was an extraordinary encounter with a once powerful figure brought low. 

During our meeting the general vented his anger and despair at being abandoned and 'betrayed', not only by those whom he protected, but by the West whose cause he served.

He showed me the pleading emails he has sent to the Ministry of Defence in London and Johnny Mercer MP, by whom he claimed to have been trained in Afghanistan.

He also promised to expose the corruption of his former boss who, he says, fled the country with bags containing hundreds of millions of dollars of public money.

The general has the palace CCTV evidence to prove this, he says. He will share the evidence if he can escape himself. 

That is a pretty big 'if'. And getting bigger by the day. Because a manhunt has been declared across the Afghan capital and this week the Taliban dragnet was closing in. 

His messages on our WhatsApp correspondence grow ever more pitiful, hopeless.

The general's dread of capture is heightened by the knowledge that the search is being directed by the most ruthless member of the new Taliban government.

One of the general's brothers has already been recognised in the street and summarily shot. 

Another is safe and living in the UK. But which scenario is the general to follow?

In his cellar, he says to me: 'I don't have 300 weapons as the Taliban claim, but I do have one gun and one bullet. 

'If the Taliban come here, I will kill myself. If they capture me they will kill me anyway.'

We were first contacted about the general by a third party.

They were aware of our interest in those Afghans employed by the British who had been left behind in the chaotic UK airlift — Operation Pitting — that ended on August 28. We had met several of these individuals, who had worked as interpreters or security guards. 

General Sharifi was in another category altogether. Twenty-four hours after the first contact, the general said he wanted to meet. 

We were summoned to a rendezvous with another vehicle on the edge of the eastern city of Jalalabad. 

Then we were led into a neighbourhood of back streets until we stopped outside a house behind a crumbling wall. 

We were told to wait until the street was empty before entering through the gate.

Brigadier General Piraz Ata Sharifi is a huge man. Perhaps 20st: moon-faced and shaven-headed. In other words, he's distinctive

Brigadier General Piraz Ata Sharifi is a huge man. Perhaps 20st: moon-faced and shaven-headed. In other words, he's distinctive

Inside the front yard children stopped playing to stare at the foreigners. One of them, we learned later, was the general's daughter.

We were led through the modest property — far from palatial either in size or appointment — to the top of a flight of stone steps that led down to the cellar.

And there we found the general, looming in the twilight.

He was wearing a shalwar kameez rather than his red-tabbed staff uniform. His manner was understandably restrained.

'I did not sleep last night after we spoke,' he admitted. 'I asked myself: 'Who is this guy? Why is he really coming to see me?' It is hard to trust anyone in my situation.'

But he knew he needed a line of communication with the world beyond Afghanistan if he was to have any chance of survival.

And so we settled ourselves onto the threadbare rug. And then the general began to tell his remarkable story. 

He had been a military officer for more than two decades and joined the presidential palace's security force in 2005, his salary paid by the U.S. government.

In 2010 and beyond, he said, he underwent instruction from British Army personnel.

One of them, he said, was Johnny Mercer, now MP for Plymouth Moor View. 

Mercer was previously a captain in the Royal Artillery who served as a training and liaison officer with Afghan forces during this period.

By the start of this year, the general was in charge of some 1,500 handpicked troops of the presidential security force.

They were the most trusted soldiers in the Afghan military. 

One of the general's duties was to make sure that other, possibly less loyal formations were disarmed or sent away before the president visited the location they had been guarding.

He showed me several photos of himself beside former Afghan president Hamid Karzai. 

Since the Taliban takeover, he has deleted all pictures that show him with President Ghani, who succeeded Karzai in 2014.

On August 15, the general left home to go to work at the presidential palace as usual. 

'Then I went to the defence ministry ahead of the president. He was supposed to go there to talk about the defence of Kabul (against the approaching Taliban).

'One of my jobs was to disarm the soldiers on guard at the ministry before the president arrived, for his security,' he said.

'We were waiting for the president there. But then I got a call to say that instead of coming to the defence ministry, the president had gone to the airport. 

'The defence minister had also fled. So had my boss. So had all of Ghani's close family and entourage.'

But not the general and other VIPs, who were not quite as close to the inner circle as they had thought. 

'The president never told us he was going,' he said. 'They just escaped and left me behind.'

Ghani posted a message on Facebook saying he had left to 'avoid bloodshed'. 

The world did not learn of his destination until August 18, when the United Arab Emirates announced it was hosting the president and his family on 'humanitarian grounds'.

Ghani himself did not break silence again until early September, when in a Twitter statement he described allegations against him of corruption as being 'completely false'.

Reuters had reported that he left Afghanistan with a 'helicopter full of cash'. So much cash, in fact, that some had to be left behind because it would not fit in the aircraft.

This report was not undermined by the general's own testimony. 

He told me: 'I have a [CCTV] recording [from the palace] which shows that an individual at the Afghan Bank brought a lot of money to Ghani before he left.

'Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars. There were many big bags and they were heavy. It was not rice.' He pats a bag of rice beside him, ruefully.

'This money was supposed to be for the currency exchange market,' he said. 'Each Thursday, the dollars were brought for that purpose. 

'Instead, it was taken by the president. Ghani knew in the end what would happen. So he took all the money and escaped. 

'I never thought he would do that. But I have the evidence which I will share when I am in a safe place.'

A safe place? There's the rub.

On August 16 the general tried and failed to reach the airport. Since then, his extended family — 14 members including his university-educated wife and three children, the youngest of whom is a son aged nine months — has been on the run. 

'Sometimes when people come to visit [the property above whichever cellar he is hiding in] I have to shut my small daughter's mouth so that she will not say that I am living here, underground,' he said. 

'She cries in the night and says: 'Father, please wake up, the Taliban are coming.' '

His family has already experienced what the Taliban might do if they discover the general.

He showed me a video on his phone of a man sitting on a hospital gurney, bloodied bandages covering a wound in his side.

'This is my brother, Ajmal, three days ago,' he said. 'He worked with me at the palace and was also in hiding. 

He went into the city to sell some jewellery to buy food, but was recognised in the street by Taliban fighters. 

They shot him immediately. He survived only because he was able to run to a nearby house. The owner hid him and then took him to hospital.'

With no one to help him, other than to hide him from immediate arrest and punishment, the general has taken to the internet and WhatsApp to find a way out. 

On his phone he has a picture of General Sir Nick Carter taken according to the date stamp 'at 6pm on May 11, 2021'. 

Media reports confirm that the UK's Chief of Defence Staff was in Kabul the previous day to meet Ghani and the head of Pakistan's military.

General Sharifi applied for the UK's ARAP relocation scheme. But every time he inquired about progress he received automatic replies. I know this because he has forwarded all of them to me.

They read: 'Thank you for your email [date given] . . . The Home Office is committed to providing protection for vulnerable and at-risk people fleeing Afghanistan. 

'However, the situation is very complex with significant challenges, including ensuring safe passage for those who want to or are eligible to leave Afghanistan.'

Until a few weeks ago he was in charge of the day-to-day security of President Ashraf Ghani (pictured), who ¿ as head of state ¿ was the personification, in theory at least, of the West's efforts to secure a democratic, pluralistic Afghanistan

Until a few weeks ago he was in charge of the day-to-day security of President Ashraf Ghani (pictured), who — as head of state — was the personification, in theory at least, of the West's efforts to secure a democratic, pluralistic Afghanistan

He would be tearing his hair out, if he had any. The general has also been told he must find a British military sponsor to support his ARAP case. 

To this end he has focused on Johnny Mercer. 

He showed me a video of the MP thanking Afghans for their work. On August 31, when the Western airlift ended, the general sent an email to Mercer's Westminster office. 

It read: 'This is Parvez Sharifi nickname Atta. We used to work together in 2010 in Camp green lege [there was a camp called Green Village] near the president's house.

'I have completed all my documents for evacuation from Afghanistan but only problem I'm facing is that someone needs to confirm.'

The email was fielded politely by Mercer's assistant, who replied that they would try to help.

The next day the general received an email from the UK's Defence Crisis Management Centre. 

It said: 'If you are enquiring about resettlement assistance: We are sorry that we cannot provide further information at this stage… but hope you will understand that correspondence is at such a pace and scale that we simply cannot respond to individual cases at this time.'

It was a bureaucratic push-back. He was growing desperate.

On September 6 he sent a more unctuous email to Mercer's office: 'Mr Johnny is still appreciated. 

'We always remember him as a brave and courageous man because he helped us Afghans a lot.'

And on September 12, even more blunt: 'I am hiding in an inappropriate place. My children are not in a good state . . . I am waiting for your help.'

But the following day he received an email from Mercer's office: 'Johnny is unable to be your sponsor, as he does not know you.'

On Wednesday, I was in contact with Mercer, who is doing his best for many threatened Afghans.

He emailed me saying: 'I had hundreds of people telling me they knew me and could I sponsor them, and I hadn't met them. 

'We tried to refer them on to people who did know them, but unfortunately we could not validate their identity. 

'He [Sharifi] could well be one of them, but he is mistaken because I never served out of Kabul.'

The general's despair has grown as the days go by. Last weekend he sent me two mobile phone numbers which he said were personal to President Ghani. 

He wanted me to call them and confront his former boss.

I did call. One did not work. The other stopped working after I sent text and WhatsApp messages addressed to Ghani.

Then came another blow.

This week the general's brother-in-law in Kabul received a written demand from the 9th district official from the Taliban interior ministry. General Sharifi must surrender himself immediately.

The general told me that the demand came from the new interior minister, Siraj Haqqani, who had ordered all district offices to search for him.

Haqqani is the leader of a U.S.-designated terrorist organisation known as the Haqqani Network. 

It has long-standing links to Al Qaeda and had carried out some of the bloodiest suicide bombings in Afghanistan. 

Now Haqqani is in charge of national security. And he is hunting the general.

Outside the narrow windows of his basement, a rooster crowed and sparrows twittered. Otherwise there was silence.

Which is how the general wanted it to be. The worst sound in the world would be the rumble of an American-built, Taliban-commandeered Humvee pulling up at the gate.

But that possibility grows ever more likely.

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