Days before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last August, Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, was “welcomed” to the United Arab Emirates. He was alleged to have taken with him $169m, from his country’s treasury.
Six months on, Khalid Payenda, once Ghani’s finance minister, is driving an Uber in Washington DC.
“If I complete 50 trips in the next two days, I receive a $95 bonus,” Payenda told the Washington Post, from behind the wheel of a Honda Accord.
The 40-year-old once oversaw a US-supported $6bn budget. The Post reported that in one night earlier this week, he made “a little over $150 for six hours’ work, not counting his commute – a mediocre night”.
The Post recorded Payenda telling one passenger his move from Kabul to Washington had been “quite an adjustment”.
He also said he was grateful for the opportunity to be able to support his family but, “Right now, I don’t have any place. I don’t belong here and I don’t belong there. It’s a very empty feeling.”
Afghanistan faces a humanitarian and economic crisis, assets frozen and cut off from international aid that would require recognition of the Taliban government which replaced the US-supported regime.
The Post described Payenda’s experience in late 2020, when his mother died of Covid-19 in an impoverished Kabul hospital. He became finance minister after that. The Post said he now wished he had not.
“I saw a lot of ugliness, and we failed,” he said. “I was part of the failure. It’s difficult when you look at the misery of the people and you feel responsible.”
Payenda told the Post he believed Afghans “didn’t have the collective will to reform, to be serious”. But he also said the US betrayed its commitment to democracy and human rights after making Afghanistan a centerpiece of post-9/11 policy.
“Maybe there were good intentions initially but the United States probably didn’t mean this,” Payenda said.
Payenda resigned as finance minister a week before the Taliban seized Kabul, as his relationship with Ghani deteriorated. Fearing the president would have him arrested, he left for the US, where he joined his family.
“We had 20 years and the whole world’s support to build a system that would work for the people,” Payenda said in a text message to a World Bank official in Kabul on the day the capital fell, quoted by the Post.
“All we built was a house of cards that came down crashing this fast. A house of cards built on the foundation of corruption.”