Ann Marlowe

Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman based in New York City.Marlowe currently does research, litigation preparation and asset recovery for state, corporate and individual clients while publishing investigative journalism and cultural commentary. Her work has ranged from asset recovery to rock criticism, from exposing Cambridge Analytica to explaining why Trollope is important, but everything she does is distinguished by rigorous analysis, attention to detail, and an ability for discovering new connections. She has been called “a relentless moral essayist and a secret poet” (Luc Sante) who writes with “cool authority” (Bret Easton Ellis) and “fierce clarity” (Jonathan Lethem).

Between 2002 and 2011, Marlowe was keenly interested in insurgency, counterinsurgency and war, completing eight embeds with US troops in Afghanistan as well as more informal embeds with the Libyan rebels in 2011. She is probably the only journalist to have both lived with the family of a District Governor in Khost Province, Afghanistan, and to have rode into battle with the commander of the thuwar (revolutionaries) of Zwara, Libya.

In 2011, she made four trips to Libya to cover the revolution and war and returned twice in 2012.She quickly stumbled upon evidence of enormous corruption in government contracting. This led to her subsequent work as a consultant in asset recovery and ongoing anti-kleptocracy journalism.

Between 2002 and 2011 she traveled regularly to Afghanistan and published often on Afghanistan's politics, economy, culture and the U.S. counterinsurgency there.As a result of her experiences in eight embeds with American troops in Afghanistan beginning in August 2007, as well as visits exploring civilian life, Marlowe grew disillusioned with the official American doctrine of counterinsurgency as embraced by General Petraeus. She cautioned that Americans were approaching Afghanistan without sufficient historical sense, writing in one of her 2007 Wall Street Journal op eds, “We can do nothing about many of Afghanistan's barriers to development. For starters, 86% of its land area is non-arable. It has also never had a broad distribution of income or land. According to Afghan-Australian historian Amin Saikal, up until the early 1920s when King Amanullah gave crown lands to the poor, only 20% of peasants worked their own properties.” (

Disturbed by the contrast between the reality on the ground in Afghanistan and the brilliant works of the French counterinsurgency expert David Galula (d.1967) who had greatly influenced General Petraeus’ strategy, Marlowe researched his life at the Hoover Institution and the Strategic Studies institute of the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA. Her monograph on the life and intellectual context of David Galula was published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College in summer 2010. Ms. Marlowe has also published two memoirs, How to Stop Time and The Book of Trouble, and is one of the contributors to a compilation co-edited by Greil Marcis, A New Literary History of America (Harvard University Press, 2009).

Her articles have appeared in the op –ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and New York Post, and in the Bulwark, OCCRP, the late Weekly Standard, Daily Beast,,,and many other publications. She tweets regularly (@annmarlowe)

Ms. Marlowe has been a regular guest on the John Batchelor radio show discussing Libya, Afghanistan and counterinsurgency. She has also appeared on Fox's "Happening Now", PBS’s “Ideas in Action” with Jim Glassman, VOA, RTTV, and other television programs. She has spoken at U.S. Army bases, the Army War College, U.S. State Department, the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Present in Paris, and American colleges. In 2009, she was a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institution and returned there for a research fellowship in 2010.

Ms. Marlowe was born in Suffern, New York in 1958 and educated at public schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. She received her B.A. in philosophy magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1979 and studied classical philosophy there in the Ph.D. program in 1979-80. In 1984, she received an MBA in finance from Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.

“Afghanistan Controlled by the Taliban Is Not My Country”

November 29th, 2021

Afghan mayors’ stark choice: Cooperate with the Taliban or flee.
by ANN MARLOWE AUGUST 27, 2021 3:11 PM
originally published in The Bulwark:

As the Taliban advanced in Afghanistan this month, I have been talking to Daoud Sultanzoy and with Tawfiq Amini. Sultanzoy is the mayor of Kabul. Amini is the now ex-mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif. I’ve known them both for a long time and wanted to check on their safety—and to get their sense of what was happening to their country.

What follows are comments from them collected during multiple conversations over the last few days.

Daoud Sultanzoy is still mayor of Kabul. He’s a fascinating, cosmopolitan man. He used to be a pilot for United Airlines; once upon a time he lived in Malibu. I asked him about the August 26 bombing outside Kabul airport.

“Yesterday’s explosion took place in a situation you might compare with the Berlin wall: nobody had control over it. It was a free-for-all with thousands of people. It was very easy to do. Not even the best security force can manage or prevent something like that let alone a group that took power only one week ago. Americans didn’t have control, the Taliban didn’t have control. It’s ironic because the Taliban came in to Kabul with a bloodless take over.”

“It’s anybody’s guess at what the results will be,” continued Sultanzoy. The people who did this got what they wanted: the immediate result is to damage the Taliban and also hamper the rescue operation. Also, the crowd will be thinking twice before they converge on the airport.”

The reality of the takeover is that the mayor of Kabul now has to worry about political damage being done to the Taliban.

Both Sultanzoy and Amini’s positions were appointed, not elected. Each of them had studied engineering and their roles were more like those of city managers. But Sultanzoy is an experienced politician who had been a member of Parliament and ran for president in 2014. Amini is a building contractor and municipal engineer.

Both spent their tenures focused on local issues and when I spoke with them in April about the prospect of the American withdrawal, both were optimistic, with no hysteria about the prospect of a Taliban takeover. “The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on,” Sultanzoy said. But the situation deteriorated faster than either man predicted. Mazar fell to the Taliban, who cut a deal with the Afghan national army and overcame local militias, on August 14. They walked into Kabul a day later.

Sultanzoy, who had to give up his American citizenship when he ran for president of Afghanistan in 2014, is still in Kabul and still working as of this writing, but with a long-bearded Taliban co-executive, “head of the commission of municipalities” named Hamdullah Nomani.

Nomani had been mayor of Kabul under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 and the minister of higher education in the Taliban’s former regime. He was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2014 for his Taliban involvement.

Amini is no longer the mayor of Mazar-e-Sharif. He has fled the country and is now in Uzbekistan with his wife and six of his seven children. “Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban is not my country,” he says. His future plans are uncertain.

To some extent the divergence of these two men’s prospects under the new regime reflect the position of their ethnicities and when they came of age. Amini, who is 43, is Uzbek and was a student when the Taliban were last in power. Sultanzoy, who is 66, is Pashtun, and had fought the Soviets during the mujahedin years.

And then there is history. The last time that the Taliban took control of Mazar, on August 8, 1998, there was a massacre of civilians and a house-to-house search for men from ethnic minorities such as the Uzbeks. Here’s a description of the events from Human Rights Watch:

Witnesses described it as a “killing frenzy” as the advancing forces shot at “anything that moved. . . . Thousands of men from various ethnic communities were detained first in the overcrowded city jail and then transported to other cities, including Shiberghan, Herat, and Qandahar. Most of the prisoners were transported in large container trucks capable of holding one hundred to 150 people. In two known instances, when the trucks reached Shiberghan, some 130 kilometers west of Mazar, nearly all of the men inside had asphyxiated or died of heat stroke inside the closed metal containers. Some prisoners were also transported in smaller trucks. As of late October, some 4,500 men from Mazar remained in detention.

Needless to say, their outlooks on the future now differ quite a lot.

The following is a transcript of my conversations with each of them, starting with Daoud Sultanzoy, the mayor of Kabul:

Ann Marlowe: The first question is of course how you and everyone else failed to predict the rapid collapse of the government?

Daoud Sultanzoy: As an ex officio member of the cabinet I had access to security briefings. And we had another parallel meeting with the vice president every day up through last Saturday, August 14, when it was canceled. And then the next day it was all over. All indications in the briefings and status of forces report were that there was not much going on and Kabul was not in imminent danger. My personal calculation was that eventually Kabul would be under siege but hopefully wisdom would prevail and sound minds would come together and there would be a composition of some sort of a government. I also knew that there was a lot of selfishness to hold onto power. But I thought that there would be enough U.S. pressure on Ghani to make sure that a deal would be struck at the table—not the way it happened.

Marlowe: what made you decide to stay on as mayor?

Sultanzoy: I could have gone to the airport when I heard about Ghani’s escape but I’m not a coward and I’m very aware of the judgment that history will make and I also think I haven’t done anything to run away from. A member of the Taliban called me the day they entered Kabul and asked me to stay. I didn’t want the city to have a collapse in services.

If in the future they don’t want me as mayor then I’ll think about whether I can be of service in this country in various other ways, that’s something the future will tell, but I decided to stay and continue until they ask me not to.

I want to mention, today the BBC was interviewing me and one of the questions they asked me was, don’t you think that you betrayed democratic principles by working with the Taliban?

Well, whose democratic principles? Britain, America, or Afghanistan?

European countries were talking to the Taliban in Qatar. What democratic principles were they betraying?

My staying was a testimony to make a statement that we are here, those of us with my political values want the Taliban to notice that we are here, we don’t want to create a void and go thousands of miles away to shed crocodile tears over democracy.

Marlowe: what is the mood in the street?

Sultanzoy: There’s a lot of confusion and of course anxiety because of the economic situation. I’m sure the gravity of the economic situation has not set in yet. At this time the banks have no money because the central bank reserves are frozen abroad. The lack of money in the banks and the lack of payment of salaries and these things will probably create more anxiety and more friction. There will be bumps in prices and this will affect people.

The absence of women is noticeable and they’re more timid in their dressing and much much more conservative. Although previously they had Islamic dress, it’s even more cloaked.

Marlowe: Is there governance now in Kabul?

Sultanzoy: I’ve been assigned a commission—it’s being led by one of the Taliban, Hamdullah Nomani, who used to be their minister for higher education. We just started today. The basic functions of the city are going on, like the sanitation, but right now we’re working on a day-to-day basis because we have to restart our revenue management and our planning and our implementation of those plans.

Some of our actions require cabinet approval and there’s no cabinet yet.

Marlowe: Are we seeing a new Taliban here, in terms of how they are treating people outside their group?

Sultanzoy: At the moment the Taliban are very much milder, but it’s the very beginning. It seems like their higher ups are very aware of the sensitivities of public opinion, the sensitivities of their image, and the sensitivities of the international community.

But how much they can exert that understanding onto their rank and file is a separate issue. They come from different regions with different leaderships and they come from different persuasions in terms of who has done what during the war. The role of each group has created certain expectations for those groups and if those expectations are not met, then I’m sure there will be reactions.

Marlowe: How are they paying their soldiers?

Sultanzoy: So far they haven’t paid them—they’ve been here only less than a week, so they haven’t paid anything yet

Marlowe: As far as you know, have any members of the former government been arrested or imprisoned?

Sultanzoy: I haven’t heard of any major arrests or imprisonments.

Marlowe: Is there any hope that something new and constructive for Afghanistan might come out of this?

Sultanzoy: Unfortunately, the sad story is that the Taliban are talking to the same old hats that they were fighting—they’re talking to Karzai and Abdullah and probably later on to other warlords. And I don’t think that will bode well for the future of this country

Marlowe: Does Karzai have any constructive role in the future?

Sultanzoy: I don’t think so because he has never been very constructive during these years. His role has always been very self-serving and wicked.

Marlowe: How has the reputation of the United States been affected by recent events in Afghanistan? Is there anything specific?

Sultanzoy: I’m thinking of the way the United States left Bagram at night turning off the lights like they ran away in the dark instead of handing over responsibly to the Afghan National Army. [Ed.: This was in early July, without so much as telling the Afghan security forces patrolling the base.]

At least a billion dollars worth of equipment was there and it would have been looted or destroyed. Luckily one Afghan brigadier general came to the rescue and he secured the base at that time.

Marlowe: The waste . . .

Sultanzoy: I worked for almost three years on an Afghan commission working with CSTC-A [Combined Security Transition Command, an American-lead multinational group in charge of managing the Afghan national security forces] to create procedures and bylaws and rules and regulations to turn ten U.S. bases into free-trade zones.

I personally worked thousands of hours on this thing and we turned out a very usable document.

The United States could have done that many months ago when that decision was made to depart, they could have given these airports for that purpose responsibly and if afterwards the government hadn’t been able to use it then it would have been a different situation.

But for reasons I don’t understand, that didn’t happen.

I spoke with Tawfiq Amini as the Taliban approached Mazar. It was an uncertain time. He fled to Uzbekistan on August 10, but returned to Mazar the next day when President Ghani visited the city.

Then Mazar fell on the night of August 14 and Amini went into hiding for three days. The Taliban came to his empty apartment looking for him every day, a neighbor told him. On August 17 he went to the municipality office and resigned the office of mayor. (A new mayor has been appointed by the Taliban, he is a Pashtun.) Two days later, Amini headed for the border, successfully. He did not want to go into further details about his escape because family members are still in Afghanistan..

Ann Marlowe: Why was everyone so wrong in failing to anticipate the Taliban take over?

Tawfiq Amini: We did not expect that the Taliban will take over Afghanistan so quickly, especially Kabul and Mazar-e-sharif. Because of lack of military training, and the government did not have a good management system, that is why the country falls under the Taliban. There was also the conflict between different political groups inside Afghanistan and the intervention of foreign policy.

Marlowe: You are now living in Uzbekistan, how did you escape Mazar?

Amini: I left my beloved homeland and my hometown, Mazar-e-sharif; it was very hard for me. But I had to because of my family’s safety. I crossed by car. I had my visa issued before the Taliban entered Mazar. There are two Taliban checkpoints that I had to cross.

Marlowe: What was the city like when you left?

Amini: Mazar-e-sharif was a ghost town. People were staying inside their houses because of the fear of the Taliban. There were very few stores open. You don’t feel secure inside the city of Mazar.

Marlowe: I heard that from someone else also, who says that 70 percent of the doctors in the city have fled the country. I think we have to remember that because the population is very young, at least half of the people in Afghanistan are too young to remember living under the Taliban the first time . . . the Afghanistan of today is very different.

Amini: As the Taliban announced amnesty to forgive everyone, those who had experience living under the Taliban do not trust the Taliban anymore. They start protesting. You can see most young people are posting on social media because they fear their future and the dream that the Taliban take away.

Marlowe: You are still optimistic about the future?

Amini: I think the Taliban will have a hard time with the young generation. They are a different generation. They know what they want; they won’t listen to the Taliban to control their future. These young people have seen the world now. It’s hard to stop them now.

An Interview with Two Afghan Mayors

April 23rd, 2021

originally published in The Bulwark, 4/20/21

The mayors of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif explain what the American pullout means for Afghans.

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“We have been your laboratory to fight terrorism. But Afghanistan has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on. This is one of the freest countries in the region in terms of freedom of speech and media. No force can govern Afghanistan without the consent of the people.”

That was Daoud Sultanzoy speaking. He’s been the mayor of Kabul since April 2020, and a friend for about 15 years. We were talking over WhatsApp, discussing the impact of President Biden’s decision to unconditionally remove all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.

The next day I spoke with another friend of long standing who is now mayor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Tawfiq Amini. And in general, both spoke of the time coming for Afghans to stand up for themselves.

What Americans may not fully appreciate is that, for Afghans, our withdrawal isn’t about us.

What follows are interviews with two of the most important politicians in Afghanistan.

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I met Daoud Sultanzoy, 65, in Kabul when he was a member of the Wolesi Jirga—the lower House of Parliament—around 2006, during one of the reporting trips I made to Afghanistan. He’s Kabul-born and raised, from an aristocratic Pashtun family who have historically been landholders in nearby Ghazni province.

While Pashtuns are generally the most conservative ethnic group in Afghanistan (and the group from which the Taliban draw their most fervent support) Daoud is a liberal. He’s a Kabul University-educated engineer and former United Airlines pilot nicknamed “Captain Daoud”—and also a former American citizen who lived for many years in California.

Brilliant and articulate, Sultanzoy was always good for a pithy quote and sparkling conversation at one of the many gatherings of Kabul’s international. After leaving parliament in 2010, he did a stint as a talk radio host. He also ran for president in 2014 and in so doing gave up his American citizenship. (“I could be living in Malibu. But a human being needs to be useful. Afghanistan is where I can be most useful,” he explained.)

The war continues—in 2020 about 1,900 Afghan civilians were killed by anti-government forces. There are 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan currently, plus about 7,000 NATO forces. Afghanistan is currently protected by the 350,000 members of the Afghan Army and Air Force and 125,000 local police.

Sultanzoy seems unworried about the dangers of his job and only when I asked directly about assassination attempts did he mention that a few months ago his security detail discovered a bomb in his car.

Ann Marlowe: Daoud, I don’t think many Americans know how you become a mayor in Afghanistan? And what’s the best estimate of the population of Kabul?

Daoud Sultanzoy: Afghan mayors are supposed to be elected, but along with the District Council system, mayoral elections have not yet been set up. The mayor of Kabul is appointed by the president and sits in the cabinet. The mayors of all the other cities are appointed by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG).

I have no fixed term limit. It depends on the president. I have received a lot of support from the president and the two vice presidents.

The best estimate is that Kabul has a daytime population of about 6,000,000 people, of whom 1,000,000 commute into the center every day from the outskirts or other provinces. We have 8,500 municipal employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about the economic effect of the whittling away of the international community in Kabul? Is the aid money still there? Is there a sustainable economy?

Sultanzoy: Actually we are the only municipality that generates its own budget through fees. We do not depend on international aid, although we do receive some through the World Bank which comes with strings attached. It is not a significant part of our budget which is about 13 billion afghanis or $168 million at 77 afghanis per dollar.

There is a lot of economic activity here that has nothing to do with the foreign community and a lot of problems that are local problems. For example there are thousands of unregistered unlicensed pushcarts selling goods. This has been a big problem because it is not usually a question of one person owning one cart, it is a mafia of one person owning 800 or 1,000 carts which block the streets and pay no fees or taxes. [The cart operators pay fees to the mafia rather than the city.] We have registered 25,000 people who claimed to be owners of carts.

Marlowe: Is there still a huge problem in Kabul with informal housing settlements without water or electricity? As in other places in the developing world, people who live in these settlements do not have titles to their property which they have often paid significant amounts for . . .

Sultanzoy: Yes, this is a big problem, although we have made some progress since I took office. About 70 percent of the new construction in the last 20 years is unplanned and unregistered and because it is also untaxed we’re losing a lot of revenue. Depending on the size of the house, an average house would pay about 1,000 afghanis ($13) per year in taxes.

UN-Habitat undertook certain parts of this registration and there they have not produced good results. The government is not very happy about it. I’m not privy to what they have done because they took these projects before I became the mayor. One part was done in Kabul and it’s still not complete. What we are doing now is through the Afghan government. Land registration is done by the Ministry of Urban Development, unfortunately. I would have preferred it to have been done by the municipality.

I went head-to-head with warlords who have grabbed millions of square meters of land, including parkland and green space, and I received a lot of support from First Vice President Amanarullah Salah.

Marlowe: You became mayor right in the middle of the pandemic. What kind of impact has COVID-19 had in Kabul? From what I have heard and read, the situation has not been as catastrophic in Afghanistan as in the United States or other developed countries. There certainly isn’t testing going on, but I read that there are fewer than 3,000 deaths so far.

Do people take the pandemic seriously?

Sultanzoy: We prepared for many sick, but they did not materialize. We have a young population. For 40 days, during a lockdown, our municipality distributed 120,000,000 pieces of bread to 3.1 million households at a cost of $68.8 million.

Due to the economic situation, it is not possible for most people to wear masks. But they are aware of social distancing. As far as vaccinations, we have begun with the security forces here. We are waiting for supplies from ÇOVAX [which provides free vaccines to poor countries].

Marlowe: What kind of security situation did you inherit from your predecessor? My impression from talking to Afghan friends is that Kabul is more dangerous than it was the last time I was there in 2011. Is there anything you can do about this as mayor or is it outside your sphere?

Sultanzoy: I do not have control over the police in Kabul, even the traffic police. They report to the minister of the interior.

Marlowe: How well are the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) doing in your opinion? How well has the United States done at training the ANSF after spending $88 billion?

Sultanzoy: No meaningful territory has been lost by ANSF, although government forces have withdrawn from some places. There is a very small footprint of those who create insecurity.

Marlowe: What do you think Afghans are hoping for from Americans in the future?

Sultanzoy: We are hoping for more clarity about the civilian role of the United States after the military withdrawal. The United States has not mentioned what they will do beyond saying that financial support will continue, but this is very vague. When the international community is not clear about its intentions, insecurity grows.

This nation has to become a nation of the 21st century. We need education and healthcare—these are not western things, they are human things. America was not made from within alone. It was also made from Europe. Afghanistan should be supported as America was supported.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems?

Sultanzoy: This is a very complicated country both in terrain and people and the ways we interpret things are very different. We Afghans are not direct people. When Americans speak to us very directly we try to interpret what they’re “really” saying.

Marlowe: What are some of the other initiatives you’ve started since you took office?

Sultanzoy: Just three weeks ago we started a public bus system with five buses. We hope that by the middle of the year we will have more than 100 buses in service.

We are also trying to increase the number of women among municipal employees. There have been very few and we’re focusing on getting to 30 percent, but we have only added dozens so far out of our 8,500 employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about some depressing numbers the World Bank has published on education:

Education spending has declined over recent years, especially on basic education. Education’s share of the budget has declined from 17 percent in 1390 to just 12 percent in 1397. Real per capita spending on education has decreased by around 13 percent over the past five years.

Sultanzoy: Part of the reason for this is systematic corruption in the past in the Ministry of Education (including fictitious teachers). Also in some areas the schools are not functioning due to insecurity.

Marlowe: In the ongoing negotiations, do you trust the Taliban?

Sultanzoy: Trust should be built and trust is measured by deeds, so in generic terms I should say any two parties that want to negotiate they have to embark on a path that will build trust and that path in our case is to prevent war. In the 21st century people shouldn’t be shedding blood in order to resolve disputes.

If we want to have a future together we have to put our arms on the side and sit down like our forefathers have done and talk about our differences and iron it out. There’s nothing that cannot be ironed out.

Marlowe: So do you think that there is anything valuable that the Taliban can contribute to Afghanistan?

Sultanzoy: Of course, of course! No one party is the only perfect party to monopolize governing this country. Every group of people who live in this country have something to contribute and we have to listen to all of them and we have to bring them all to the same table and and give them the proportionate role. . . . Their precondition was for American troops to withdraw. I think they should also cut their ties with foreign interference, then there’s nothing that we cannot iron out.

Marlowe: In conclusion, where do you expect that Afghanistan will be in another 20 years? A lot of Americans are pessimistic but you seem more optimistic.

Sultanzoy: If we embark on a durable peace that is just and that is equitable and that will uphold certain principles for a country that needs to be embarking on a path of development—then Afghanistan will develop very quickly because the ingredients are there. The manpower, the capital, the appetite for business and for entrepreneurship in the country, natural resources, agriculture, water resources and the availability of tools not only nationally, but internationally, that can speed up development.

I first visited Mazar-i-Sharif in fall of 2002 when there were only a few blocks of shops with glass windows, no buildings taller than the venerated Blue Mosque, and no commercial Internet providers. I stayed at the home of two very kind people, now deceased: Naser Amini and his wife Maryam. They shared a “roushan fekr” attitude, which in Farsi means “enlightened thinking.” The family were ethnic Uzbek landowners originally from Maimana in Faryab province, but more recently they had fled the Taliban takeover of Kabul. I spent a lot of time with their five children who were then teens or young adults.

The oldest son, Ahmad Tawfiq Amini, now 43 and known as Tawfiq, became the mayor of Mazar-i Sharif on March 2. Trained as a civil engineer, Amini is a burly, confident man with a sly sense of humor who looks like the contractor he was for many years. His wife is a teacher and he has supported his sisters’ efforts to graduate from university, and has sent his daughters to private school and university.

Mazar has always been a safer place than Kabul—the Taliban has little local backing in this multiethnic city, where Dari-speaking Tajiks are the single largest group and there are significant numbers of Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras. The last 20 years have brought many positive changes. The long-term provincial strongman, Atta Muhammed, has presided over a corrupt but efficient and business- friendly administration. Mazar is just 34 miles from the Uzbek border crossing of Termez, which is a source of abundant customs revenue. Now the population is around 1,000,000 and the city has tall buildings and an international airport—and most middle-class residents have smart phones with Internet access.

But the area also has more violence. For some years it has no longer been possible for government officials or foreigners to drive safely between Kabul and Mazar, something I probably did a dozen times in the past. While the Afghan government controls both cities, the Taliban has a presence in between.

Amini has also had a brush with danger since becoming mayor. On April 10, his oldest daughter called, telling me that the handcart mafia had burned his car.

Amini and I spoke on WhatsApp after I sent him questions—he reads and understands English better than he speaks it. As a result, this transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ann Marlowe: So how did you become mayor of Mazar?

Tawfiq Amini: I am not elected by people. It’s a different system: This job was announced on the government website for everyone to apply. I applied and I was selected for the interview; when I passed the interview I was asked to give a presentation. As an engineer, I had enough experience working in the city that I was able to explain about my plans for the future of this city. Luckily within 24 hours I confirmed that I got the job. My term is two years.

Marlowe: And your responsibilities as mayor?

Amini: As a mayor, my responsibility is to keep the infrastructure safe and clean, I also try to create job opportunities for people who do not have jobs. We have about 100 jobs reserved for poor people and these jobs pay 5,000 afghanis per month (about $64). My goals are to help people and hear their stories and their needs. There are poor people whose land was taken away from them illegally. I am helping them to get their land back and also working on reducing the corruption in the city.

Marlowe: Does the United States provide any financial support to the city?

Amini: Since I started working as mayor I have not received any help from the United States government.

Marlowe: How about NGOs?

Amini: UN-Habitat has been working here for about four years registering houses [establishing a land titling system that enables the collection of taxes]. Maybe 60 percent or 65 percent of houses are now registered. An average house maybe pays 1,500 afghanis ($19) a year in taxes.

Marlowe: What is the amount of the annual budget of Mazar city?

Amini: It is about 100,000,000 afghanis ($1.28 million) per year depending on how many taxes we get.The money comes from taxes (including customs duties).

Marlowe: Do you think it is better that the Americans go or that the Americans stay?

Amini: It is better to stay. The economic situation might be bad after they leave. But we Afghans have to stand up and build our country. I know America has been great support during the last 20 years, but now it’s time for all Afghan ethnic groups to come together to be united and fight for their rights and bring peace to their country, and take responsibility. I believe that Afghans are the only ones who can solve their problems.

I hope that Afghanistan does not fall back to the hands of the Taliban. People are already so tired of war, they are so thirsty for peace and stability.

Marlowe: Do you think there is a high chance of the Taliban taking over Mazar?

Amini: No, only about a 10 percent chance. The people in the city are not liking the Taliban. The Taliban are in the villages.

Marlowe: Are there any American or other foreign troops stationed near Mazar?

Amini: Yes, at Marmul camp in Mazar, near the airport. They do not come into the city.

Marlowe: What changes will happen in Mazar when the Americans leave?

Amini: Well the American troops have already decreased. I don’t think there will be a major change as we are aware that the Afghan National Army is getting ready to take responsibility for the security of the city and country. We are hoping and expecting that government will come up with a plan to keep the people safe.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems? Why could they not defeat the Taliban?

Amini: Great questions. Ann, what Americans did not understand about Afghans is the history and culture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a complex history and also is a country where religion is a powerful social force. Americans did not understand the culture of Afghans, the values that they hold. If the country is profoundly rooted in tradition and religion, it’s hard to introduce the idea of democracy.

Also Afghanistan is a multiethnic and predominantly tribal country. Every tribe has its leader, and people listen to their leader more than the government. There are always conflicts between different tribes, which can be one reason why the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems because it is hard to understand the cultural concept of each ethnic group.

Also, lack of education: The literacy rate in Afghanistan is the lowest in the world. [Afghanistan, with an adult literacy rate of 43 percent, is one of the handful of least literate countries in the world according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is now about double what it was in 1980.] That puts the country in a different danger. Afghanistan is one country that depends on foreign aid, and America has played a significant role in helping Afghanistan.

About why could they not defeat the Taliban: Geographically Afghanistan is located in central Asia where some neighbors of Afghanistan are interfering with Afghan policy, such as Pakistan, Iran, and their relationship with them.

Marlowe: What does Afghanistan need for the future?

Amini: I have seven children—five daughters and two sons, and I am very proud of them. My oldest daughter is studying medicine. My son is studying engineering.

This is what my country needs: more young people to study and help their country.

Time for a Free Public Registry of Corporate Beneficial Ownership in the U.S.

January 26th, 2021

Originally published by OCCRP, January 26, 2021

In the tumult of recent weeks, a major legislative milestone in the American fight against kleptocracy has sneaked by almost unnoticed. It demands our attention, especially because its work is only half done.
On Jan. 1, the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) was signed into law, when Congress overrode then-President Donald Trump’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, to which it was attached.

The CTA mandates that the incorporators of new corporations or limited liability partnerships will have to file annually to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network of the Department of the Treasury (FinCEN), listing the names, dates of birth, addresses, and official identification numbers of the beneficial owners of such entities.

But the CTA is a half measure, because the new legislation doesn’t include the formation of a central, searchable database to help get this crucial information out into the open. The public has the right to know the names behind these corporations, which have the same legal privileges as humans. The public in this case includes individuals who may have been defrauded, the divorcing spouse who suspects a partner is concealing assets, and journalists investigating possible criminality.

Those of us who have researched companies in the U.K. know just how far the CTA falls short, and how much better things could be if the U.S. copied the British model.

One night in November 2011, sitting at home in New York, I went to the U.K.’s Companies House website and typed in the name of a company I suspected was a criminal enterprise. I was doing this in my capacity as an investigative journalist, but the information I sought was accessible to anyone, and it was inexpensive.

Companies House is a self-financing U.K. government agency staffed by civil servants, its primary purpose being to enable British citizens to register companies and file annual returns. Currently, every one of the 4.3 million companies spanning England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, be they private or public, big or small, must file information on their directors and controlling shareholders annually with Companies House, in addition to their annual account filings.

Because of this comprehensiveness, Companies House also serves a secondary function: It allows citizens to research companies they are suspicious of. As a result, Companies House is the first stop for any journalistic investigation involving U.K. entities.

As I searched that night in New York, I soon found not only the address of the company I was looking into — a private house — but also the names of the company directors. Within an hour I knew that these directors had between them started more than 40 companies from the same house. After one particular name piqued my interest, a private banker was immediately able to tell me it belonged to the former infrastructure czar of an Arab country.

This was the first step in the discovery of a giant transnational kickback and money laundering ring later detailed in the international press, but it would not have been possible without Companies House.* To this day it would not be possible at all in the U.S., where no equivalent database exists.

In the U.S. there is no central national registry of companies; this function is instead handled by the secretaries of state of the 50 separate states. Many states, like Delaware, offer no public information about these companies, other than their incorporation dates and registered agents. More than 1 million corporations are registered in Delaware, partly because tax is not collected on the portion of Delaware corporations’ income that is generated out of state.

Five companies related to the scandal-plagued consulting firm Cambridge Analytica LLC were registered in Delaware, but it was only after a leak to the New York Times that it became apparent that the hedge fund manager Robert Mercer was among its main investors. We still don’t know the other shareholders, but we know that former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was a director, because he had to file White House disclosure forms.

Most state registries are cumbersome to use and low on information. They are also often expensive: Delaware charges $10 or $20 for a corporation’s status or history. Commercial aggregators are available to the public, but they, too, are pricey. The closest thing we have to a free, transnational registry is the excellent, but it offers no more information than the original reporting jurisdictions. Another great resource is the website of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, but again there are limitations on what can be found in a single place.

In comparison, it’s hard to overestimate just how useful Companies House is. Each director’s birth month and year is noted. Changes of company name or address are also tracked, which can be extremely helpful when it comes to tracing criminal companies, which often change addresses and names. In addition, Companies House maintains a list of disqualified directors, and persons who have declared bankruptcy. A few years ago, all Companies House filings were made available to download free of charge.

The U.S. has long had the best enforcement capabilities in the world. But to end the concealment of the fruits of kleptocracy, you need information, plus enforcement, plus political will. An American version of Companies House could be phased in gradually, starting with newly formed companies. Ideally, ownership information from individual state registries could be scraped and folded into this central database, offering the public a vital resource.

The U.S. effort could begin with a requirement to file details on beneficial ownership, before moving on to the annual filing of accounts, to reduce the initial regulatory burden. Ultimately, the database could be integrated with federal-level taxation, to ensure that accounts filed by companies to the Internal Revenue Service tally with those being reported to America’s Companies House.

With a new focus on information gathering, a central public registry, and the backing of a Biden administration truly committed to cleaning house, consequential change is possible. It’s time the U.S. stopped being an attractive home for dubious companies.

*Disclosure: I worked on this matter as a paid consultant.

Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She has worked on stolen asset recovery using Companies House.