He was a senior official in the Afghan government. Except he wasn’t.
KABUL, Afghanistan – He arrived in northern Afghanistan with certificates of appreciation from the presidential palace in Kabul – a privileged sign from Afghan officials, just behind government medals.
The dignitary, a burly young man with a massive watch, was brought to safety by Afghan commandos and driven in one of the government’s precious helicopters. District governors of Baghlan province posed with him for photos; the generals clicked their heels in a sign of respect, then willingly held out their hands to receive their certificates.
The only problem? The man, who introduced himself as Sardar Zmarai, a prince and a high representative in President Ashraf Ghani’s office of the National Security Council, was in fact a serial impostor – a daring con artist.
And after more than a decade of deceiving government officials and business leaders across the country, and getting rich off it, Mr. Zmarai, the son of a wheat seller, had pushed his luck a bit. too far.
At the end of his tour in the north, Afghan security agents were waiting for him in handcuffs at the airport in the town of Mazar-i-Sharif. The exact date of his arrest, over the past two weeks, was not clear. But the security council confirmed the incident in a statement Wednesday evening.
“He is under investigation in a detention center of the National Security Directorate,” the statement said.
Mr. Zmarai, whose last false identity was as a descendant of an Afghan prince who had been the country’s first president before he and his family were wiped out in a Communist attack in the 1970s, perhaps one of the most cunning impostors here. But he is not the first to have profited from the chaos of the Afghan war.
Many have posed as Taliban peace envoys, sometimes turning out to be suicide bombers on assassination missions. A trader made his way to the presidential palace posing as the deputy leader of the Taliban and was rewarded with money for his willingness to talk about peace.
Others have made their fortunes by forging the signatures of senior officials, including that of the country’s vice-president to donate prime land a few hundred yards from the presidential palace.
On Thursday, some of Mr. Zmarai’s victims laughed when they saw how duped they had been.
General Noor Habib Gulbahari, police chief of Baghlan province and one of the recipients of the certificates, said Zmarai presented himself as a prince and government envoy in charge of security matters in the north. -est of the country.
“He presented certificates of appreciation to some senior officials, including the corps commander, myself and other officials,” General Gulbahari said, with a sort of humorous astonishment. a telephone interview. âHe came from Balkh to Baghlan with a group of army commandos, then he called the corps commander in Balkh to inform him that he had arrived safe and sound in Baghlan. I also spoke with the corps commander in Balkh via his phone, and he told me to take care of him.
While in Baghlan, Mr. Zmarai was accommodated in a government guesthouse. When reviewing the security situation in neighboring Kunduz province, General Gulbahari asked his deputy to accompany Mr. Zmarai in a convoy and ensure the safety of the trip.
“We did not ask him for any documents or identity cards because he came in an army helicopter and with army commandos,” General Gulbahari said. “He didn’t ask us for money or anything.”
A picture of Mr. Zmarai’s great exploits over the past decade and a half was quick to emerge.
Zmarai, who is believed to be in his 20s, is from Khanabad district in Kunduz province, according to government officials and relatives who were reached by phone. His father sells wheat in the local market and his brothers work as tailors and mechanics.
Relatives, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to anger the family, said Mr. Zmarai made a foray into the scam work some 14 years ago. He would pose as a government inspector on local projects in Khanabad, luring officials and contractors to give him a cut. But very early on, he was arrested twice by the authorities.
He tried to pass himself off as a senator, moving around with a traditional Afghan cape draped over his shoulders. When people asked where he got the votes, Mr. Zmarai’s family said that some senators were appointed by the government and did not need votes.
Later, he took his boat to the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital. A few doors down from the province’s intelligence directorate, he established an office and introduced himself as a middleman to the NATO military base, where lucrative contracts were up for grabs, his relatives said.
He once drove a senior provincial military official down a stretch of highway he said he got the paving contract for and hoped that official would become his partner in starting the project, according to Ahmad. Fahim Qarluq, a civilian society activist in Kunduz. He persuaded the official to pay him $ 700 and disappeared.
He also said he could outsource vehicles to nongovernmental organizations and businesses across the country: $ 600 per month for a Toyota Corolla and $ 1,200 for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
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âThere would be so many cars in front of his office that people wouldn’t have time to talk to him,â said Salahudin, who gave one of his cars to Mr. Zmarai for hire. âAfter three months, he left with the people’s cars.
Mr. Salahudin said that Mr. Zmarai did not take his car because it was parked for maintenance, but that he still owed him money. When he finally found Mr. Zmarai in Badakhshan Province three months later, the con artist tricked the owner of a gas station into paying him what he owed Mr. Salahudin.
More recently, Mr. Zmarai was largely based in Mazar-i-Sharif, but his ambitions were national. During a visit to the central prison in the northern province of Panjshir, he posed as a presidential adviser.
But he preferred the identity of a prince.
When he arrived in Helmand province a few years ago, he was greeted with flower garlands and taken to a government VIP guesthouse. He even sold the land of his alleged ancestor, Prince Daoud, in Nangarhar province.
“He sold me land in Nangarhar which belonged to Daoud,” said General Abdul Wahid Taqat, a military commander under the Communist government who is now retired. “He took $ 10,000 from me, and when I watched the show, the land didn’t belong to him.”
General Taqat said that Mr. Zmarai also persuaded a friend of his to sell his apartment in Kabul and earn him $ 110,000 which he made to buy him more land. The crook ran away with the money.
For a man with such a colorful life, the last moments before his arrest must have been and were dramatic – though the accounts rightly differ.
The office of the governor of Balkh province said that Mr. Zmarai, fleeing from the police, jumped from the third floor of the airport. A second official said that Mr. Zmarai was arrested as soon as the government helicopter he used on his tour of the north landed in Mazar-i-Sharif. Fearing his arrest when he saw security guards on the ground, Mr. Zmarai jumped from the helicopter and injured his leg, the official said.