In Afghanistan, signs of crony capitalism

By Andrew Higgins
Monday, February 22, 2010

KABUL -- Afghanistan's biggest private bank -- founded by the Islamic nation's only world-class poker player -- celebrated its fifth year in business last summer with a lottery for depositors at Paris Palace, a Kabul wedding hall.

Prizes awarded by Kabul Bank included nine apartments in the Afghan capital and cash gifts totaling more than $1 million. The bank trumpeted the event as the biggest prize drawing of its kind in Central Asia.

Less publicly, Kabul Bank's boss has been handing out far bigger prizes to his country's U.S.-backed ruling elite: multimillion-dollar loans for the purchase of luxury villas in Dubai by members of President Hamid Karzai's family, his government and his supporters.

The close ties between Kabul Bank and Karzai's circle reflect a defining feature of the shaky post-Taliban order in which Washington has invested more than $40 billion and the lives of more than 900 U.S. service members: a crony capitalism that enriches politically connected insiders and dismays the Afghan populace.

"What I'm doing is not proper, not exactly what I should do. But this is Afghanistan," Kabul Bank's founder and chairman, Sherkhan Farnood, said in an interview when asked about the Dubai purchases and why, according to data from the Persian Gulf emirate's Land Department, many of the villas have been registered in his name. "These people don't want to reveal their names."

Afghan laws prohibit hidden overseas lending and require strict accounting of all transactions. But those involved in the Dubai loans, including Kabul Bank's owners, said the cozy flow of cash is not unusual or illegal in a deeply traditional system underpinned more by relationships than laws.

The curious role played by the bank and its unorthodox owners has not previously been reported and was documented by land registration data; public records; and interviews in Kabul, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Moscow.

Many of those involved appear to have gone to considerable lengths to conceal the benefits they have received from Kabul Bank or its owners. Karzai's older brother and his former vice president, for example, both have Dubai villas registered under Farnood's name. Kabul Bank's executives said their books record no loans for these or other Dubai deals financed at least in part by Farnood, including home purchases by Karzai's cousin and the brother of Mohammed Qasim Fahim, his current first vice president and a much-feared warlord who worked closely with U.S. forces to topple the Taliban in 2001.

At a time when Washington is ramping up military pressure on the Taliban, the off-balance-sheet activities of Afghan bankers raise the risk of financial instability that could offset progress on the battlefield. Fewer than 5 percent of Afghans have bank accounts, but among those who do are many soldiers and policemen whose salaries are paid through Kabul Bank.

A U.S. official who monitors Afghan finances, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said banks appear to have plenty of money but noted that in a crisis, Afghan depositors "won't wait in line holding cups of latte" but would be "waving AK-47s."

Kabul Bank executives, in separate interviews, gave different accounts of what the bank is up to with Dubai home buyers. "They are borrowers. They have an account at Kabul Bank," said the bank's chairman, Farnood, a boisterous 46-year-old with a gift for math and money -- and the winner of $120,000 at the 2008 World Series of Poker Europe, held in a London casino.

The bank's chief audit officer, Raja Gopalakrishnan, however, insisted that the loan money didn't come directly from Kabul Bank. He said it was from affiliated but separate entities, notably a money-transfer agency called Shaheen Exchange, which is owned by Farnood, is run by one of Kabul Bank's 16 shareholders and operates in Kabul out of the bank's headquarters.

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