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In Afghanistan, signs of crony capitalism

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Karzai also said he bought a 7.4 percent stake in the bank with $5 million he borrowed from the bank. But Gopalakrishnan, the chief audit officer, said Kabul Bank's books include no loans to the president's brother.

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Also in a Palm Jumeirah villa registered in Farnood's name is the family of Ahmad Zia Massoud, Afghanistan's first vice president from 2004 until last November. The house, bought in December 2007 for $2.3 million, was first put in the name of Massoud's wife but was later re-registered to give Farnood formal ownership, property records indicate.

Massoud, brother of the legendary anti-Soviet guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, said that Farnood had always been the owner but let his family use it rent-free for the past two years because he is "my close friend." Massoud added: "We have played football together. We have played chess together." Farnood, however, said that though the "villa is in my name," it belongs to Massoud "in reality."

Haseen Fahim, the brother of Afghanistan's current first vice president, has been another beneficiary of Kabul Bank's largesse. He got money from Farnood to help buy a $6 million villa in Dubai, which, unusually, is under his own name. He borrowed millions more from the bank, which he partly owns, to fund companies he owns in Afghanistan.

In an interview at Kabul Bank's headquarters, Khalilullah Fruzi, who as chief executive heads the bank's day-to-day operations, said he didn't know how much bank money has ended up in Dubai. If Karzai's relatives and others buy homes "in Dubai, or Germany or America . . . that is their own affair," Fruzi said, adding that the bank "doesn't give loans directly for Dubai."

Fruzi, a former gem trader, said Kabul Bank is in robust health, makes a profit and has about $400 million in liquid assets deposited with the Afghan central bank and other institutions. Kabul Bank is so flush, he added, that it is building a $30 million headquarters, a cluster of shimmering towers of bulletproof glass.

The bank is also spending millions to hire gunmen from a company called Khurasan Security Services, which, according to registration documents, used to be controlled by Fruzi and is now run by his brother.

The roots of Kabul Bank stretch back to the Soviet Union. Both Fruzi and Farnood got their education and their start in business there after Moscow invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

While in Moscow, Farnood set up a successful hawala money-transfer outfit to move funds between Russia and Kabul. Russian court documents show that 10 of Farnood's employees were arrested in 1998 and later convicted of illegal banking activity. Fearful of arrest in Russia and also in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, Farnood shifted his focus to Dubai.

In 2004, three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, he got a license to open Kabul Bank. His Dubai-registered hawala, Shaheen Exchange, moved in upstairs and started moving cash for bank clients. It last year shifted $250 million to $300 million to Dubai, said the chief audit officer.

The bank began to take in new, politically connected shareholders, among them the president's brother, Mahmoud, and Fahim, brother of the vice president, who registered his stake in the name of his teenage son.

Fahim said two of his companies have borrowed $70 million from Kabul Bank. Insider borrowing, he said, is unavoidable and even desirable in Afghanistan because, in the absence of a solid legal system, business revolves around trust, not formal contracts. "Afghanistan is not America or Europe. Afghanistan is starting from zero," he said.

Fahim's business has boomed, thanks largely to subcontracting work on foreign-funded projects, including a new U.S. Embassy annex and various buildings at CIA sites across the country, among them a remote base in Khost where seven Americans were killed in a December suicide attack by a Jordanian jihadiist. "I have good opportunities to get profit," Fahim said.

'Like wild horses'

Kabul Bank also plunged into the airline business, providing loans to Pamir Airways, an Afghan carrier now owned by Farnood, Fruzi and Fahim. Pamir spent $46 million on four used Boeing 737-400s and hired Hashim Karzai, the president's cousin, formerly of Silver Spring, as a "senior adviser."

Farnood said he also provided a "little bit" of money to help Hashim Karzai buy a house on Palm Jumeirah in Dubai. Karzai, in brief telephone interviews, said that the property was an investment and that he had borrowed some money from Farnood. He said he couldn't recall details and would "have to check with my accountant."

Noor Delawari, governor of the central bank during Kabul Bank's rise, said Farnood and his lieutenants "were like wild horses" and "never paid attention to the rules and regulations." Delawari said he didn't know about any property deals by Kabul Bank in Dubai. He said that he, too, bought a home in the emirate, for about $200,000.

Fitrat, the current central bank governor, has tried to take a tougher line against Kabul Bank and its rivals, with little luck. Before last year's presidential election, the central bank sent a stern letter to bankers, complaining that they squander too much money on "security guards and bulletproof vehicles" and "expend large-scale monetary assistance to politicians." The letter ordered them to remain "politically neutral."

Kabul Bank did the opposite: Fruzi, its chief executive, joined Karzai's campaign in Kabul while Farnood, its poker-playing chairman, organized fundraising events for Karzai in Dubai. One of these was held at the Palm Jumeirah house of Karzai's brother.

The government has returned the favor. The ministries of defense, interior and education now pay many soldiers, police and teachers through Kabul Bank. This means that tens of millions of dollars' worth of public money sloshes through the bank, an unusual arrangement, as governments generally don't pump so much through a single private bank.

Soon after his November inauguration for a second term, President Karzai spoke at an anti-corruption conference in Kabul, criticizing officials who "after one or two years work for the government get rich and buy houses in Dubai." Last month, he flew to London for a conference on Afghanistan, attended by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other leaders, and again promised an end to the murky deals that have so tarnished his rule.

Also in London for the conference were Farnood, who now has an Afghan diplomatic passport, and Fruzi, who served as a financial adviser to Karzai's reelection campaign and also owns a house in Dubai. "If there is no Kabul Bank, there will be no Karzai, no government," Fruzi said.

Correspondent Joshua Partlow in Kabul and special correspondent Anna Masterova in Moscow contributed to this report.


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