Afghanistan has appointed Abdullah Dowrani as the chairman of Financial Dispute Resolution Commission. Dowrani has to recover as much as possible of the nearly $1 billion in loans Kabul Bank doled out to its shareholders. (Musadeq Sadeq/AP)

Abdullah Dowrani’s obscure government office didn’t even exist during the early years of Kabul Bank’s meteoric rise, when the bank took advantage of a fast-and-loose wartime boom and political connections so that it could lavish illegal loans on its shareholders and attract depositors with lucrative lotteries.

But now this 40-year-old, soft-spoken bureaucrat is the chairman of Afghanistan’s Financial Dispute Resolution Commission and finds himself at the center of his government’s attempt to resolve the notorious financial scandal. His job is simple: recover as much as possible of the nearly $1 billion in loans Kabul Bank doled out to its shareholders, who are among the nation’s most influential businessmen. The scale of the task is not lost on him.

“I’m under extreme pressure,” he said with a wan smile.

Dowrani’s ability to complete his task — and to operate independently of political interference — has emerged as a key test of President Hamid Karzai’s commitment to fighting corruption in Afghanistan. Nearly two years after the central bank took over Kabul Bank, none of the people involved in its near-
collapse has been prosecuted, though the bank’s chairman was among 21 people indicted last month.

At this weekend’s donor conference in Tokyo, nations weighing how much money to commit to Afghanistan are looking to the handling of the Kabul Bank scandal as an important signal that Karzai is taking steps to resolve the most egregious examples of graft and bribery.

“The important thing as a nation, as a government, as a system: Are we able to get out of this?” Dowrani said. “Are we able to overcome the challenge?”

U.S. officials involved in the anti-corruption fight remain highly skeptical about Karzai’s commitment to punishing those responsible for the Kabul Bank crisis. Karzai was slow to take action and blamed Western advisers for the problems. U.S. officials were further angered that the indictments did not include the president’s brother, Mahmoud Karzai, or the vice president’s brother, Haseen Fahim, and saw this as the president protecting those closest to the palace.

Still, some Western officials see Dowrani as a ray of hope, an honest, upstanding bureaucrat in a frustrating situation.

“Dowrani is a very good guy, trying to do the right thing in a difficult environment. He needs our full support,” one official said.

So far, Dowrani says his office has recovered $128 million in cash and confiscated $145 million worth of property, including 11 luxury villas in Dubai owned by Kabul Bank’s founder, Sherkhan Farnood. The total is roughly 30 percent of the $937 million in loans the bank doled out. Plus, Dowrani said, the bank’s two most prominent shareholders, Mahmoud Karzai and Fahim, have repaid their loans.

“In some jurisdictions around the world, the total recovery of a failed bank is 30 percent. We have done this in one year,” Dowrani said. “We were with limited resources and limited knowledge, and we were able to do this.”

The International Monetary Fund delayed approving a new line of credit to Afghanistan after the scandal broke, blocking millions in foreign aid. But the IMF recently approved new disbursements, a sign it thinks Afghanistan is meeting its benchmarks for reform.

Dowrani left Afghanistan as a young man to attend college in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. He later moved to the United States and received a master’s degree in law from the University of Houston. He then returned to Kabul and became the director of financial supervision at Afghanistan’s central bank. In 2008, he established the Financial Dispute Resolution Commission, which settles disputes between regulators and the financial and telecom industries.

“There was no precedent for anything in the past like this,” Dowrani said of his office, which has six employees, including three lawyers. “People don’t read the law here. We are not a law-abiding society.”

The central bank took over Kabul Bank in 2010 and provided $830 million to stave off its collapse and guarantee depositors’ money. Since then, efforts have been underway to prosecute fraud and recover missing assets.

Dowrani is aware of the risks. The former central bank governor, Abdul Qadir Fitrat, fled to the United States a year ago, saying he feared for his life after pushing for punishment for the perpetrators of fraud at Kabul Bank. Dowrani’s uncle, former attorney general Abdul Jabar Sabit, whom some saw as a crusader against corruption, was kidnapped last year and remains missing.

The receiver for Kabul Bank, Abdul Hameed Mohebi, was openly nervous about discussing certain individuals in the case. But he praised Dowrani, saying: “He’s confident in his job, he’s honest, he’s professional and he’s a clean person. I wish we had more people like Dowrani.”