Kabul Bank is the topic of the moment in Afghanistan.
Last week, several American media outlets broke the story that the bank was in trouble and its top two executives – the chairman and the CEO – had been fired. The bank had apparently over-loaned to its own shareholders, who in turn, invested millions of dollars in property in Dubai.
It took a while for the news to spread around the country, but when it did, it sent a shockwave. Kabul Bank is the largest private bank in Afghanistan – it has a good network of branches throughout the country, and it handles the salaries of security forces, teachers and civil servants.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, and the Central Bank intervened, both trying to reassure the Afghan people that the bank wouldn’t sink and that their savings are safe. But customers started queuing from the crack of dawn to get their hands on their stored earning, and in a couple of days, more than $150 million in savings were withdrawn.
I met Mahmoud Karzai, the brother of the president and a shareholder in the bank. He is a minor shareholder, but his name is worth millions here.
He candidly admitted that there had been lending abuses, but insisted the bank would survive because no one had defaulted on the payments. The bank would survive, he said, and he more than anyone, should know how things will pan out.
But then we went to the headquarters of Kabul Bank. It’s Ramadan, people are fasting, and it’s hot and dusty. People had been anxiously waiting to get hold of their savings. It was about 1pm and they were exhausted.
They were also candidly willing to tell me their stories. Najibullah had saved $30,000, Shams $10,000 and so on. They just wanted to be reassured by holding that money in their hands, but that was proving impossible.
Najibullah had been shuttling from branch to branch and each time he was told there was no cash. About half and hour later, an employee of the bank told everyone to come back tomorrow.
I kept on looking at how calm they remained and wondered how long they would remain so. I also wondered whether, if put in their position, I would have stayed calm at all.