Afghan central bank board member asks Biden, IMF to release funds

The US and the IMF should provide the Taliban with limited monetary access to prevent economic collapse, Shah Mehrabi says.

Kabul Bank
Long queues of customers in front of banks across the country have become a common sight [EPA]

A senior board member of Afghanistan’s central bank is urging the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund to take steps to provide the Taliban-led government limited access to the country’s reserves to avoid economic disaster.

The Taliban took over Afghanistan with astonishing speed, but it appears unlikely that the group will get quick access to most of the roughly $10bn in assets held by Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB), which are mostly outside of the country.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has said any central bank assets the Afghan government have in the United States will not be made available to the Taliban, and the IMF has said the country will not have access to the lender’s resources.

Shah Mehrabi, an economics professor at Montgomery College in Maryland and a member of the bank’s board since 2002, told Reuters in a telephone interview on Wednesday that Afghanistan faces an “inevitable economic and humanitarian crisis” if its international reserves remain frozen.

Mehrabi stressed he does not speak for the Taliban but is making this push in his capacity as a sitting board member. He said he plans to meet with US lawmakers this week, and hopes to talk to US Treasury officials soon as well.

“If the international community wants to prevent an economic collapse, one way would be to allow Afghanistan to gain limited and monitored access to its reserves,” he said.

“Having no access will choke off the Afghan economy, and directly hurt the Afghan people, with families pushed further into poverty.”

Mehrabi is proposing that Washington allow the new government in Kabul a limited amount of access each month, perhaps in the range of $100m to $125m to start with, that would be monitored by an independent auditor.

“The Biden administration should negotiate with the Taliban over the money in the same way they negotiated over the evacuation,” he said.

If the assets remain entirely frozen, then inflation will continue to soar, Afghans will not be able to afford basic necessities, and the central bank will lose its main tools for conducting monetary policy, he said.

The Taliban can survive on customs duties, increasing opium production, or selling off captured American military gear, but everyday Afghans will suffer and be solely reliant on international aid if the country does not have access to currency, Mehrabi added.

After nearly 20 years of American intervention, the Afghan economy is heavily dollarised, and depends on imports that largely must be purchased with foreign currency, he said.

With overseas reserves off-limits, Da Afghanistan Bank may be undermined after having cultivated a non-political, technocratic institution that so far has been allowed to continue its work under the Taliban, Mehrabi said.

“Their work there is not based on who is in power,” he said, noting that he has not been personally in touch with Taliban representatives, but is in daily contact with colleagues running operations there now.

Ajmal Ahmady, who led the central bank until the capture of Kabul, has said about $7bn of DAB’s assets was held as a mixture of cash, gold, bonds and other investments at the US Federal Reserve.

Most of the rest is in other international accounts and at the Bank for International Settlements, a bank for central banks based in Switzerland, and not physically in DAB vaults, he said – leaving about 0.2 percent or less of the total accessible to the Taliban.

Source: Reuters