Banking specialists, businessmen and government officials now fear that word of Kabul Bank’s troubles could prompt a run on solvent banks, destroying the country’s nascent banking system and shaking the confidence of Western donors already questioning the level of their commitment to Afghanistan.
The scandal has severe political and security implications. Investigators and Afghan businessmen believe that much of the money has gone into the pockets of a small group of privileged and politically connected Afghans, preventing earlier scrutiny of the bank’s dealings.
The spotlight on how political and economic interests in Afghanistan are intertwined threatens to further undermine President Hamid Karzai’s government. The bank is also the prime conduit for paying Afghan security forces, leaving the American military, which pays the majority of the salaries, looking for new banks to process the $1.5 billion payroll.
As Afghan regulators struggle to find out where the money went, many officials and international monitors concede that the missing millions may never be recovered, raising questions of how the losses could be replaced to keep the bank from failing.
Afghan officials and businessmen have said the money was invested in a real estate bubble that has since burst in Dubai, as well as in dubious projects and donations to politicians in Afghanistan. Millions of dollars have yet to be traced, and some of the money seems to have gone to front companies or individuals and then disappeared.
The Afghan Central Bank and American officials are conducting their own parallel investigations, but the problems are so serious that the International Monetary Fund has not yet renewed an assistance program to Afghanistan that expired in September, threatening an essential pillar of support to a government reliant on international largess as it battles a nine-year insurgency.
Many donor countries may have to delay aid to Afghanistan because of their own requirements that money go only to countries with I.M.F. programs in good standing, Western diplomats said.
Several officials described the bank as “too big to fail,” referring to its role in paying the salaries of hundreds of thousands of government employees.
While Afghan and American officials depict a crisis far worse than has been made public, State Department cables released by WikiLeaks show that Afghan and Western regulators were aware of many of the problems, but were most focused on the problem of terrorist financing, rather than the fraud scheme that was the main problem at Kabul Bank.
A stream of complaints about the bank’s practices — many of them the problems that now threaten the bank’s survival — are dutifully recorded in the cables, but diplomats, at least in 2009 and early 2010, seemed not to have realized the profound effect they could have on the financial system as a whole.
Although other banks here have had questionable loan practices, so far it is only Kabul Bank — where what amounts to an enormous fraud scheme was conducted over a period of years — whose troubles are sending tremors through the Afghan business community and worrying Western donors.
Deloitte, a top United States accounting firm that had staffers in the Central Bank under a United States government contract over the last several years, either did not know or did not mention to American authorities that it had any inkling of serious irregularities at Kabul Bank. Deloitte was not responsible for auditing the bank’s books; a spokesman for Deloitte did not respond to requests for comment.
In an interview this weekend, Mahmoud Karzai, President Karzai’s brother and a prominent investor in the Kabul Bank, said that the new president of Kabul Bank, Masood Musa Ghazi, told him in the last several days that there were approximately $800 million in loans still outstanding. These are potentially unrecoverable. Mr. Karzai said Mr. Ghazi told him that of that $800 million, the bank’s new management has negotiated agreements for the repayment of about $300 million, but little has been repaid.