27 April 2011

A case study in sovereignty as organized robbery

About two months ago, there was an attempted bank heist in Jalalabad, startling for both its brazenness and its violence.  I use the term heist loosely, as robbery did not appear to be perpetrators’ primary motive.  The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was apparently intended to target ANA and ANP personnel (the ‘puppet regime’s military’) as they collected their pay checks.  Unfortunately, payday marks an excellent time to pursue vulnerable government employees; they are all paid through Kabul Bank, an institution that cannot readily be accused of convenience.  Its generally obscure locations, terrible hours, and interminable queues make more akin to the DMV than a Wells Fargo. 

During the brash attack, gunmen dressed as ANP opened fire inside the bank an on the street and three suicide bombers successfully detonated.  All told, after an hours-long standoff with Afghan and Coalition forces, all the attackers were killed, as were 18 civilians.  Another 70-some were wounded.  The casualties were predominately civilians (the tellers made especially easy targets), but did include some service members and apparently the deputy police chief and local head of criminal investigations.  Much of the incident was caught on video.  It’s pretty graphic, not the least because of how nonchalant the violence is, so view with care. 

But the Jalalabad raid has nothing on the pillaging going on in Kabul.  I remember doubts about Kabul Bank’s stability first appeared on my radar at the tail end of Ramadan last fall.  In preparation for Eid celebrations, it seemed that everyone with a bank account was trying to draw money (only about seven per cent of Afghans have savings).  The powers that be at the Bank, Afghanistan’s largest private bank, began to realize that they might not have enough to cover the demand.  The reasons for this shortfall were a little fuzzy at the time, but resulted in something of a financial panic and a run on Kabul Bank.  Things were tense and withdrawals rationed.    

For a time, it seemed that Kabul Bank, or KabulbanK as its emblem would have it, had regained its footing.  The past few months, however, have seen some really breathtaking disclosures regarding the extent of graft precipitating the institution’s slow implosion.  It’s a terrifically sordid tale, comprising political buy-offs, corruption, collusion with the enemy, laundering of drug money, and palatial residences in Dubai for the shareholders and chief administrators, including President’s Karzai’s brother (not the drug trafficker.  This is another brother). 

Dexter Filkins gave the whole thing an excellent treatment in The New Yorker a few months ago that is very much worth reading in its entirety.  One of the article’s choice gems, however, includes the account of how two self-identified Kabul Bank employees handed Hamid Karzai’s (now former) finance minister and campaign treasurer (don’t even get me started on the conflict of interests inherent is that dual title) a briefcase with two hundred thousand dollars in cash for the President’s re-election.  It turns out that this was just one small illustration of the fraternization between the Bank and the Administration.  American investigators allege that Kabul Bank more or less funded Karzai’s 2010 candidacy to the tune of 7-14 million USD, in addition to shelling out bribes to members of Parliament for key legislative votes.  Overall, an estimated 900 million USD (that’s dollars!  US dollars!) are ‘missing’ from the Bank, having been doled out to influential politicians, businessmen, insurgents, and the Bank’s own executives.  This is a staggering amount in any context, but even more so in a country whose GDP is only about 12 billion USD annually.  In exchange for the providing the slush fund, Kabul Bank enjoyed an almost total lack of external regulation and the exclusive right to process government payrolls.  In a neat little twist, the deputy attorney general who was spear-heading the local crusade against corruption, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, was fired and is now himself under investigation for libel.

So what’s going to happen to these hugely corrupt power players, in the face of extensive evidence of their fraud?  Nothing.  These are trusted advisors to and ministers of the government, our partners in the COIN fight.  So the US is guaranteed to grin and bear it as these bureaucratic vampires continue bleed us of our resources and credibility.  The institutionalize nature of the corruption here reminds me of nothing so much as Mexico under the PRI.  I lucidly recall the guest lecture of a professor from UNAM explaining how, if a police officer wanted to send his son to college, he had no choice but to demand bribes of those committing petty traffic violations: it was the only way he would be able to afford the school fees, which were themselves somewhat augmented in order to entice better instructors and pad the administrators’ income.  This was the same story that barged to the forefront of my mind when my colleague was bribing the nurses for extra blood during his wife’s delivery.  Did they need the money to pay school fees or for the next time the ANP stopped them on some trumped up charge, looking for their own piece of the ‘informal’ economy? Who knows.  The corruption here is so endemic that every level of society, no matter how critical the service, becomes rife for a shake-down.  There is no government in Afghanistan – just a series of protection rackets or varying levels of subtlety and efficiency.    

And why am I brining the Kabul Bank debacle up now, months after the public discovery of the lost funds?  Well, it has finally started to hit home for our linguists.  Just like the Afghan security forces, our linguists were paid exclusively from Kabul Bank.  This was a logical decision at one time, Kabul Bank being the largest and most accessible in Afghanistan.  Given the very real concern about the Bank’s stability, Corporate has lately been withholding money over the last month, and linguists have been screaming.  Now the Powers That Be have determined that we’ll use a different, seemingly more durable (we don’t care so much about corruption, and have very little faith that the central bank’s receivership plan will work) vendor.  Of course, part of that stability comes from the small size; the bank de jour only has about three branches in the entire country.  Now everyone has to come up to Kabul to get a new bank card so they can get paid.  How do you think the war fighters on the Pakistan border are responding to that request?  Exactly.  These poor guys are going to have back-pay for months.

If it’s The Town in Jalalabad and Inside Man in Kabul, it’s Shawshank in Kandahar…  I particularly like how the Taliban refer to it as a political prison.  The spin is outstanding.  Now everyone is even more on edge than normal, especially as the breakout occurred immediately in advance of Mujahideen Victory Day, celebrating the fall of the Communist government in 1992 and general overthrow of oppressive external powers.  It’s tomorrow, natch.  Should be good times.