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Afghanistan is rated third most corrupt country in the world, that's according to an organization called Transparency International. And the white whale of graft is Kabul Bank. The bank needs a bailout that may top $900 million, thanks to bad loans made to friends and relations of Afghan government officials. Of course, the Afghan government has little revenue of its own, so a bailout really means a bailout by the international community and more money from the U.S.
Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Kabul Bank appears to be doing business as usual, albeit with fewer customers than before.
(Soundbite of ambient banking sounds)
LAWRENCE: Tellers in shiny suits, each sitting behind a mechanical money counter, greet customers at a main branch in downtown Kabul. Nothing here indicates that the bank is insolvent, or that it's at the center of Afghanistan's biggest corruption scandal.
Mr. AZARAKHSH HAFIZI (Chairman, Chamber of Commerce): Kabul Bank was one of the successful businesses in Afghanistan.
LAWRENCE: Azarakhsh Hafizi, of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce, says Kabul Bank gave 1.3 million Afghans the chance to take their money out of their mattresses and enter the modern world of savings accounts, and even ATM machines. Deposits from widows, soldiers, and young Afghans earning a few hundred dollars a month gave the bank a billion dollars in assets, which Hafizi says should have been used to invest in Afghan industries.
Mr. HAFIZI: It was a tragedy story, but for Afghan economy, the Kabul Bank was a great opportunity to run some good businesses, to finance some good businesses.
LAWRENCE: Kabul Bank was a symbol of faith in the new Afghanistan, says Hafizi, but that trust is now in tatters.
The news first broke in October that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bad loans would probably not be paid back. There was a run on the bank, with long lines of angry customers and the government stepped in.
Soon after, stories about who had received the loans trickled out; some of them in U.S. Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks. Shareholders - including the brother of Afghan Vice President Mohammad Fahim, as well as President Karzai's own brother Mahmood - appear to have lent themselves huge amounts. The question is how to get them to pay it back.
A number of corruption probes are under way, including a grand jury investigation in the U.S. of Karzai's brother, Mahmood. But analysts in Kabul doubt Karzai will allow any of his few remaining political allies to be taken down. But they also wonder if the U.S. Congress can stomach a billion-dollar bailout for Karzai's friends and relations.
They may have little choice if they want to save the Afghan state, says Mustafa Kazem, a Kabul businessman.
Mr. MUSTAFA KAZEM (Businessman): As an Afghan-American and a U.S. taxpayer, my immediate response is: Where are my taxpayer dollars going to? And just as we did, I think, with the financial sector in America, I think decisions were made on who you bail out and how you intervene, to make sure that something greater doesn't happen.
LAWRENCE: If the banking system goes down, the Afghan government might go with it, he says. Kabul Bank and one other large bank hold 50 percent of the country's assets, and all the government payroll goes through Kabul Bank.
The crisis may soon come to a head. An International Monetary Fund delegation visited Afghanistan in mid-February and returned a stern verdict, demanding prosecutions and the return of missing assets.
Until the IMF gives the country a clean bill of health, many donor nations are legally prohibited from giving more money to Afghanistan - but not the U.S., which is expected to underwrite the majority of any bailout.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Kabul.
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