Post-August 15, expatriate workers were well-taken care of and safely evacuated, says President and CEO of Islamic Bank of Afghanistan, Syed Moosa Kaleem Al-Falahi, in an exclusive Skype interview to Clarion India’s Executive Editor Shaheen Nazar
NEW DELHI – Afghanistan today is much more safe and secure for the common man than it was a month before under the defunct Ashraf Ghani government, says a top banker of the country. “Security was a major concern of ordinary residents of Kabul. Foreign nationals were especially apprehensive of moving out on the street. But now the situation has changed. Under the Taliban, people are feeling more secure. Expats are moving freely,” said Syed Moosa Kaleem Al-Falahi, President and CEO of the Islamic Bank of Afghanistan. The bank is the second largest, after Azizi Bank, in terms of branches in all the provinces of Afghanistan.
What Al-Falahi said in a Skype interview with Clarion India is contrary to general impressions outside the country. International media, including those in India, is painting a picture of utter chaos in Afghanistan.
When the Taliban entered Kabul on August 15, effectively ending the 20-year rule of the US-backed regime in Afghanistan, the global community expressed shock and dismay at the prospect of a ‘barbaric’ group leading a country of utmost political significance for world powers. The Taliban were quick to announce a general amnesty and gave full protection to foreign nationals.
Al-Falahi said his colleagues of foreign origin were well-taken care of by the Taliban. It took them a week or ten days to leave Kabul because flights were not immediately available. “During that period of their stay, the Taliban kept on assuring the expats of their safety and safe evacuation to the airport. They even arranged for an accommodation for them near the airport and provided food. My colleagues who are from different places in India like Chennai, Bengaluru and Delhi were impressed by the kindness and good behaviour of the Taliban,” he added.
Al-Falahi, who hails from Hyderabad in India, divides his time between Afghanistan and the UAE. He is currently outside the country. He had left Kabul on August 14, a day before the Taliban entered the capital. “I am in constant touch with my staff through phone calls all over Afghanistan. They say they have no security concerns,” he said.
Afghanistan’s economy is currently in a deep crisis. It has further worsened after the United States froze nearly $9.5 billion in assets belonging to the Da Afghan Bank, the country’s central bank, and stopped shipments of cash to the nation as it tries to keep the new Taliban rulers from accessing the money. Besides, the World Bank and IMF have also suspended aid to Afghanistan. These measures have crippled the country’s economy and affected banking services because the Da Afghan Bank does not have access to its own fund. “This is really tough. The new rulers will have to take this up with the US administration on a priority basis. If the fund remains frozen for long it would create many difficulties. Even if funds are received from other sources, it cannot be utilized because you cannot re-route it through US dollars,” says Al-Falahi.
According to him, the US has allowed limited access to Afghan funds for humanitarian purposes. “Good news is that money transfer services have been restored. Western Union has resumed its operations which they had suspended after August 15. It’s a big relief to everyone,” he said.
Banking services resume
The Islamic Bank’s top executive said that commercial banks in Afghanistan have resumed their services after a gap of two weeks. They have started with Kabul. Al-Falahi’s own bank has gone beyond the capital, opening more than ten branches in different provinces. “We at Islamic Bank of Afghanistan have 62 branches covering all the provinces of Afghanistan. Ten branches have started operating, and we are trying to open more in other provinces to facilitate people pay utility bills and also fulfil their requirement of cash withdrawals. We also manage lots of pension and salary accounts,” he said.
Soon after the Taliban took over on August 15, managers of all the commercial banks took a collective decision to declare a bank holiday. Banks were already losing deposits because everyone was rushing to banks for withdrawals. “Those wanted to leave the country, and even those who had no immediate travel plan, were eager to have hard cash. This situation brought huge pressure on banks. Some of them lost up to 70 per cent of their deposits,” said Al-Falahi.
He considers his bank lucky as the Islamic Bank’s loss of deposit was only between 30-40 percent, “may be because we are the only Islamic bank in the country. People thought the new rulers, or even if the old ones prevail, would support our bank more than any other.”
Indian banks supportive
All the commercial banks of Afghanistan maintain accounts with banks in India, and those accounts are fully operative and providing normal banking services. “Arrangement with Indian banks have not been affected because of the change of guard in Afghanistan,” he said.
Al-Falahi said that Afghanistan’s banking relations with all the countries including India, China and Russia were intact. “They are all very supportive. No country, other than the US, has resorted to freezing Afghan accounts. Money transfer and other banking services are available to us like before,” he said. Muslim countries, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are extending full support to banks in Afghanistan, he added.
Islamic banking system
The Islamic Bank of Afghanistan, which Al-Falahi heads since 2019, is the first lender in the country to apply the interest-free principles of Islamic finance in all its operations. It was launched in 2019. Taliban have indicated that the country’s economic system including banks will be based on Sharia. Al-Falahi believes that the goal is not difficult to achieve. During the last 20 years of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani’s rule, Afghanistan has prepared ground for it. Policies and procedures for Islamic banking have already been formulated and the parliament has passed a law in this regard. The central bank has set up a dedicated Islamic banking department with a reputable Shariah Board. Other conventional banks in the country also have Islamic windows.
“So, whenever a policy decision is made, conventional banks can easily convert to Islamic system by putting hardly 20 to 30 per cent of the effort,” Al-Falahi said.
According to Al-Falahi, his bank has up to 20 per cent women employees. “Some of them have resumed duty,” he said but agreed that in most of the cases women employees were reluctant to return to their job.