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Washington Losing Poker Game in Kabul

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 8th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
Poker Winnings. Photo: dcJohn. Used under Creative Commons license

Sherkhan Farnood, the founder of Kabul Bank in Afghanistan, is the focus of a front page New York Times article today. The 51 year old international poker player is held up as a symbol of the “pervasive graft (that) has badly undercut the American war strategy” noting that he owes the bank $467 million. But in reality, the powerful men behind the bank - Mahmoud Karzai, brother to the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, and Abdul Hasin Fahim, brother to the vice-president, General Qasim Fahim – are the real symbols of corruption in the country.

Kabul Bank has become the country’s best known institution because it runs the electronic system that pays out the salaries of 250,000 government employees in Afghanistan. But it has also played another role – financing businesses that sells goods and services to the U.S. military, such as Zahid Walid, which is owned by Hasin Fahim, as CorpWatch has chronicled in the past.

Zahid Walid was started by Hasin Fahim with the help of his warlord brother who had been a key ally of the U.S. during the 2001 invasion. The company won a series of lucrative contracts to pour concrete for a NATO base, as well as portions of the U.S. embassy being rebuilt in Kabul and the city's airport, which was in a state of disrepair.

Next the company started importing Russian gas, and not long after that, Abdul Hasin set up the Gas Group, which markets bottled gas to households and small businesses. More lucrative deals followed - beginning in the winter of 2006, Zahid Walid won over $90 million in contracts from the Afghan ministry of energy and water to supply fuel to the diesel power plants in Kabul.

In 2007, Fahim and his fellow shareholders at Kabul Bank, approached Mahmoud Karzai with an offer – they would lend him $5 million to take an ownership stake in the bank. “The only way to get contracts and protection is to have support in the political system … That was political survivalism. They knew they needed a Karzai,” an Afghan political leader told the New York Times.

The money flowed freely: Kabul Bank loaned $14 million to Fahim and Karzai to start Afghan Cement. The two men borrowed more money from Kabul Bank to buy villas in Dubai. Karzai even bought a villa from none other than Sher Khan Farnood.

In early 2009, Hasin Fahim and Mahmoud Karzai approached the president with a suggestion – why not take on General Fahim as vice-president? After Hamid Karzai agreed, Kabul Bank, together with another politically connected bank, Ghazanfar, donated millions to his re-election campaign.

Mahmoud Karzai soon tired of Farnood. "The thing is, he's not sophisticated enough for today's global economy,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

It is true that Farnood was not a sophisticated jet-setter like Karzai (who has run restaurants from Boston to San Francisco) nor related to warlords or senior politicians. Born into a poor family in Kunduz, he made his money running money lending operations in Moscow and gambling on the side. He made rash business judgements – his airline acquired planes with forged documents – leading to a fatal crash.

But it isn’t the only time that the U.S. government and its political allies have entrusted large sums of money to neophytes willing to do their bidding in the War on Terror. In Iraq, the U.S. hired Ziad Cattan, a Polish Iraqi used-car dealer, to work at the Ministry of Defense where he spent $1.3 billion on military equipment that was “shoddy, overpriced or never delivered” such as aging Russian helicopters and underpowered Polish transport vehicles. "Before, I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars — but not weapons," Cattan told the Los Angeles Times. "We didn't know anything about weapons."

"He was somebody we recruited, and we were taking a chance on him just like on everybody else," said Frederick Smith, a former Defense Department official told the newspaper. "Ziad is not a choirboy. But he was willing to serve."

The same goes for 21 year old Efraim Diveroli, who was awarded a $300 million contract in 2007 to supply weapons to the Afghan security forces. Diveroli and his partner David Packouz sent decades-old Kalashnikov ammunition in corroded packaging to the war, and repackaging and obscuring the origins of Chinese cartridges procured from Albania. "I didn't know anything about the situation in that part of the world. But I was a central player in the Afghan war — and if our delivery didn't make it to Kabul, the entire strategy of building up the Afghanistan army was going to fail,” Packouz later told Rolling Stone. “Here I was dealing with matters of international security, and I was half-baked (high on marijuana). It was totally killing my buzz.”

Handing over millions to flower sellers, stoners, poker players –  who gamble the money away - is it that surprising that the money for the War on Terror isn’t going very well