The world is rightly looking for ways to help Afghans without helping the Taliban (until or unless the Taliban forms a government the world is willing to recognize). Washington Post: “How to help Afghans without aiding Taliban” In this Post article Anthony Faiola states that “The biggest problem isn’t a lack of food. Rather, it’s the disappearance of what had been the lifeblood of the Afghan economy — Western cash.” This mischaracterizes the problems of Afghans thus confusing our understanding. In this note I attempt to clarify the “cash” aspect of Afghanistan’s problems.
But first there is no escaping the fact that the cut back of foreign aid is reducing the income (and the goods that income buys) available to Afghans. Mention is often made of the approximately 10 billion US dollars of the Afghan government’s funds frozen in deposits abroad. These funds cannot be used until a new Afghan government is recognized with the authority to claim them. But these funds are not part of the lost revenue to the Afghan government. They are the wealth–the previous income saved–of the government (whoever that will turn out to be). The savings that we accumulate from our incomes for retirement or whatever is our wealth not our current income (though it can be drawn on to augment current income).
In recent years (prior to the Taliban take over) the Afghan government’s operating expenditures were 16 to 18% of Afghanistan’s GDP while its domestic revenue was 12 to 14% of GDP. The balance of its financing plus all development expenditures were from donors. The hope is that squeezing the Taliban “government” financially will add to the incentives for them to quickly form an inclusive government meeting international norms of human rights. Unfortunately, it is not possible to shut off the flow of funds to the government without also starving the Afghan people.
While the Ghani government has been replaced (temporarily) by Taliban leaders, the institutions (ministries and agencies) of government remain, but with new management. Of the government’s operating expenditures roughly 80% was for wages and salaries. Thus, the government could more or less finance its wage and salary expenses from its own domestic revenue without donor support. Indeed, all salaries have been and continue to be paid in the central bank (Da Afghanistan Bank — DAB) and presumably in the other government ministries as well, albeit with delays. However, the real value of these incomes is being reduced because of increased inflation (an indirect form of taxation). DAB and other government agencies have largely stopped providing economic and financial data since the Taliban take over. IMF First-Review-Under-the-Under-the-Extended-Credit-Facility
None the less, freezing Afghanistan’s deposits abroad (DAB’s foreign exchange reserves held abroad) has created monetary problems within Afghanistan because of the inability to import the cash (dollar banknotes) on which the economy depends. Afghanistan remains a largely cash economy. Most payments are made in cash. Though inflation has been low in recent years (generally 2-4%), inflation in earlier decades was relatively high and thus Afghans held and transacted in US dollars quite extensively. Around 70% of bank deposits are in dollars. The availability of USD banknotes for local payments is thus very important. These were mostly supplied by the New York Federal Reserve Bank from the dollar deposits that DAB maintains there (and now frozen).
Prior to the Taliban takeover, the normal operation of DAB’s monetary policy consisted of receiving US dollars from the government (largely from donor grants) and depositing the equivalent value of Afghani in the government’s accounts. The government disbursed these Afghani to its employees in wage and salary payments (generally by electronic deposits to employee bank accounts). Without offset, the resulting creation and injection of these Afghani would be inflationary. DAB drains (buys back) this excess base money by auctioning some of the dollars it received from the government (sufficient to stabilize the dollar exchange rate) and capital notes of DAB. The government’s deposits of dollars with DAB took the form of credits to DAB’s dollar account with the New York Fed. From these deposits DAB pays the Federal Reserve to fly USD banknotes to Kabul as needed for DAB’s dollar auctions.
In mid-April 2021, when the U.S. announced its intention to withdraw the rest of its military personnel by September, an increased outflow of dollars by Afghans wanting to protect their wealth put the Afghani exchange rate under pressure. Acting DAB Governor Ajmal Ahmady (his appointment was never approved by Parliament) increased dollar auctions to stabilize the exchange rate. “Afghan central bank drained dollar stockpile before Kabul fell” As the amount of dollars in its vaults ran down, it used USD banknotes that it held on behalf of banks (approximately $700 million USD). The delivery of additional cash from New York expected in July never arrived and DAB’s balances at the New York Fed are now frozen until a new government is recognized so that no more dollar cash can be purchased from the Federal Reserve by DAB.
As an aside, I was surprised during a 2009 visit to Zimbabwe—as part of an IMF team following Zimbabwe’s dramatic hyperinflation during which it dollarized—to learn that there was an active private market in dollar banknotes supplying Zimbabwe from South Africa: “Hyperinflation in Zimbabwe”
In the days just before and after the American evacuation in August 2021 public demands to withdraw dollar cash intensified but DAB had largely used up the dollars in its vaults (both its own and those held for banks). In response, on August 14 DAB imposed limits on the amounts that could be withdrawn each day. This fed public concern that their banks were running out of dollar banknotes and triggered runs on the banks. DAB was even running low on Afghani banknotes, which might have replaced dollars. Without access to its deposits abroad DAB is unable to purchase additional dollar cash nor pay for printing additional Afghani. For a largely cash and heavily dollarized economy this drying up of cash liquidity is very disruptive and the basis of the statement that people can’t buy the food that might be available.
In addition to the cash shortage, Afghans are also lining up to withdraw their deposits out of concern for a possible bank failure. Aid cut offs and civil strife have damaged many firms resulting in arrears on their bank loan payments. This threatens to push bank illiquidity into insolvency. Even if DAB had USD and AFN cash to lend or sell to banks with fully performing loans, DAB is currently unable to buy or lend against these illiquid bank assets. Moreover, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the U.S. Treasury has sanctioned payments to many Afghan entities and activities blocking many payments to and from abroad by Afghan banks and uncertainly about the application of the sanctions regime has made banks overly cautious about executing payments for their customers.
UN and other aid organizations have experience in other countries with delivering wages and other payments to targeted recipiences (teachers, healthcare workers and potentially even government employees) without the funds passing through the government’s hands. This approach is needed and is being developed for use in Afghanistan. OFAC sanctions are being modestly relaxed and UN and other aid agencies have begun funding the importation of dollar cash for humanitarian assistance projects. The use of digital mobile phone payments, such as M-Paisa and HesabPay, should be promoted and exploitation to the extent possible. “Use of mobile phone payments” The United States needs to and has been gradually relaxing its payment restrictions to make this possible.
The Taliban leadership needs to take urgent steps to establish a new inclusive government that can and will be recognized internationally thus unfreezing Afghanistan’s (and DAB’s) deposits abroad and eliminating its cash shortage and restoring development assistance. In the meantime, in addition to the urgent need for humanitarian assistance that bypasses the Taliban, the New York Federal Reserve, or any other doners, should consider a loan to DAB to finance immediate shipments of dollar banknotes to Kabul. Da Afghanistan Bank Law adequately protects the central bank from government interference in its conduct of monetary policy and bank supervision. As a condition for restoring USD currency shipments to DAB, the Federal Reserve (and the UN) should obtain an agreement from the Taliban government to fully respect that law and appoint qualified people to its Supreme Council and Executive Board.
Until Afghanistan has a proper government, and its economic development can resume, Afghans, many of whom are very poor to begin with, will suffer unnecessarily depressed incomes. The lack of cash is adding a further, tragic, and quite unnecessary disruption to the lives of a long-suffering people. This can be and should be fixed urgently. Any such assistance will somewhat reduce the financial pressure on the Taliban, but a total financial squeeze on the government will fall on the people of Afghanistan as well.
I worked in Afghanistan as a member of the IMF program and technical assistant teams from January 2002 until mid 2015. I am grateful to Syed Ishaq Alavi for his insights and comments on this article. Mr. Alavi was Advisor to the governor of DAB from 2010 to early 2013, Director General Monetary Policy Department of DAB from early 2013 to mid 2018, and advisor to the Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund for Afghanistan, Algeria, Ghana, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, and Tunisia from June 2018 to August 2020. For the sake of their security, I am not naming those who helped me with this article who remain in Afghanistan.