Afghanistan Analysts Network
2 Dec 2022
In the wake of the Taleban takeover in August 2021, the Afghan banking system, which up to then had been linked to the global banking network, collapsed. Reportedly very little money had been left in the treasury, and then overnight, the United States stopped flying in dollars, the central bank’s reserves held in the US and Europe were frozen and US and United nations sanctions made getting money into Afghanistan difficult. Along with the sudden shortage of dollars afghani bank notes also began to wear out and could not, until recently, be replaced with newly printed ones. The new Taleban authorities closed the banks to stop people taking out all their savings, thereby saving the banking sector. Eventually, they lifted some, but not all restrictions. For Afghans trying to use the banking system, it remains a hellishly difficult proposition. In this episode of our series on how one aspect of a person’s daily life has changed since the takeover, we hear from a young man about going to the bank.
Afghans queue outside a bank in Kabul. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP, 31 August 2021.Once a week at 11:30 at night, after dinner and the evening prayer, after the nightly buzz of my siblings playing around has given way to the steady breathing of sleep, my mother watches me with anxious eyes as I leave the house to go the bank.
The journey in the middle of the night from my house in west Kabul to the bank in the city centre is a daunting one. Robberies are common these days, especially late at night when people travelling in cars are easy prey for criminals who use the cover of darkness to rob them of their money, mobile phones, vehicles and other valuables. My mother worries about my safety. So she stays up and calls to check on me several times until I get home.
You may ask why I am going to the bank at this late hour. You would be correct in saying that banks are not open in the middle of the night. In Afghanistan, however, the collapse of the Republic in August 2021 touched off a banking crisis and the banks closed for a short time. After they reopened, they imposed restrictions on customers’ access to their own money in order to stay afloat and avoid a run on the banks. That included limits on when and how much money customers could withdraw.
Each bank has its own arrangements for making appointments. This is the procedure at the bank – one of Afghanistan’s largest – that the organisation I work for uses: commercial customers – businesses and NGOs – must send an authorised representative to queue up at night and wait until 1 am when a bank employee takes down names and gives out numbers to the lucky 55 people who will be able to conduct banking transactions the following morning.
This is why I, the finance officer of a small NGO in Kabul, find myself making this night-time visit to the bank once a week.
How much money can you get out?
There are other banking limitations; each week, commercial customers can withdraw only five per cent of the amount they had in their accounts before the Taleban takeover. There are no restrictions on funds deposited after 15 August 2021. You don’t have to queue up if you only want a statement or a letter from the bank, but you do have to go the day before to book an appointment.
Customers with personal bank accounts can withdraw only up to 200 USD or 20,000 Afs each week. They can book an appointment at any branch and they’re usually two to three days from when they’re booked. On the day of the appointment, the customer must arrive at the branch in the morning when it opens and wait several hours and sometimes an entire day for their turn. There are, of course, ATM machines, but I haven’t personally heard of anyone who’s managed to withdraw money from one since last August.
Transactions, for all account holders, are usually in the local currency, the afghani, but you can ask for dollars if the funds were deposited in dollars and if the bank has dollars available. Otherwise, you can take your cash in afghanis at the bank’s exchange rate, which is usually about 0.5 Afs lower than the market rate. It might not sound like much, but it adds up. For example, if someone earns 500 USD a month, they stand to lose 250 Afs, or about three dollars in the exchange – that’s the same as what it costs to buy 25 pieces of bread.
The waiting game at the bank
The morning after I’ve stayed up to book an appointment, I must arrive back at the bank by 9 am. I nod to the familiar faces from the previous evening and go inside to take a seat. If all goes well, it usually takes about two hours to finish my business, but if the bank has no cash, we must wait until it’s delivered. Sometimes, after we’ve been waiting until well into the afternoon, they tell us that the bank won’t receive cash that day and that we should try another day. There are also lucky days when I’m not withdrawing money and only have to make payments via bank transfers. On those days, I don’t have to wait for the cash to arrive at the bank, and I can put my hand up and ask to make the transfers.
To pass the time while I wait, I play games on my mobile phone, read the news, go on Facebook, or call friends to chat. The long wait is tiring, and it’s not unusual to see people napping in their seats while they wait. Sometimes, especially when the battery on my phone runs out, I talk to the person sitting next to me – light chatter to pass the time. We talk about our jobs, where we went to school or what part of Afghanistan we’re from. Sometimes, we talk about how simple things used to be before, under the Republic, when you didn’t have to go to the bank in the middle of the night to get a number, when you could transfer and withdraw money without any limitations from any bank branch, you could walk in, take a number and finish your transaction within an hour, even if it was super busy.
There are also usually three to four women in the waiting room. Women cannot register in the evenings themselves and must send a male colleague or relative to register on their behalf. I look at them and wonder what they do. Are they, like me, employees of an organisation, or do they own a business? But it’s not possible for me to ask them. I contemplate the possibilities for a moment and then I let the thought go.
When it’s finally my turn, I walk to the teller and hand over the transaction slips and other documents. As he’s processing the payment, I ask again about the restrictions and the possibility that they might be lifted. The teller looks at me impatiently and explains that there’s not enough cash, either in afghanis or dollars, to give free access to the thousands of customers who have funds on deposit with the bank.
Queuing up for a spot
So, as long as the banks keep up their restrictions on how much you can withdraw and what you must do to book an appointment, I must keep queuing up once a week around midnight. There are three checkpoints on the way from my house to the bank. I come to a stop at each one and the Taleban soldier manning it asks where I’ve been, where I’m going and why. I tell him I’m going to the bank. The soldier shrugs and waves me through.
By the time I get to the bank, it’s usually gone midnight and there are already about 25 to 30 people in the queue because people start queuing as early as ten o’clock to make sure they get one of the 55 coveted places that the bank gives out each day. Last week, when I arrived on a cold winter night, the queue was in disarray. The men were huddled together to get some protection from the cold, the fog from their breath floating up to the streetlight above. I joined the queue to wait with the others.
Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, a bank employee came out to take down our names. He noted the information in a small spiral notebook and told us to come back in the morning. As I walked back to my car, I could hear the sound of voices getting louder and more intense. I turned back to look. An older man was upset and complaining that this was his third night running in the queue. He said he’d come a long way from one of Kabul’s eastern suburbs. The bank employee gave him a gentle nudge and told him to try again tonight, maybe come a little earlier.
When I walked in the front door around 2 am, my mother was awake, reading in the living room and waiting for me to come home. I could see the relief in her tired eyes as she greeted me and got up to head for bed. She pointed to the clock on the wall and said I could still get about three hours sleep before the call for prayer and the start of a new day. I knew what the day had in store for me; after prayers and breakfast with the family, I would have to hurry back to the bank and start the long wait. A day of idleness awaited me until it was my turn to walk up to the bank teller.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Rama Mirzada