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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Afghanistan Currency Shadows Political Ups and Downs

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's currency, the afghani, is fluctuating wildly, pushed down as rockets pound Kabul, sent up on good opium exports and driven both ways on rumors from neighboring Pakistan.


Bearded money changers sit crosslegged among mounds and sacks of cash in search of customers, exchanging afghanis at rates set early in the day after a satellite telephone call to Pakistan's North West Frontier province capital, Peshawar.


Millions of afghanis change hands in the two unofficial foreign-currency markets in Kabul that have survived two years of battles for supremacy between President Burhanuddin Rabbani and Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in which much of the city has been reduced to rubble.


Since the Islamic coalition government of the mujahideen parties took over from the former communist government in April, 1992, the afghani has fallen steadily, if slowly, before diving to historic lows in the past few weeks.


When the mujahideen came to power, the currency strengthened to 400 afghanis from 1,500 to the dollar on expectations of peace after 13 years of civil war. It plummeted to a record low of 3,500 on June 8 but has since recovered slightly to trade at around 2,750, dealers say.


Dealers blame political game-playing for the initial drop.


Just days earlier, Rabbani-controlled Kabul Radio broadcast a statement accusing his arch rival, the prime minister, of forging afghanis to pay his commanders and to undermine the economy.


Officials privately described the broadcast as a propaganda ploy intended to discredit Hekmatyar, and admit it backfired.


"This has had the reverse effect of what was expected," said a senior official who declined to be named.


In the booming afghani currency market in Peshawar, which turns over much larger sums than Kabul, dealers sold. The word reached Kabul and panic gripped the market on June 8. As the currency dived, the government decided to intervene to stabilize the currency in the only way it knew how.


Accompanied by a troop of armed soldiers, General Baba Jan, commander of Rabbani's Garrison Forces in Kabul, closed the main market at Khair Khana in the northwest of the city.


By the time he removed his troops later in the day, the afghani had climbed back to 3,100.


"The main problem is that Afghanistan has too little to export at present," the general said.


The foreign-exchange dealers disagree.


There is plenty of trade, several said, although it may not be official.


"There are lots of dollars because of the assistance to the (mujahideen) parties paid in dollars by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan," said one dealer at Karte Seh, Kabul's second market in the southwest of the city. "There are also dollars because of the opium trade for which people receive dollars." The government itself comes to the informal market to buy dollars when it needs to make a large payment.


But the commanders on both sides are paid in afghanis and flood the market with huge bundles of afghanis as they rush to buy dollars on pay day.


Dealers complain that Pakistani dealers set the rate.


The main, old market near the city center was looted and burned down shortly after the latest bout of fighting began in January. Most trade revolves around the Khair Khana market where several money changers now operate.


They set their rates in the morning after hearing from Peshawar. With the telephone service destroyed in rocket attacks in August, 1992, dealers now use a new satellite telephone service set up by a German businessman in Kabul to call Peshawar.


For traders in the smaller Karte Se market, finding out the rate is more of an ordeal. They must cross the front line between Rabbani's forces and a rival Moslem Shi'ite party to reach Khair Khana before returning along the same perilous route with their information on the latest rates.


But the overriding factor is political instability.


Rabbani's term as president expired on June 28 and in preceding weeks the afghani drifted on speculation as to whether he would go on time and fears that if he didn't a war that had simmered since Jan. 1 would intensify.


Rabbani stayed on, his troops swept opponents from positions in the city, rocket assaults increased and the afghani slumped.


"I think the rate for the afghani is not satisfactory," said a senior government official. "It is too low against other currencies, but if the situation improves, then there will be an influx of assistance from other countries that will strengthen the afghani."