Reliable information makes for better decisions – with Ajmal Ahmady

As the Taliban bore down on Kabul, Ajmal Ahmady – the then governor of the central bank of Afghanistan – realised he would have to broaden his information network to better understand the situation

12/10/2021

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Despite the wide variety of guests on The Value Perspective podcast, with whom we have discussed the question of decision-making in conditions of uncertainty – from investment and adventure, business and sport, the armed forces and entertainment, academia and gambling and more – a number of common themes have emerged. Prominent among these has been the importance of establishing and following a process.

There are times when that is much easier said than done, of course – and, as the Taliban bore down on the Afghanistan capital Kabul with startling speed in late August and early September, reliable information on which to base any sort of decision must have been in very short supply. What sort of decision process led acting central bank governor Ajmal Ahmady to conclude it was time he head for the airport?

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“In some ways, I guess my decision process was not very good because I was still at my desk the morning Kabul fell,” is the rueful reply of our latest guest on The Value Perspective podcast. “Perhaps I had too much optimism embedded in my decision-making process but the key point – as I said to my staff as cities began to fall – is that, in such situations, you cannot project out linearly.

Exponential paradigm

“You cannot say, well, it took five days for this to happen so it will take five days for another city to fall. In these kinds of situations, we tend to move from a linear paradigm to an exponential one and so, yes, having a decision-making process can help you understand the context. Is this becoming a discontinuous or nonlinear situation? Are things falling apart? And if so, what should I be doing now?

“The amazing thing is, when you are living through something like this – and even if you accept it is nonlinear – it all happens much more quickly than you expect. I mean, it was just 10 days between the fall of the first provincial capital and the last and, every single day, something is changing and you are trying to react but almost inevitably you are one step behind actual events.

“So what was the decision-making process that led me to leave on the last day? Well, once I did realise where events were heading, I talked to my security staff and the information they provided indicated they thought it would take longer for the Taliban to come. So one of the things I did next was reach out to more people and essentially broaden my information network.

“Instead of seeking information from one source, I started seeking it from 10 or 20 different people to try and triangulate for myself what the actual situation was. Frankly, at that stage, because things were falling apart, I could not rely on my traditional information networks  so I sought out more information and eventually decided to go to the airport, which is where the events unfolded that by now everyone will be aware of.”

Unconscious forecasts

To be clear, it feels odd to be discussing rational systems and processes in the context of what must have been a chaotic and terrifying time but, well, it is the point of our conversation. And so we ask Ahmady whether the information he and his team were receiving from the provinces, as key city after key city fell to the Taliban, perhaps led them to makes unconscious forecasts about how the coming weeks and months might play out.

I should clarify that the situation did not really start until 10 days before Kabul fell,” he replies. “The Taliban had been slowly taking over rural districts for months prior to this period so perhaps the mistake I and others made was to say, well, those are rural areas but they will never be able to take over major cities. But then the same sort of thinking applied, even when they began to take over major cities.

“The first to fall was Zaranj – a city of perhaps 100,000 persons on the border with Iran – so the thought process was, well, it is a smaller city, far away. But then, even as other cities fell, the government and the security sector indicated this was part of a strategy to consolidate forces in major metropolitan areas and so we discounted those cities falling – and we continued doing so until the very end and Kabul itself fell.

“That, I think, was the error in people’s thought processes. I remember, when Zaranj fell, I became worried but let it go. That was on 6 August – a Friday – and then, by the following Thursday, a number of important provincial capitals had fallen, and that got me very worried. Even so, I thought the other major cities would have been protected. As it was, everything fell apart from that Thursday to that Sunday. So just four days.”

Regime change

Within those last few days then, as it became clear a change of regime was imminent, was there some sort of checklist Ahmady had to work through to ensure, say, the Taliban could not gain access to certain assets and systems? “My focus was not so much on what they could access as two other issues,” he replies. “One was the bank’s international reserve and liquidity positions; the other was its staff and the integrity of its structure.

“As I say, some major cities fell on the Thursday and, the next day, we received the call the dollar shipment we were expecting that Sunday would not arrive. That would have introduced a large liquidity crunch and so, even over those last three days, I was focused on the medium term and resolving that issue. My thinking was a liquidity crisis would cause an economic crisis so we worked heavily on avoiding that, right until the last day.

“As for the staff and institutional structure of the bank itself, I had made some organisational changes so I could push power and responsibilities a bit lower in the hierarchy. I appointed two new deputies; I appointed someone to a new position of CTO; and I appointed technical staff, who I believed would be able to continue the management of the bank so it would not be left leaderless in any scenario where I would have to leave.”

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