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Afghan Media Pioneer Reflects on the Future and the "Disgraceful" US Withdrawal
Saad Mohseni reflects on the U.S withdrawal, the future of his award-winning media group, the fate of 'the new Afghanistan,' and why the Taliban may face more dissent than they think
As events unraveled across Afghanistan this week, I reached out to my friend and colleague Saad Mohseni. Saad is the Chairman and CEO of the Moby Group, an Afghan media company that has come to symbolize the ‘new Afghanistan’ that is on the verge of extinction.
The company that he and his brothers founded has been a vital piece of the history of the ‘new Afghanistan’ - a post-Taliban world spanning two decades that witnessed tremendous gains in access to women’s education and opportunity, the rise of an urban, savvy, connected population, and a younger generation (some 65% of Afghans are under 25) that viewed all of these dramatic changes as normal.
It’s hard to overestimate the extraordinary change that the Moby Group’s programming represented, whether they were airing Turkish soap operas or hard-hitting news. Back in 2017, I wrote a profile of Mohseni in which I wrote at the time:
“In 2003 Afghanistan, over a crackling FM radio signal, Saad and his two brothers started a media revolution. Though they did not know it at the time, they had just launched the most dynamic media company in their country’s history.”
After the initial success of their radio station, ArmanFM, they launched TOLO TV, a popular entertainment station and TOLO News, an award-winning, and hard-hitting news channel. They also launched Afghan Star, the wildly popular musical talent program modeled after “American Idol” or Britain’s “Pop Idol.”
The Moby Group also launched an Afghan football premier league, where games were played in the same Kabul stadium that the Taliban used for mass public executions, including of women. But in the ‘new Afghanistan,’ women played football in that same stadium. The country even boasted a women’s national team, sponsored by TOLO. In a sign of these tragic times, many players of the national team managed to evacuate this week.
I spoke with Mohseni via Zoom on Wednesday, a day before the terrorist bombing outside Kabul Airport that killed more than 90 Afghans and at least 13 U.S soldiers, and left many more badly wounded. The bombing also shook Mohseni, who tweeted this below a day after our call.
Our 30 minute Zoom call encapsulated much of what Mohseni’s life has looked like over the past week. We were interrupted two times - once by a Taliban official returning his call, and another by a British television producer reminding Mohseni of his coming appearance. A series of dings of incoming emails and messages served as background music to our call.
Sitting in his office in Dubai, Mohseni started off by describing his day, Wednesday August 25.
“Two Of Our Journalists Were Beaten Up By Taliban Forces Today”
“I’m chasing our latest crisis now. Two of our journalists were beaten up by Taliban forces today. They also took their cameras and mobile phones. I was just managing that issue this morning. We had to talk to the Taliban this morning and say: ‘Why would this happen? Give us our cameras back. And can you explain?’ The Taliban have promised to look into it and make attempts to find the cameras.”
“But this is the environment we are operating in now. There is this environment of impunity where people can get away with anything, as long as you are Taliban. And there’s not much we can do about it.”
“Previously we had people in government that were helpful. We had a safety net of sorts. There was a parliament and a judiciary and and we had the international community. It was comforting to think that we were not on our own. But we are now. We have no safety net and there really is no government now, so it’s like doing a high wire walk over Niagara falls every day.”
Talking to the Taliban and the Future of TOLO News
I asked him what he means when he says, “we talked to the Taliban.”
“The main Taliban point of contact for us is the Cultural Commission. Led by Zabiullah Mujahid, who is their chief spokesperon. He was behind the scenes before, but he has now come out openly. We had spoken to him on the phone for years but no one really knew what he looked like. He is finally out. He is technically responsible for all things media and culture. He is our main point of contact.”
What about TOLO News, I asked? Will it be neutered, toned down?
“The look and feel will not be different. We are interviewing opposition figures. We are critical of what is going on in the city of Kabul. Nothing has changed. But we’ve lost the bulk of our people who are usually in front of the camera for the entertainment and news programs. That is very painful because it takes years, if not decades, to build the capacity we have today. To lose it all in a few days is a painful reminder of how costly this whole thing is to Afghanistan. It will take us another two decades to get us to where we were in mid-August of 2021.”
“I understand why people are afraid and are leaving. I can’t look anyone in the eye and say: look, everything is going to be ok, because I am not sure.”
Our talk then turned to the US troop withdrawal. Saad regularly visits the US and is well-known in policy circles. He began diplomatically, by saying that “It’s not my place to say if the Americans should have stayed,” but he then went on to describe the execution of the withdrawal as “disgraceful,” even saying that “they threw the Afghans under the bus.”
A “Disgraceful” Execution of Withdrawal
“If America decides it is no longer in its interest to stay in Afghanistan, we cannot argue that point. That’s a decision for the American government to make.”
“However, it’s how you leave. If you are going to leave, yes, fine. Thank you for helping us for 20 years. But if you are going to leave, do it responsibly. The manner that this was executed is disgraceful.”
He was also pained by Western media commentary about the collapse of the Afghan defense forces, suggesting that they were not willing to sacrifice for their country.
“The reality is that 66,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have died over the last 20 years and to dismiss this as a complete failure of the Afghan military is really a coward’s way of dealing with the mess that you have created,” he said.
He went on to say:
“They really threw Afghans under the bus.”
“I think we needed more courage from Biden. He said that he will take full responsibility for this but, in the same sentence, he blamed everyone else.
“Everything worked backwards. They said they will pull troops out on this day and then they said: ‘oh, ok, when can we get civilians out? Oh and translators? Oh yeah, and then we have nationals? We must take out people at risk? What about the military transition to Afghan forces? We didnt think about that? What about security for airport?’”
“They tried to make everything else work based on this date Biden chose - this September 11 date. They should have developed a plan for how long it would have taken to do all of the things that needed to get done, and then chosen that date. Not the other way around.”
“They really threw Afghans under the bus. Actually, it wasn’t really a question of pushing them under the bus. It’s holding our head under the tire of the bus and telling the bus driver to go back and forth. This is what they have done to the people of Afghanistan.”
“Sure, the Afghan government was corrupt and inept but what about the other 38 million Afghans? Do they deserve this? We are going to look back at those scenes at the airport: all of this was avoidable. It was all avoidable. It could have been better planned.”
When I asked him later who he meant by “they,” he responded: “Biden, Ashraf Ghani (the former Afghan President), and the international community.”
Washington Was Not Paying Attention
Mohseni then recounted a story about a contact of his who is also well-connected in DC policy circles. The contact told him that “trying to get a hold of people in the White House in May or June to talk Afghanistan was nearly impossible. Afghanistan was not on the agenda.” He said: “They had decided to leave and, then: what were they thinking? Were they thinking that if we don’t discuss Afghanistan, it will just happen fine?”
“They were drawing down after 20 years on the ground with all of their commitments and people and NGOs and the Afghan military fully reliant on the US contracting system. Did they think they could just close their eyes and this would all be smooth? That lack of focus and attention especially in the last five months has been very costly to all of us: the US reputation, and to our people in Afghanistan.”
“Rory Stewart made a good point the other day. He said that after 20 years of US troops being in S Korea, their GDP per capita was lower than Congo. It took a long time for South Korea to get on its feet and prosper as it has and the Americans, 70 years on, are still there.”
“The U.S had 2,500 troops on the ground. That’s it. They were not on the back foot. They were on the front foot. The Americans have not had a casualty since 2019.”
A “New Taliban” Versus the “New Afghanistan”
I asked Mohseni how he sees the battle shaping up between the so-called ‘New Taliban” versus the “New Afghanistan”
“But look at the situation now. On the eve of Sept 11, Taliban is back. Yes, this Taliban is different. They are more engaged with the world but will it distance itself from al-Qaeada and other groups? I doubt it very much.”
So, what will happen to the ‘new Afghanistan,’ I asked him
“Well, let’s start with this. In the 2001, the population of Afghanistan was 21 million. Today. it’s close to 38 million. Some 65% of the country are under 20 or in their early 20s, so they haven memory of Taliban rule.”
“It’s a also vastly urbanized country. It’s a bigger country and for the Taliban to rule over this country, they will need to moderate, or there will be dissent. Unless they turn into a Khmer Rouge and kill hudnreds of thousands of people. Othetrwise, people will say: this is not acceptable to us.”
“There have already been women’s rights protests and flag protests. There is only so much you can do in terms of suppressing people’s demands and I think they will be surprised by this.”
The Future of the Moby Group
And what about the Moby Group, I asked? Where are you headed?
“There are two priorities right now: The well being of our people and continuity.”
“When all of this was going on, I said to someone jokingly: Ok, now, I can retire and go do something else. And he got very upset and said: ‘no this is so important for the people of Afghanistan going forward. Not just the political programs but also the entertainment programs.’ We believe now that we must continue. We must keep the programming going and the brands going.”
There was a pause in our conversation as he looked at a screen to the side.
“Uh oh, I think I’ve got the Taliban spokesperson on the other line,” he said. Just then, I overheard a British television producer’s voice on another line reminding him that he’ll be on air shortly.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Let’s talk later, ok? I‘ve gotta run.”
With that, our Zoom call went dark.
For further reading, check out Jon Boone’s excellent piece in the FT on “The Last Days of the New Afghanistan.” Cyrus Farivar also has a good piece in NBC News on the coming Afghanistan economic implosion, a theme that I visited in a column I wrote earlier this week over at Arab News.
Also, check out Saad’s opinion piece in the Financial Times today, and the always sharp Joyce Karam’s piece in The National on the curious silence of America’s top Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad. Enuma Okoro has an important piece in the FT on Afghan women artists. It’s a good primer on this thriving group, and what fate may await them.
And, for the best running commentary on Afghanistan’s economy, follow the Twitter feed of Ajmal Ahmady, the former governor of the Central Bank. Kamran Bokhari’s Twitter feed is also essential reading on Afghanistan and broader geopolitics.
And for all who want to help, there are several good organizations doing great work. Check out this list compiled by NPR. And a special shout-out to our friends at Lapis Afghan restaurant in Washington DC who organized a massive donation drive for Afghan refugees.
When I visited them this week, they were overwhelmed with donations and I was struck by the number of volunteers who were quietly sorting and boxing the delivered goods. The effort was led by Fatima Popal, part of the Popal family that owns Lapis and other DC restaurants. Here’s a piece on their efforts - At a DC Restaurant, One Generation of Afghan Refugees Helps the Next.
As always, we welcome your feedback, over at Emerging World.
Thank you for those who have written and commented on our work. It means a lot. After a bit of travel and catching my breath, I’m looking forward to a productive fall. We’ll continue to follow the big emerging markets stories in our daily news round-up, six days a week, as well as the occasional interview and my own column.
Our interview with Daniel Yergin - ‘The New World Has a New Terrain’ - keeps steadily moving up the ranks to make it into our top three most viewed pieces, still behind my columns “Globalization in a Needle,” and “Why Travel Matters,” and supplanting “How Downton Abbey and an Indian Hip-Hop Artist Explain the World.”
As always, thank you for reading and being a fellow traveler on this humble caravan of ours. We still have many miles to go.