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Interview: Saad Mohseni on Afghanistan

Last week’s suicide attack in Kabul, which killed dozens and injured hundreds, was yet another reminder of the destabilizing effects of the Afghan government’s fight with the Taliban. To delve deeper into the situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for a resolution, World Policy Journal Editor Emeritus David A. Andelman spoke with Saad Mohseni, chairman and CEO of the multinational media company MOBY Group, which launched in Afghanistan in 2002. The company’s TOLO TV is the most popular television channel in Afghanistan. In this interview, Mohseni discusses the media environment in Afghanistan, the ongoing conflict with the Taliban, and radicalization in the wider region, from the Middle East to Central Asia.

DAVID A. ANDELMAN: I think we need to begin, Saad, with that horrific Taliban suicide attack on your TOLO TV team back in January in Kabul that killed seven of your staff and left dozens wounded. So, I'd like to start by talking about whether that calls into question, for you, the viability of ever telling your viewers and the people of Afghanistan what's really going on in their country?

SAAD MOHSENI: Afghans are very resilient. We've been going through what we're going through today since the 1980s when the Russians invaded. I'm not saying you ever get used to violence, but I think that you develop this character that you can actually push back. Of course, this doesn't apply to everyone, and still I think people get traumatized. In particular, people who work for us self-select. They're very tough people who want to tell a story. They want to challenge what they view as negative elements within our society, so for the journalists and our employees, as shocking and as disturbing and as traumatic as the experience was, it didn't make them lose focus. We felt, especially immediately after the attack, that in the way they were speaking and attempting to tackle news stories they were going in the other extreme, that they would be become too aggressive. But luckily they maintained their neutrality and objectivity. And there was another attack [on April 19] that injured 300 people and probably killed as many as 30-50 people. So this is the story of the country, basically. 

DA: Is there anything that can be done to return the country to some degree of stability? Will it ever be possible to sort of neutralize the Taliban? We just saw this recent attack and it's horrific. It's right in downtown Kabul. 

SM: It's within a 3-4 kilometer radius of almost everything. We're unlucky to just be in a bad neighborhood. And these are not just domestic issues. We have the Taliban, whose base is inside Afghanistan. They have their camps and their training grounds outside the country. They receive help from some of our neighbors. And money comes from the Middle East, from foundations and from individuals. 

DA: In Saudi Arabia mainly, right?

SM: Well, I don't want to be specific because I think it comes from all over the Gulf. And this is one of the concerns we have—that this is not something we can do on our own. I think that it has to really be a collective effort. And I think that's one of the problems that we've seen in the region now and if you look at Iraq with ISIS, this has become sort of a global challenge. Because you have ISIS coming from elsewhere and the money is coming from another part of the country, it is not confined to one specific country or region. It is not going to be an easy problem to rectify.

DA: Before we go into geopolitics, let's close the loop on the news issue. Do you still think it's possible to produce a news product that in any sense reflects the objective reality of what is happening in Afghanistan, or to talk about the Taliban in any meaningful way?

SM: You’d be surprised by how objective we are. While we talk about terrorism and everything else, at the same time, the news guys are also talking about peace talks, about negotiating a settlement and what it would mean to have a more inclusive approach. So under the circumstances, you cannot be any more objective. I think everyone realizes this is not a black and white situation. There are lots of shades of gray.

DA: When you were at the Committee to Protect Journalists, you mentioned you and your team had actually had direct contacts with the Taliban at one point. Describe a little for us about the trajectory of your relationship with the Taliban.

SM: Even now, I think there are talks between the news guys and the Taliban. For a while, after they threatened us late last year, the day-to-day dialogue stopped. For a long time, when there was a bomb blast they rang up to say they were responsible and we were able to have a statement. So there is ongoing contact between Afghan media organizations and journalists and the Taliban. For us, we managed the relationship as a news organization. Of course, after the threat came in, we did reach out to them, both through the U.N., which continues to maintain a relationship with the Taliban, as well as through our own contact. It was important for us to ensure that if we could find a way to resolve this. We took the threat very seriously. 

DA: It strikes me that there are multiple levels or layers of Taliban, or facets to them. And there's a whole host of Taliban fighters, the really hardcore fighters, the ones who would become suicide bombers, who'll never come out to the table and talk with anybody. So, will it ever be possible to reach them and really arrange some kind of a viable truce?

SM: Well, I don't want to be cynical and say “no” but at the moment, given that they're attacking and killing hundreds of people a month....

DA: But are those the same people that would be coming to the table to talk?

SM: These are the people who are ultimately responsible for the murder and killing of hundreds of civilians on a monthly basis. So, if they were serious about talks and sitting with the government or with the international community and resolving this through negotiations, they wouldn't be this careless and this cruel, and they would not commit what they are committing today. They think they will prevail on the battlefield, and they think these talks are futile and it's too early. So for them, the reality is that they've rejected talks anyway. But even if they were to say, we're going to sit down and talk, they're simply trying to buy time. I think that they have no intentions of resolving this through peaceful means and a negotiated settlement. Not yet anyway.

DA: So you think there is sort of one monolithic Taliban rather than, say, a political wing of the Taliban and a fighting wing, which don't really necessarily talk to each other. 

SM: We are seeing the signs that the group is fragmenting. At the moment, they seem relatively united. But for them, violence is a means to an end, the end being a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan. And for a lot of them, fighting is an end in itself. The call of jihad, this whole ideology of the caliphate, of the spread if Islam, and of uniting the entire Islamic region is a real ambition. This is what they aspire to achieve over the coming decade or so. My concern is that even if they are serious about the peace talks, the organization will fragment further. With these radical Islamic groups, whether it's the Taliban or the Haqqani network or ISIS or al-Qaida, I don't see that much of difference between each organization. Certain policies may differ, but often their aim is very similar.

DA: Do you see them sort of morphing into one mega-caliphate that will present a major challenge to the West simply by virtue of its geographical reach?

SM: I view al-Qaida and ISIS as almost the same movement. They are basically motivated by the same aspirations. Even if they all call themselves ISIS, each region will have its own leader and they will have local and regional ambitions as well as bigger picture ambitions, which is sort of a caliphate. But the one thing you have to remember that the caliphate itself really resonates with these hardcore Sunni ideologues, and it takes them back to a time of a great Islamic empire 1,200 or 1,300 years ago. That's what they want to emulate and recreate. My concern is that even if they're called ISIS, they'll have different appearances around the region, but we cannot think that just because they are called al-Qaida in one region and the Taliban in another region and IMU in Central Asia and ISIS in the Levant, that we have resolved the issue of radical Islam. The concern I have is that they will continue to mushroom across the region.  

DA: So do you think they have some sort of coordination between them in some fashion at this point? Or, do you see that happening in the future?

SM: I can see that happening in the future. There is probably discussion going on between, say, groups in Afghanistan and, say, groups in Syria. But it could very well become real. There’s no doubt in my mind that you will see a working relationship between these different organizations. I think it's a question of money and resources. You’ll see money move across the region as they help each other out because they see a common cause. For instance, there's an American presence in Afghanistan, and it's in the interest of ISIS to further bog down the Americans in Afghanistan.

DA: That's interesting. Not only that, but now there's this concern about Pakistan. It seems as though the Taliban is reaching out to Pakistan in an effort to assure itself of a reliable stronghold, a supply channel, and eventually—our ultimate nightmare scenario—the possibility of securing a nuclear weapon. Is that your nightmare too? Do you see that potentially happening?

SM: If anyone assumes that they can create a puppet movement like the Taliban and then be able to control it, that assumption is very naive and very dangerous. A group like this will devour its creator. The radicalization of the region has been happening over the last 30 years. Kids today in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and a lot of these other places are far more radical than their parents' generation. I think there is a danger in Pakistan, with a population of 180 million people, that these religious movements could very well entice hundreds of thousands of young Pakistanis to join its ranks. The danger is, of course, a country with 20 nuclear warheads that is much more vulnerable, and the question is whether the radicals have started to influence the rank and file of the military in a place like Pakistan.

DA: All you need is a couple of people to spirit a nuclear weapon away from a facility and it's a whole new ball game. Do the United States and its allies need to think of Afghanistan like a Korea or a Japan, where we have a permanent and indefinite commitment of troops and resources?

SM: I think so. Unfortunately, in some of these countries, the antidote to radical, violent Islam is exactly that. In Afghanistan, luckily enough, there are ways you can almost say we've been immunized. We were exposed to the Taliban and radicals early on, and if you look at any poll in Afghanistan the Taliban's approval rating is about 10 percent. So the environment is conducive to having a moderate government that can be pro-Western—even to this day the international troops have a very high national approval rating of about 50 or 60 percent. The Americans have an agreement with Afghanistan that allows them to maintain a base here. If you look at the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when radical Islam really developed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is a fairly good model. If some sort of a presence is maintained to help sustain the Afghan government, and if we can defeat violent radical Islam in a country like Afghanistan, then there's hope for the rest of the region. 

DA: Right, but what finally drove the Soviets out were increasing numbers of young Soviet men coming back in body bags. The question then becomes, what happens if the next American president says there are too many boys coming back in body bags or the Taliban steps up its attacks directly against these foreign forces, and the president says Afghanistan just needs to figure it out on its own? What is the end game then in Afghanistan?

SM: Well, I think that's dangerous. I agree with you. Of course, there was always a risk of body bags coming through. But this isn't Vietnam. In Vietnam you would have as many as 600 or 700 dead in one single day and we haven't ever seen figures like that in Afghanistan. You need to train the Afghan troops and provide air support, just to have a minimal presence, which I think psychologically will bolster the central government. I think the Afghans are pretty good at fighting if they have the guidance and the support. Of course, it takes a long time to build an army, and the international community unfortunately started the process very late in Afghanistan. If you think Iraq is bad or if you think Syria is bad, Afghanistan is a very different country but it is so much more difficult to control because of its terrain. If Afghanistan were to ever fall to the radicals, it's going to be almost impossible to control them because Afghanistan is so remote and hard to reach. When they were attempting to get Osama bin Laden with rocket attacks and various other means, it failed miserably. So, we're in a relatively good place today. We have a government that is pro-Western, we have an army that's almost developed, and we have a public that's overall supportive of international presence. So why give that up right now when so much has been sacrificed in order to get to this place?

DA: You make a very good case. The only difference from Iraq and Syria is that Iraq and Syria are geographically in a more strategic location, they are sitting right on major oil facilities and oil deposits, they border Israel, which is a major concern of the U.S. particularly, and they are on major trade routes. In some respects, it is a different case with Afghanistan. You look back in history, when the British controlled the subcontinent, they washed their hands of land west of Pakistan back in the 19th century. The question is whether the Western powers will see Afghanistan as a lower strategic priority than some other parts of that region. Are you concerned about that?

SM. You’re absolutely right. The Americans would certainly view parts of the Middle East as more important. But I don’t think it should be a case of either/or. Unfortunately, it has to be a combination of things. Unlike in the 18th and 19th centuries, you can’t just hope that you can quarantine a problem in one specific geographic region. Today, jihadist movements are a global movement. You see ISIS fighters from Europe showing up in Syria and Iraq, and money coming from the gulf to help them, inspired by hundreds of thousands of supporters from around the globe. Presence in Afghanistan, though, will ensure that an eye is kept on Pakistan. U.S. presence, however limited, is going to be very important in Central Asia as well as the Middle East.

DA: Before we wind down, I want to talk a bit about your personal story. You now have a media operation that is at least on two or three continents. Tell us a bit about how that came about and what your belief of the future of MOBY, your multinational media organization, is.

SM: We launched in Afghanistan in 2002. There was no commercial advertising in Afghanistan, so we felt we could open a radio station but there was no way to justify it. It was interesting that we had some discussions with USAID, and they decided to put some funds into it. As soon as it started, we underestimated how popular it would be. It was very controversial: we were playing music, there was chit chat, and there were women on the radio. It became very popular when we expanded around the provinces, and two years later, we set up a TV station. In 2007-2008 we set up our first international television station, and now we’re in half a dozen countries. We like markets where things are difficult or where there is huge potential for growth in advertising. There are a lot of countries in our neighborhood, and a lot in Africa, that have these profiles. We don’t mind risk, and are willing to take the plunge and enter these markets. We are very excited about some of these countries and there is certainly a lot of potential in some of the markets we are active in.

DA: Do you see yourself eventually becoming a major multinational player in the media industry—though you already are to a certain degree—and eventually going public with the company?

SM: I’m not sure if we’re going to go public, but we’re open to different options moving forward. For now, it’s important for us to continue to expand our business, diversify our interest, which will, in some ways, alleviate some of the risks associated with these countries where we’ve established ourselves. In the next 2-5 years we will reassess, and who knows where we’ll be in the next 2-5 years.

DA: Well, hopefully, closer to peace in Afghanistan, at any rate.

SM: Absolutely. Amen to that. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera English]

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