Even as tragic reports continue to emerge about Afghans trying to leave the country, others are thinking about how or whether they will continue to live and work in the new Afghanistan. Young Afghans in particular have little memory of the earlier period of Taliban rule in the 1990s, and many have grown accustomed to a more modern lifestyle, with easy internet access, a free press and a certain amount of protection for women’s rights. How will Afghans who remain in the country react to Taliban control, and is there any reason to believe the Taliban will allow certain basic freedoms to remain in place?
Saad Mohseni is the chief executive of Moby Media Group, which operates multiple TV channels and radio stations in Afghanistan, including Tolo News, the country’s biggest independent journalism outlet. Mohseni has also long been a major player in the Afghan political scene, connecting with Afghan presidents, foreign ambassadors and the country’s power brokers. Moby, founded in 2003, is one of the companies trying to figure out whether they can continue to do business in Afghanistan — specifically, whether they will be permitted to continue objective, critical coverage of the Taliban. On Tuesday, a female Tolo news anchor interviewed a Taliban official on TV, a surprising development given the Taliban’s long history of brutality towards women.
POLITICO reached Mohseni in London to discuss what the media landscape could look like going forward, whether young Afghans will accept Taliban rule, and what we should expect the Taliban to do in the coming weeks.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
HEIDI VOGT: On Tuesday, Tolo had a female news anchor interviewing a Taliban official. How did that that happen? Were there negotiations involved?
SAAD MOHSENI: We asked them to come for an interview and [this official] said yes. And he came in and we said this reporter will interview you, he said fine and he sat down, we did the interview. Simple as that.
VOGT: And was that a conscious decision to have a woman doing that interview?
VOGT: What message was Tolo trying to give?
MOHSENI: Well, we can’t beat around the bush. This is the new Afghanistan and it’s been new for 20 years. Sixty-five percent of the population is under the age of 20, the median age is 18. The point I often try to stress is how the younger generation of Afghans have never lived under the Taliban rule and that they’re used to media, they’re used to being able to freely express themselves. They’re used to social media.
But this is also the case for the Taliban fighters. They, too, have grown up in — whether it’s in Pakistan or parts of Afghanistan — they’ve always had free media. They’ve always been able to watch programs. They’ve had WhatsApp and Facebook and Messenger and God knows what else. And they’ve watched women on TV, whether it’s in Pakistan or Afghanistan. So it’s not alien to them. It shouldn’t be alien to them.
VOGT: But just because it’s not alien doesn’t mean we won’t see restrictions. We don’t really know in terms of the Taliban leadership if they’ve changed. The country has changed, but do we really expect that that has trickled all the way up to a leadership that has always embraced a very strict version of Sharia law?
MOHSENI: You’re stating the obvious. Of course. I’m talking about today. We’re taking this one day at a time. We’re taking this one hour at the time. There are essentially three phases, if one was to speculate. The first phase is: they consolidate rule over Afghanistan. It’s about forging alliances. It’s about getting rid of opposition. It’s about installing people in key positions to make sure they have security. It’s working on their international relationships, whether that’s with multilaterals like the U.N. or with governments. It’s important for them to continue to receive aid from different countries.
In that first phase, I think the media is going to be relatively OK, unless you put something out that’s very controversial. I think the pain threshold will be pretty high.
The second phase will be a transitional government because they need to have some sort of a government takeover. They need to have a cabinet. They need to have ministers, police chiefs, governors and so forth. In this second phase, I think we will see some restrictions because, despite what we’re saying, the Taliban is a religious movement first and foremost. And they have constituencies that will demand changes, whether it’s media or social behavior and so forth. So we will probably have some restrictions — or maybe lots of restrictions — in that second phase — call it appointment or installation of a transitional government or arrangement. And in this transitional period, they’re going to work on the state — what is this new Afghanistan going to look like? The state, the structures — will we have a parliament, will we have a constitution or no constitution.
And essentially the third phase will be the Emirate of Afghanistan. We may perhaps even have more restrictions in the third phase.
So this is the first phase. It may last a week. It may last a month, it may last a day. But I think they’re going to have a laissez-faire approach to media as long as we’re not pushing too hard. That’s one of the reasons we have to be a little careful because you’re dealing with individuals, you’re not dealing with institutions.
VOGT: In terms of planning ahead, are there concessions that you’re deciding you wouldn’t be willing to make? Are there choices in which you would consider shutting Afghan operations altogether?
MOHSENI: Well, we thought we’d be shut down by now. We’re surprised we’re still operating, and we’re trying to figure out what we do next. Like most things in Afghanistan, we’re sort of making it up as we go along. Because the collapse was so quick, really, it has caught everyone by surprise, including your government and all Western governments — including the Taliban.
VOGT: Taliban officials also visited the Tolo compound Tuesday. What was that interaction like for your staff?
MOHSENI: It’s always scary when you see a bunch of guys dressed like the Taliban show up in the compound. [The staff is] scared, but they’re courageous. Despite their fears and concerns, the head of our news and the head of our security went and met with the Taliban and spoke to them and asked what they wanted. They simply wanted information on the weapons that our security guys had in their possession. I think they have decreed now that all state assets get confiscated, especially weapons. So the ones which have been issued to us by the Ministry of Interior to our licensed bodyguards, security guards were handed back to the Taliban, but the ones which we had acquired on the open market were given back to us.
VOGT: It sounds like they are all right at this moment with your operations being heavily defended with armed security.
MOHSENI: Yes, for now. As I said, it’s an hour by hour situation. Things can change very, very quickly. We are out there doing stories and some of which are critical —and can be certainly construed as critical— of the Taliban. And, you don’t know, some guy may watch it this evening and may say “this is enough” and they send security guys to shut us down.
VOGT: You have always talked to Afghan officials quite a lot. You’ve said you’ve been having conversations with former President Hamid Karzai. There’s this transition council that he, Abdullah Abdullah and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are working on. Do you get a sense from them that there’s a possibility there? Are the Taliban having actual conversations with them or is that just wishful thinking?
MOHSENI: It’s probably both. The world, including the Pakistanis and the Americans and the regional powers, which includes the Chinese and the Russians and the Central Asians, they want a broader presence in Kabul than just the Taliban. But the Taliban have won. And so they in a lot of ways can do whatever they want. Whatever leverage people had is no longer there. Not the Qataris, not the Pakistanis, not the Americans. So to a large extent, they’re relying on the goodwill of the Taliban. But the Taliban have stated in discussions with us and also with others that they do want a more inclusive approach to things. And they also realize it’s going to work in their favor to have to have a broad-based government. In the 90s, they were seen as very much as a sort of a Pashtun political movement, the religious, political, religious movement. If they take a big-tent approach to governing, that’s going to bode well for the future of the country. And they know that having such a government is going to be good for them. So as a result, I think it’s being considered.
But the other thing we don’t know is, who’s going to prevail? The Taliban have [their] political office or council, and then they also have a military council. Which one of these councils will prevail? Within these councils, you have different identities and wings, so to speak. So even with the Taliban, there will be a tug of war. There’s always a tug of war in every political, military or revolutionary movement. So it remains to be seen as to who’s going to have the upper hand. And the next few weeks will be telling.
VOGT: Do you get the sense that the Taliban are having serious conversations with any outside government, whether it’s Afghan officials and powerbrokers, the U.S., others — about the transition?
MOHSENI: They’re talking to everyone, they’re talking to the foreigners, they’re talking to local Afghans, there’s a great deal of engagement between former and current leaders.
I think they’re engaging. Whether they’ll listen to anyone is another thing.
VOGT: It’s interesting what we’re seeing in terms of messaging from the Taliban right now — doing the interview with Tolo’s female anchor, saying women will be able to work, that there’ll be no reprisals against those who have worked for the Afghan government or its foreign allies. Do you believe any of that?
MOHSENI: I don’t know. It’s hard to tell because they have a constituency, right? That constituency will have certain demands that they’ll have to navigate. They’ll also have to navigate what their constituencies demand and what they can deliver.
It’s complicated for everyone, including the Taliban. How do you transition from this ragtag army of wild men from rural Afghanistan? How do you transition to a state? And what do you do with your fighters? Do they get jobs in the military and the police? Do you just give them a whole bunch of cash to go away? What do you do with these young, unemployed, 20-something-year-old Afghans from rural Afghanistan? They will have certain demands and requirements. So it’s difficult to see — they have these aspirations that they will have a modern, thriving state, albeit a fairly conservative one. But they have some challenges ahead.
VOGT: Moby and Tolo TV started in part with a large grant from USAID, and the U.S. government has contributed funding to a lot of its programs – for example, Eagle Four was about portraying the police in a positive light. Your subsidiary, Lapis, has run campaigns on behalf of the U.S. government. Do you worry about reprisals against your company for these U.S. ties?
MOHSENI: Of course we worry. We’re not alone. We of course were concerned that they may target us, view us as the network that was too closely associated with Western powers. But, you know, we haven’t lied about those things. We’ve been fairly transparent and there’s just there’s only so much in life you can control.
VOGT: Would you take U.S. money at this point?
MOHSENI: Well, I don’t think the U.S. has given us any money yet, but if we have to — it depends. It also depends on the laws inside of Afghanistan. I mean, if we operate in Afghanistan and they may make it very restrictive and you can’t operate the entertainment channel, will you operate your news network? I say yes. But then we will be forced to abide by local Afghan laws. We have to assess whether that’s good for us, whether it’s good for our brand or sometimes it’s just easier to shut shop and leave.
VOGT: And that is an option?
MOHSENI: Always an option.
VOGT: Things have been changing so quickly. There was a piece you wrote about two weeks ago in which you said, very declaratively, Afghanistan will not go back to the country it was under the Taliban the last time they were in power. Are you still confident with that?
MOHSENI: No, I’m saying the people of Afghanistan. You can’t go back once you’ve been exposed to something. You cannot unlearn what you’ve learned. When you realize that the earth is not flat, you can’t just reprogram your brain to believe it is flat.
There’s this generation of these under-30s who understand things, who have an open mind, who are intellectually humble, who are curious. You’re not gonna turn these guys into these hardcore ideologues who have a 12th-century mentality. I mean, it’s impossible. You can suppress people, but you cannot deprogram people from things that people understand, the knowledge that they have. You can’t just extract and squeeze out of them. It’s impossible.
VOGT: But we did see in the 90s when the Taliban came to power, that suppression was pretty thorough. Women were relatively free in Afghanistan before that and suddenly they couldn’t go out without a male relative, they couldn’t go to school. That suppression can be pretty complete.
MOHSENI: Most of the government officials and the well-educated people left Afghanistan in the early 90s. They went to Pakistan. They went to Iran. They went to those sorts of places. The better-educated people opted to leave. In Afghanistan today, unfortunately, because we’re landlocked and because of the challenges that we have, sadly, a lot of people are stuck in the country. Now it’s going to take them time to leave. And a lot of them may opt to leave. The U.N. estimates one and a half to two million people will leave in 2021. And just in terms of the IDPs, we’re looking at about 700,000 people just right now. So the problem is that the restrictive policies of the Taliban will force a lot of the better-educated people to look for greener pastures outside.
VOGT: I wanted to ask you what we can expect for media access in general. Certainly there’s the question of traditional media like your TV and radio stations, what will happen there. There’s also the question of social media. There are plenty of authoritarian governments that are able to control what their people have access to. What are you expecting along those lines? Do you see a way, even if Tolo were to move all of its operations back to your Dubai office, to still get information in?
MOHSENI: Yeah, absolutely, I think the state can create obstacles, but the consumer always finds a way around it. Whether it’s use of VPNs or satellite dishes, you can always get around the obstacles that the government can create. But will the government be restrictive? Yes, absolutely. Let’s not underestimate the Taliban. They will. I’m sure they’ve thought through how they can monitor things if they decide to become — as we think — a strong centralized system that will rule Afghanistan with an iron fist.
VOGT: Would Tolo then try to get its message in still, through those alternate routes?
MOHSENI: We’ll have to think about that. But it’s an option we have to consider.