Saad Mohseni on losing colleagues to terror and running a media business in Taliban ruled Afghanistan
August 18, 2023. Series 7. Episode 71
Surviving crisis is one thing. Building a business empire in the midst of one is quite another. In this episode we are joined by media mogul Saad Mohseni – the creator of Afghanistan’s first news and entertainment TV network.
The son of an Afghan diplomat, Saad was born in London but spent his childhood years in Kabul until the Soviet invasion in 1980 when his family sought political asylum in Australia.
Saad found early success in finance before deciding that his future lay in the media industry – but not in New York, London or Sydney. In 2002 Saad brought popular television and news to Afghanistan for the first time with businesses including Armen FM and TOLO TV. But that came at a price with not only personal death threats but also terror attacks against his staff, including a targeted bomb attack in 2016 which killed seven of his employees.
Despite all this – and the sudden withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan two years ago, Saad continues to operate in a country now ruled by The Taliban. Determined to deliver accurate news to a nation facing so much difficulty, he has, so far, managed to persuade those Taliban leaders to keep him on air.
Saad has also been in the room with Presidents, Prime Ministers and Afghan leaders – and witnessed first-hand the appalling impact of political failure. And his account of the final days of the Afghan regime and the President’s delusion – told from within the bunker – is utterly fascinating.
So, this is a conversation about how to stay focused in an environment of chaos and death. About how to stay strategic against a backdrop of uncertainty and risk. And how to speak truth to power … even with a fatwa declared against you.
Saad’s informed and balanced analysis of the Afghanistan dilemma is definitive and most worthy of a listen for anyone interested in a country that remains a capital of crisis.
Saad’s Crisis Comforts
- Humour is very important
- Running in order to clear your head
- Classical Music – Rachmaninov & Beethoven
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host: Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Saad Mohseni: [0:00:00] And a taxi filled with explosives basically rammed into the back of this bus, and that resulted in seven of our employees dying, being killed on the spot, and fifteen injured, some badly. Some permanently, actually.
Andy Coulson: [0:00:23] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit subscribe wherever you’re watching or listening, it really does help make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.
My guest today, I’m delighted to say, is Saad Mohseni. Founder and CEO of the Moby Media Group, but a man who has operated at the coalface of crisis for more than two decades. Saad is the son of an Afghan diplomat, born in London but who spent his childhood years in Kabul. And following the Soviet invasion in 1980, Saad’s family sought political asylum in Australia.
After a very successful career in corporate finance Saad decided in 2002 that his future was as an entrepreneur and business owner, not in New York or London but following the US invasion in the challenging environment of Afghanistan.
Since then, with his brothers, Saad has built the Moby group which created and runs a number of media businesses including the radio station Armen FM and TOLO TV which brought popular programming and live news to Afghanistan for the first time.
Then came other ventures, including the creation of the Afghan Football Premier League for both men and women, astonishingly, and Afghan Star, a Pop Idol -style show watched by millions.
The support and praise of presidents and prime ministers in the West followed, the importance of Saad’s work properly recognised in Washington and in London. He was named on Time Magazine’s Top 100 List and by the BBC for his work battling gender inequality.
But against a backdrop of conflict, terrorism and political failure, Saad has faced crisis, professional and personal, as he worked to keep Afghans informed and entertained. In 2016 seven Moby employees were killed in a targeted bomb attack. Saad himself has faced regular death threats and at times has been forced to stay out of the country.
And almost exactly two years ago after the sudden and dramatic withdrawal of US troops, Saad and his colleagues faced a new challenge; the return of the Taliban. TOLO continued to operate despite the constant threat of shutdown or takeover from the country’s new rulers who are, let’s say, not exactly famed for their love of accurate reporting and entertainment.
Despite having witnessed first-hand the horrors of extremism and conflict, Saad is also a profound pragmatist, a man who can tell us what it is to negotiate, I suspect almost on a daily basis with the Taliban to stay on air. And he has somehow done so, whilst continuing to campaign against what one commentator has described as the gender apartheid of the new regime.
When the Taliban arrived, Saad put the leadership on air; a Taliban leader interviewed by a female Afghan journalist live on television. A truly historic moment for the country. That that journalist has now had to leave Afghanistan however, speaks to the challenges women are now facing there again.
Over the years Saad has also worked closely with, and argued with, senior allied military leaders and politicians in the corridors of power around the world. He is a man with views, and I would urge you to follow @SaadMohseni on Twitter, or X or whatever it’s called today, if you are interested in what’s happening in Afghanistan.
Furious at the chaotic and sudden American withdrawal, Saad said recently, “If the Whitehouse could erase the word Afghanistan from the dictionary, they would.”
So this is a conversation with someone who has operated at the epicentre of a country in crisis for more than two decades, who has witnessed the sometimes catastrophic impact of errors made by foreign powers, and who has seen how attention can frequently and very quickly switch away from Afghanistan, just as it is now with the eyes of the world, perhaps understandably, on the conflict in Ukraine.
It’s a conversation about how you progress, how you survive as a businessman in that kind of environment, about how you set aside the unravelling human drama that is day to day life in Afghanistan, to stay strategic and focused on a simple, important purpose: to tell the Afghan people the truth.
Saad Mohseni, welcome to Crisis What Crisis. How are you?
Saad Mohseni: [0:04:32] I’m good, I’m good. How are you?
Andy Coulson: [0:04:34] I’m very well indeed, thank you, and very excited to be having this conversation with you, which has been long-planned, but as it turns out very timely because as I mentioned, we are fast approaching the two-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
After almost twenty-four months of Taliban rule, how would you describe the current state of the country?
Saad Mohseni: [0:05:01] Well, it’s not that simple, like most things. There have been some gains. Security obviously is better, you know, we were losing up to two hundred individuals a day when there was an ongoing conflict between the Taliban and Allied and Afghan forces. So it’s, you know, the relative peace that the country is enjoying, especially in the countryside, is a relief to many, and I would put that as sort of a gain.
Corruption is nowhere near as bad as it was, and I’m sure corruption does exist. And if we are to believe the international community, including the Americans, the Taliban have dealt pretty seriously with the opium business, to the point that cultivation is now illegal and most farmers are unable to cultivate the- mostly opioids but as well marijuana plants an so forth. So those are gains.
The state seems to be acting more responsibly in terms of collecting tax revenues. As a matter of fact despite the economy having collapsed, they are collecting as much money as the Ashraf Ghani government, which is extraordinary.
On the flip side half the population, women and girls, are forced to stay home. At least in terms of being able to work for governments and NGOs and attend schools, there is apparently- there are more women now in the workforce because many are being forced to create small cottage businesses and so forth to be able to survive. So even that on the issue of women and women’s apartheid as you mentioned, it’s not that simple.
But nonetheless it’s just the idea that you can erase half the population, it’s beyond comprehension in the 21st Century, and that’s a real, real challenge for the country. And of course the government is not inclusive. Minorities are not really included. Non-Taliban are not included, even if there are minorities they belong to the Taliban movement. So you know, this country of forty million individuals is not truly represented by the State today. And of course people don’t feel included, that’s for sure.
People tend to ask me, “Is it as bad as the 1990s?” So far, probably not. But it’s constantly changing, and I think one of the concerns that we have is that it’s- the initial phase when there were signs of hope, basically, were they different then or was it just a lack of bandwidth, their inability to impose their will? They are slowly becoming more restrictive, but at the same time the leadership in Kabul, they’re mixing with the ordinary folks on the streets and government officers and so forth. Perhaps they’re even moderating as individuals. But the policies themselves are becoming more restrictive.
So we just need to watch this space in the coming months and you know, weeks and days, in order to see how the tug of war within the Taliban which we can talk about more-
Andy Coulson: [0:08:41] But the standard of day-to-day life has definitely gone backwards? I mean, the UN say that thirty of those forty million are in dire need of aid just to get the essentials in life.
Saad Mohseni: [0:08:54] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:56] That’s- just getting through the day, the basics of life, would you say have gone backwards?
Saad Mohseni: [0:09:03] Absolutely. The problem was that the West, they withdrew in a very chaotic manner, then in the two weeks between August 15th and the end of August they basically airlifted our best and brightest, a sort of flight of our most talented individuals, the likes of which we haven’t seen before. And thirdly, the imposition of sanctions basically brought the country to its knees.
So it wasn’t just a question of just getting out, there was also these sanctions hurt the Afghan people, essentially. I understand the argument in terms of not rewarding the Taliban regime while they have these very draconian policies in place, nonetheless it’s been a triple whammy for the nation.
So yes, people are on the verge of starvation. Every winter, or you know, months before winter, we have this debate again. What will the world do in terms of the twenty or thirty million people who are on the verge of starvation? And it’s a sort of a groundhog day scenario, it’s a repeat every single year. And I think one of the things that we often talk about is why engagement is important, and why the world needs to be a little bit more involved to at least help the people of the country in terms of making the economy more resilient and helping with livelihoods and so forth.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:30] In a truly bizarre video, the British politician Tobias Ellwood, who has made some very sensible interventions in the past, he got himself into trouble by suggesting that life is improving for Afghans under the Taliban in broad terms. Seemingly blind to the picture that you’ve just painted. His video was put to work pretty quickly by the Taliban, they embraced it as you’d perhaps expect. What did you-?
Saad Mohseni: [0:11:08] That’s always a warning sign.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:09] It’s always a warning sign, it’s never a good sign. What did you make of it?
Saad Mohseni: [0:11:15] I think his message sort of made sense about engagement, I think you have to engage with everyone.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:20] The core message of what he was trying to say?
Saad Mohseni: [0:11:21] The core message of engaging with- and engagement doesn’t mean recognition, engagement means just you talk to the people on the other side.
Andy Coulson: [0:11:28] Keep talking, yes.
Saad Mohseni: [0:11:29] You’ve got to keep talking. Especially to your, you know, with your enemies, or to your enemies. So engagement, that message is right. But for him to paint this picture of you know, this rosy picture of what’s transpiring on the ground came across as perhaps naïve. And I think the video contained a sort of cheesy background music which further infuriated people, in particular Afghan minorities and women.
So I think the core message is not a bad one, I think the UK also has checked out completely. Your government is involved, engaged in so many other things, China, Ukraine, the economy and so forth, Afghanistan is certainly not on the list. But also I think it’s been a scarring experience for most, dealing with Afghanistan. I think most British diplomats who were involved in Afghanistan suffer from PTSD, it was such a chaotic situation.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:18] You don’t say that lightly.
Saad Mohseni: [0:12:20] No, and I think it was humiliating. There was a conversation I had with John McCain many, many years ago, I became quite good friends with him, and he talked about re-engaging with the Vietnamese, and he said as soon as he got out of prison he was, you know, determined to bridge that gap, to get the Americans to engage with the Vietnamese. And he said it took almost two decades, because the humiliation of defeat in Vietnam just psychologically made it so difficult for the political establishment to move on.
And I think we’re seeing something similar with Afghanistan you know, the humiliation that the West suffered. I mean, it was a case of-
Andy Coulson: [0:12:58] And the losses as well.
Saad Mohseni: [0:13:00] The losses, the sacrifice, the money that they spent. It was a sort of case study of how we can transform a country, and then all of a sudden it was the scenes and you know, the scenes in Vietnam, you remember the helicopter trying to airlift people from that building?
Andy Coulson: [0:13:17] Saigon, yes.
Saad Mohseni: [0:13:18] I mean, the scenes of people falling out of airplanes, I mean there’s no comparison. So that humiliation was captured by cameras and so forth, and this is a different day and age of course. And I think it’s going to be very difficult for the West to re-engage in a meaningful way.
Andy Coulson: [0:13:38] You hinted at it there in your relationship with McCain, but you have relationships in Washington at the highest levels. You know, you are someone that the West has often turned to for analysis, understanding and everything else that you’re able to bring in terms of the situation in Afghanistan.
You were furious with the nature of the withdrawal and the way in which it was executed, weren’t you?
Saad Mohseni: [0:14:06] Yes. I just read this excellent book by Martin Indyk on Kissinger’s Middle East shuttle diplomacy, which looking back now, fifty years on, was pretty effective in keeping the peace between Israel and its neighbours, and how he negotiated. That’s the model of how you negotiate, and how they negotiated with the Taliban is the exact opposite. They had a deal with the Taliban before getting a deal with the other side, and then they basically you know, announced that they were going to leave.
And why were they surprised, the nature of the collapse? Why would you be surprised that the county collapses in the way that it did?
And Afghanistan, it’s always been the case of just people switching sides. If you radio ahead and say, “We’re going to leave in six months,” it’s very natural for Afghan military commanders, local warlords and tribal chiefs to basically say, “For us to survive we need to switch sides.” So it’s just-
Andy Coulson: [0:15:09] There was also a tremendous loss of life amongst the Afghan army as well, right? The fighting continued for- a lot of people lost their lives in that interim period as well. It wasn’t a complete switch, was it? An overnight switch.
Saad Mohseni: [0:15:22] But they also made other mistakes, in that they built the Afghan military in the mould of the US military, heavily reliant on contractors. But most of the contractors were US government contractors. When the Americans announced that they would pull out in mid-April the contractors left within a week or two. So they could not service the aircraft and maintain them, they could not get ammo out to units across the country. Even on policy and planning and strategy there was a huge vacuum left because the Americans were so closely involved.
Post-April the Americans basically said, “Hey, we’re getting out. You’re on your own.” And I think that they said it in a nice way on the ground, but the policy was set in Washington. And throughout this period between April and August, only four months, there were no serious attempts to bridge these gaps in terms of how to help the Afghan military.
And of course it’s always more than that, it’s more complicated. The Afghan government was also fairly inept, not fairly, it was quite inept in terms of choosing the right people to command, choosing the right ministers and so forth. So it was a combination of failures that contributed to that disastrous August 15th collapse.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:41] Is there a conversation that you remember, at that sort of senior level in Washington? Were you able to vent your fury at any point in advance or since?
Saad Mohseni: [0:16:49] Well, I think you have to be pragmatic. You know, we can’t afford just to be angry, or happy for that matter, and I think it’s got to be like, you know, what’s the issue, what are the issues? But I had conversations with senior US government officials and of course senior Afghan officials including the President himself. He was completely delusional.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:09] You spoke to him before he left the country for UAE?
Saad Mohseni: [0:17:16] Yes, two weeks before the collapse of the government, and I went to see him twice actually within twenty four hours. The country was collapsing around him and yet he believed that he would prevail, this idea. And at that time, even months before that, our thinking was that you have to go and seriously negotiate with the Taliban with the view of giving up power and creating some sort of an interim arrangement.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:47] You told him that?
Saad Mohseni: [0:17:50] Well, I told him that in November of 2020 before the US elections, I think a day or two before the US elections, in October of 2020. But by late July of 2021, which was the last time saw him, it was a question of- it was the nuclear option. At that time the interim administration wasn’t on the cards, basically, it was too late for that. So it was about you know, how do we transition so we don’t have anarchy in Kabul and across the country?
Andy Coulson: [0:18:30] You met him in his bunker, effectively?
Saad Mohseni: [0:18:31] I met him at the palace. But the palace was- the Presidential Palace in Afghanistan which is the old Royal Palace is very serene, very beautiful, beautiful gardens, you are so detached from you know, Afghanistan the country, that within a kilometre or two it’s just chaos; traffic jams, people screaming at each other, you know, full of people. And yet in the palace it’s just serene and-
Andy Coulson: [0:18:58] It’s completely detached from reality.
Saad Mohseni: [0:19:00] It’s completely- if you want to go and meditate, that’s the place where you go and meditate basically, it’s so peaceful.
So I think that has an impact. I think that isolation has an impact. He was a deeply flawed man, he should not have been the President. It was even questionable how he became President, there was a lot of fraud in the elections in 2014 and then of course also in 2019.
But anyway, we can look back and shake our heads but it is what it is, right?
Andy Coulson: [0:19:34] Let’s go back, Saad, to your decision to devote so much of your energy and life back into Afghanistan. You’d been working as I said in finance very successfully. There were all number of options open to you in terms of your professional future, but you decided that Afghanistan was where you would build your business.
Tell me about that choice, what sat behind it?
Saad Mohseni: [0:20:03] Well, you mentioned that my father was a diplomat and we had lived outside of Afghanistan, it was London, Islamabad, Tokyo for many, many years. But yet somehow we were not like your typical immigrants in that we’d left Afghanistan and we were content to start a new life. For us we were always Afghans, we spoke Persian at home and we remained very connected to our country and our culture and our people.
So in the 1990s if you recall, the Russians left in 1989, the Communist regime somehow survived until 1992 and then all of a sudden that regime collapsed. And then we had the freedom fighters, the Mujahideen who prevailed and took power in Kabul. There was a brief window where a lot of people thought, “Hold on, this is the new Afghanistan, we could go back and do something in the country.” And many people did not go back.
And then what followed was a sort of nasty civil war, Kabul was totally destroyed, and that essentially was what led to the creation of the Taliban in the ‘90s. But anyhow, a lot of us who witnessed that felt that if there was ever another opportunity to go back and do something we’d go back.
After 9/11 and the invasion of the country, and this new government that was put together in Bonn and then of course through various local assemblies was endorsed by the Afghans, it sort of provided us with that opportunity to go back and do what we could.
Andy Coulson: [0:21:48] It was opportunity in crisis though, wasn’t it?
Saad Mohseni: [0:21:51] Yes I think-
Andy Coulson: [0:21:52] It was a country in crisis.
Saad Mohseni: [0:21:53] But crisis always provides you with an opportunity.
Andy Coulson: [0:21:56] You believe that, I know.
Saad Mohseni: [0:21:57] I believe that. That crises of- everything provides you with an opportunity.
So we thought we should go back and we went back in 2002. The idea was not to go back and live there full time, the idea was to invest and to stay engaged. But then we set up this radio station which was very controversial, it sort of sucked us all in basically.
Andy Coulson: [0:22:22] You created a modern populist radio station, right?
Saad Mohseni: [0:22:29] It’s like a fun, music, chat, some news, radio station. It was very controversial, and very popular by the way. We got dragged into it kicking and screaming. But it wasn’t by design, I have to tell you, it was almost an accidental business, as many things happen in life.
And then of course that led to the first TV station and then other TV stations and other platforms and so forth, and then going outside the country of course as well.
But yes, the twenty years went like a flash basically.
Andy Coulson: [0:23:06] What does it say about your personal make-up, do you think, the decision to-? Because you’re right, you identified a commercial opportunity, and there was the emotion of the fact that it was Afghanistan, had been an important place in your heritage and in your life. But what does it say about your make-up that you were so keen to run towards what you knew would be a very, very challenging business environment, let alone spending time living there?
Saad Mohseni: [0:23:34] It was wonderful to be in Afghanistan. It’s quite a magical place. Kabul in particular is a great city; a high altitude city surrounded by hills, it’s sort of the garden city of Central Asia where Babur, the man who conquered India, the founder of the Mughal empire, wanted to be buried in Kabul. So it has something about it, I have no doubts about it. And others who have visited it, foreigners as well as Afghans, agree with me on that. So I think it was a magical place to be in.
But of course, post-2001 all the action was in Afghanistan. It was sort of the model country that the world was going to transform, so there was a lot of excitement, lots of diplomats, lots of activity, lots of business.
But you know, so many young people nowadays talk about their careers and wanting to become bankers or finance people or IT people, technology people, but I think at the end of the day, you know, mostly are attracted by the financial rewards. But I think you also have to have some passion for what you’re doing, what you’re embarking on. And I think we were passionate about a lot of things, but Afghanistan in particular we were very passionate about. But there was also this enormous opportunity for us to shape things in a positive way and contribute to the reconstruction of the country. So it was exciting, amongst other things.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:05] The childhood years that you spent in Afghanistan, bright memories of that period of your life? And when you went back as a businessman that was in your mind as well, that kind of reconnection with your past in that way and with your childhood?
Saad Mohseni: [0:25:21] Most people’s childhood memories are wonderful. For us they were mostly wonderful but you know, there were occasions especially towards the end when the Communists took over the country, where I witnessed fighting on the streets. It was jarring and traumatic.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:40] Tell me a bit more about that. You’re what age at this stage?
Saad Mohseni: [0:25:42] I’m twelve, I think twelve and three days. It’s a Thursday, which is your equivalent of a Friday, so the weekend is ahead. They had not celebrated my birthday because it happened during the week. So the idea was on Thursday after school that friends and family would gather in my house and we’d celebrate my birthday, so it was an important day.
But two days before, or a day before, the President had- at that time Dahoud, had arrested his coalition partners of sorts. He had basically forged a sort of unholy alliance with the Communists to topple his cousin, who was King of Afghanistan, and created this Republic, in name only. He was a King but cloaked in a President’s outfit. But then he tried to move against his Communist allies and he had them all arrested.
And then on that fateful day, I think it was 25th April 1978, they struck back. Basically there was a coup and they toppled Dahoud, killed his family and many of his closest individuals, and then the Communists took over for two years and then the Russians invaded in 1980.
So what I witnessed as a twelve year old was- our school was right next to the President’s office. So the Presidential Palace, the French Lycée which I attended as a seventh grader, and then there was this fighting, there were shots being fired. And then the school basically had no option, they just opened the gates and kids ran out. What I did was I-
Andy Coulson: [0:27:42] Ran out with the sound of gunfire in your ears.
Saad Mohseni: [0:27:45] Yes, windows breaking and so forth, because they were attacking it from all directions; from the air, from the ground. We couldn’t see where the bullets were coming from but certainly there was a lot of shooting.
Andy Coulson: [0:27:57] My God.
Saad Mohseni: [0:27:58] And then, what I did was we left the school, I went the opposite direction, I wanted to see where my mother was. Because at that time I think she was working at the Ministry of Planning. I went to the square where there was heavy fighting, and then for me as a twelve year old it was very traumatic because a) I wasn’t sure what was happening to my mum, and secondly you know, to see people which I assume were dead on the ground having been shot. And then I ran back, which I think would have been three or four kilometres for a twelve year old, as fast as I could in the other direction, caught the bus and went home. And then of course my mum was there and the family was there and everyone was safe.
But I think it was traumatic for a twelve year old to witness that, because don’t forget, up until 1978 Afghanistan had not experienced anything like that. We were unaccustomed to violence, to fighting, to anything that resembled what followed.
Andy Coulson: [0:28:52] Yes, yes.
Saad Mohseni: [0:28:54] So it was a scary-
Andy Coulson: [0:28:55] Which is often forgotten, right? That in many ways this is still a very modern crisis, isn’t it? The Taliban are a very modern organisation, born out of the ‘90s.
Saad Mohseni: [0:29:07] Well, essentially born out of West adventures and trying to create this beartrap for the Soviets. And also in 1980 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and for the West there was an opportunity to make them pay a price. Just like the Americans paid in Vietnam, it became the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.
So anyway, it started in 1978, April 25, and I was there to witness. And then of course the whole afternoon when I got home we could see hundreds of tanks going towards central Kabul to confront the President or whatever resistance there was left. So it was scary for us. And then the announcements on the radio, a new regime in town and so forth. It was a very uncertain period.
Andy Coulson: [0:30:01] I guess that’s what sat behind my earlier question, is that for a lot of people who would have experienced that as a twelve year old, they would have had the reverse, it would have caused them to think in an entirely different way to the way that you thought. I think a lot of people having experienced that as a twelve year old would have thought, “As much as I love my country, as much as I have also positive memories, I have this attachment to this beautiful place, this is not where I’m going to build my life,” with those memories in your mind. But you didn’t, you went back.
And the motivation for that- I know, business aside, the motivation for that was because you felt you could what, put things right in some way? That actually there was a real opportunity for real and lasting change, is that what was driving you?
Saad Mohseni: [0:30:49] Well, I think you think, and maybe I’m delusional, that you can contribute in your own small way. I think that’s probably perhaps one. But it’s also you’re part of something much bigger, and I think that’s also interesting. The country, and I have to mention that over the last two decades the country, the people have changed. It’s a totally transformed country.
The West may see its role in Afghanistan as a failure, but they succeeded in terms of educating people. Life expectancy has gone up by 50%, infrastructure has been built, but Afghans themselves see themselves differently. You’re dealing with a much more sophisticated, better educated populus. Median age of eighteen, the youngest country outside of sub-Saharan Africa. The population is still growing at 2.5 to 3%. Forty million people today, twenty million in 2002. Twenty million to forty million in two decades, and expected to go up to about one hundred million by 2060 or 2065, it’ll be the sixteenth largest country in the world if the birth rates continue.
So it’s a transformed country and I think, you know, I think for the better. And I think that even today if the Taliban are in Kabul and are engaging with people, you know, they see people, they deal with them on a daily basis. I think the people are also impacting the Taliban in terms of how they see things and how they perceive things.
But anyway yes, it was jumping into the fire I think in a lot of ways, and I think you can either get paralysed and just walk away from it or you can go back in.
We’ve gone back in a couple of times.
Andy Coulson: [0:32:39] Yes, and you’re still there now, which we’ll get onto.
Saad, let’s go to January 20th 2016, so we’re shooting right forward here. A terrorist attack targeted your team at TOLO, your TV station. Can you tell us what happened on that day?
Saad Mohseni: [0:32:59] We had done a story, there’s a city in Northern Afghanistan called Kunduz. The Taliban briefly took over the city and then they were dislodged and pushed back by Afghan allied forces. But there was a building where a lot of female students would stay at, basically, like a boarding house. What had happened was that the Afghan Intelligence Agency had told our reporters that some women had been attacked and so forth, and that our guys had reported that story, according to the Afghan intelligence sources.
Now, we discovered that the girls were not there. It was during their break and they had fled the city way before the Taliban showed up. They sort of basically corrected the story in subsequent bulletins, but the Taliban wanted a specific apology for that, and our editors- you know, we over the years have not interfered in their day-to-day work, were adamant that they had done things by the book.
But the Taliban took that very seriously, and basically a fatwah was issued to punish us and our employees. I think attempts were made to discuss this with the Taliban-
Andy Coulson: [0:34:24] How was that first communicated to you?
Saad Mohseni: [0:34:26] They issue a statement. They issued a statement that was, you know, all your messages, and then a proper fatwah with a statement that the company there-
So we were on guard and we understood that this threat was imminent, and then of course meanwhile we talked to the government in terms of better protecting us and our people as well as talking to the Taliban and saying this makes no sense, and trying to, you know, to argue with them. Because we always had a relationship with the Taliban, as a media organisation does.
But then on January 20th they had followed our bus, we had dozens of buses that would transport the employees to their homes, and a taxi filled with explosives basically rammed into the back of this bus. And that resulted in seven of our employees dying, being killed on the spot, and fifteen injured, some badly. Some permanently, actually.
At that time I was in Bombay, in Mumbai, and we reported on the story that there was an attack on a bus, casualties unknown, and then we would update the story throughout the evening. So basically that story was covered by us, not knowing exactly-
Andy Coulson: [0:35:45] Not knowing who was on the bus.
Saad Mohseni: [0:35:47] Who was on the bus. And then of course one of my employees rang up and said, “Listen, I can’t reach people. I think this is connected.” And as soon as he said that, I knew that this was perhaps the attack we were hoping to not experience or not to face. So then I just caught a flight, went to Dubai, caught another flight, got to Kabul by 6am, visited the hospital where so many of the injured were being cared for, and then visited some of the families of the victims.
Andy Coulson: [0:36:22] And these are people who had done a whole range of different jobs for TOLO, right?
Saad Mohseni: [0:36:25] None of them were news people, ironically, they were production people, logistics people, creative people. And they were kids, and some of them had worked for us for years. And when they work for you and you see their faces and you speak to them, they become like members of your own family, your own kids. So it was very painful for us, but of course more painful for the families because many were the only income earners in those families, these impoverished poor Afghans, having their kids work- their only hope sometimes is that your only son who works in an organisation, or your only daughter. And it was a very, very painful circumstance.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:12] How did you manage that, Saad? Just for a moment, I mean, as the leader of the organisation how did you approach something that was such a tragic, painful exercise, that also I suspect perhaps threatened the existence of the- it must have, I imagine, caused fundamental questions to be asked about, “Can we continue? Are we able to do this when we’re under such attack? Or not? Did it have the reverse effect? Did it create even more resilience? What was your sort of approach to it?
Saad Mohseni: [0:37:54] I think for me- if someone asked me, “If you could save a life and shut down your organisation, save your employees,” I’d have to think about that. Because I think it’s- I cannot act that stoic and say, “Hey, we can continue and this is a price we have to pay.” For me it was- I was actually prepared to shut the operation down. And I put this to my employees. You know, we had a meeting in the morning and we- we’d given everyone the day off, we assumed that only a dozen people would show up. Hundreds of kids showed up.
Andy Coulson: [0:38:33] Goodness.
Saad Mohseni: [0:38:35] It was cold, it was January, Kabul gets very cold. I addressed my employees and I said, “Listen. What has happened is tragic. It’ll take a while for it to sink in,” because I think we were still in shock at that time. But I said, “I am open to the idea of just locking the place up and walking away from it. If you think so.”
The reaction from the employees was quite different. They were much more- they were angry. They were shocked obviously, but they were more angry than- maybe they were intimidated but they didn’t want to show it. But they seemed much more aggressive, they were much more gung-ho. And they wanted to sort of confront this head-on. Which was also not something we wanted to do, because I argued in that meeting that our job is- we’re the provider of a service to the Afghan nation, this is not- we should not be using our platforms and our vehicles as a means to settle a score with the Taliban. We are just mere messengers, that’s all we do.
So it was just to calm everyone down. Everyone was adamant that we had- you know, the message was, “We want to continue.”
Andy Coulson: [0:39:57] So you took your lead from them.
Saad Mohseni: [0:39:59] I certainly was willing to listen to them, and I think that that convinced me that we should continue.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:10] It wasn’t the only time though that you lost people, that you lost staff.
Saad Mohseni: [0:40:16] No subsequent to that we lost another five in different incidents. A reporter going in to report on a suicide bombing, there’s a second one, he’s killed with his colleague. Another news story, another bomb goes off, we lost a photographer. A guy trying to get to the office, a bomb goes off a the German Embassy, he’s killed. So I mean, you add them all up, it’s twelve people.
But every Afghan has experienced this, and I think that- you talk about how you get through this, is that you- I mean, I certainly felt-
Andy Coulson: [0:40:54] Every Afghan has experienced it, there are very, very few business leaders who have experienced it.
Saad Mohseni: [0:41:01] But I think every Afghan business leader has experienced it in one form or another. Family getting killed, a colleague getting killed. Friends-
Andy Coulson: [0:41:08] It is part of life.
Saad Mohseni: [0:41:09] Yes, it’s part of life. But I think you also- you put yourself in the position of a father or a mother or a sibling who has lost a loved one. What they go through is far worse than what you would ever experience.
So I think- and they were angry. They were angry with us because we couldn’t protect their kids, they were angry with the management, senior leadership within the organisation.
Andy Coulson: [0:41:37] How did you deal with that, Saad? How did you deal with that element of anger?
Saad Mohseni: [0:41:40] Well, you just listen to them. And we have a good relationship with all of them now, we have obviously a programme where they try to employ other siblings in the family, continue to pay compensation and so forth. At that time 21st Century Fox was a partner in Moby and they were also very generous in they way that they attempted to help us help these families.
But yes, I think you just have to take it on the chin. Their anger is understandable.
Andy Coulson: [0:42:23] It’s how you continue to lead as well though, how you continue to run a business. That’s my point about very few business people have experienced it, and obviously not in Afghanistan. But I mean, we talk about business challenges often on this podcast, or we’re talking to people who are trying to navigate the difficulties of a professional life, it is nothing in comparison to what you’ve navigated as a business leader. Set aside the emotional part of it, but to continue to focus on-
Saad Mohseni: [0:42:52] But also you’re in the spotlight, because you’re a massive media organisation, everyone hears your story, everyone wants to know what you’re doing, so you have to be transparent about everything. So it makes it even more difficult.
We had a memorial service for our fallen colleagues, both the President and the former President showed up as well as the entire leadership, and it was carried live on television of course. So you know, doing all of these things in the spotlight makes it a little bit more challenging, but many people who go through this sort of thing will tell you, you take it an hour at a time, a day at a time, in order to deal with it. It’s pretty daunting, I wouldn’t want to go through it again. Ever.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:45] You talked about passion earlier in relation to the sort of Afghan characteristics. Resilience also, obviously which is something we talk about a lot on this podcast, it’s what this podcast is all about. The resilience of the Afghan people is something that I would say the rest of us could learn from. You would agree with that? And when you talk about how the characteristic of the Afghan nation has changed over the last couple of decades, the resilience is there, right? It’s still there, and is as strong as ever?
Saad Mohseni: [0:44:19] It is, but I’m not sure if it’s a good thing. Sometimes I question whether it’s good to be that resilient. How much pain can a nation go through? If you look at the data, it’s pretty horrendous. Just during the Soviet invasion a million Afghans lost their lives, a million handicapped, seven and a half million refugees mostly in Pakistan and Iran. And then subsequent to that, you know, hundreds of thousands of others killed and lots of internally displaced refugees. The humanitarian crises, it’s one crisis after another.
The Afghans can say that we are not actually responsible for what we’re experiencing today. So-
Andy Coulson: [0:45:14] That’s interesting. So resilience is the wrong word to use, in a way, because it can lead you down a path that is unfair, frankly. All that camouflages or conceals what Afghanistan has gone through and endured.
Saad Mohseni: [0:45:33] Because they haven’t had much of a say in terms of their destiny, so to speak. The Soviets invade, no one asks the Afghans. The Americans and the Saudis and the Western alliances give hundreds of millions or billions to the anti-Soviet freedom fighters, no one asks the Afghans as to what they want. Then the walk away from Afghanistan- the Soviets leave, the Americans lose interest, and then we have this civil war. No one asks the Afghans. The Taliban take over, they don’t ask the populous. The Americans invade, they don’t really ask the Afghans. They remain for twenty years, no one sort of gauges what the Afghans want. And then the Americans decide to leave, no one asks the Afghans, and the Taliban take over and no one asks the Afghans.
So, much of what we experience today in Afghanistan, most Afghans have not had much of a say in. Even the sort of democracy that we had, which was basically, “Let’s give these guys a democracy but without a proper process, without a proper oversight,” and then allowing people to commit fraud, it made a mockery of the entire process.
So a lot of Afghans were not that engaged in what was going on in the country. I think it helped, it benefitted the country in enormous ways. It helped the economy, it helped the people, people could go to school and university, and they could visit clinics, and maternity wards were full of people, we trained lots of nurses and doctors and so forth.
But in a lot of ways, were the Afghans truly engaged? And I think it’s a question of- you have to ask yourselves, you know, we were a part of that failed twenty years. It was successful in some ways but it ultimately failed, and we were a part of it. We have to be honest and ask ourselves the same question, “What did we do wrong? How could we have done this differently?” A lesson for the future, perhaps.
Andy Coulson: [0:47:29] What answers have you reached when you ask yourself those questions?
Saad Mohseni: [0:47:34] Well, I think that we should have taken ownership of things much, much, much earlier. And I think being spoon-fed by the international community with hundreds of millions of subsidies and grants and assistance was probably the wrong way of going about it. It only helped corruption and it created the group of elites that basically skimmed everything from the top, but also made a lot of contractors in the US and other places very happy and very wealthy.
I think there’s a lesson in terms of that even if you bring in something new it cannot be imposed. It’s got to develop organically with its democracy or civil society and so forth, and that comes with time.
So I think there was this rush, it was just- to change a country on steroids. And I think perhaps I would say that I was a cheerleader for that, for what we experienced; elections, democracy, the creation of civil society organisations. We were a part of that too. But I just think that there was this rush, but I think most important of all was not dealing with corruption.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:49] There was a report by a US aid watchdog at RUSI very recently, a couple of weeks ago, that said that those who were running the US aid programme during that time just didn’t understand the country. And that giving more than what was the gross domestic product of Afghanistan on an annual basis, just handing over the cash, was wrong. Was the wrong approach. Do you agree with that?
Saad Mohseni: [0:49:21] Yes. I think a) there was too much money. There were incidents for example, the Dutch would dig a well in a village and then the Japanese would show up also to dig a well, so all of a sudden these people had two wells. And then a third country would show up and they would have three wells where they would only need one.
Or USAID would tender a road project for two and half million dollars per kilometre. They would subcontract to a Turkish company for five hundred thousand dollars. You know, I don’t know whether it’s five hundred thousand or seven hundred thousand, but let’s say it was almost half. And then they would subcontract to an Afghan company for two hundred thousand dollars per kilometre. So for 10% of the original cost you would build a road, so it would collapse in six months or a year or two years when you have extreme temperatures in a place like Afghanistan.
And then lots of these white elephant-type projects were created and funded and were of no real benefit. But even if they’d given this money directly to the Afghan government, the Afghans didn’t have the capacity to manage this much money. An Afghan actually once compared it to like a farmland that you haven’t cultivated anything on for centuries and then flooding it with fertiliser and water and seeds. You’re not going to be able to grow anything, it takes a while to get the topsoil right, to get everything else right.
Afghanistan was not quite ready for that much assistance, and that basically fed corruption in the country. There was accountability only thanks to people like us, but the judiciary didn’t really function, the prosecution was inept. The international community turned a blind eye to things more often than not.
So it was just, you know, twenty years of mistakes basically which led to what happened on August 15th. But you know, despite all those mistakes and all the criticisms, I still think the country benefitted, the people benefitted, it did filter down. Was it worth a trillion dollars? No.
Andy Coulson: [0:51:36] Let’s go back just for a sec, another question in relation to the tragedies that you are enduring as the leader of the business. Some of that was directed at you as well, right? You’ve had death threats, you’ve had periods of your life where you know there’s a price on your head. How did you, how do you deal with that?
Saad Mohseni: [0:52:02] Well, even during the Republic days, at one stage I had a dozen arrest warrants, travel bans and so forth. Because they would find any excuse to-
Andy Coulson: [0:52:17] Just try and explain the context of all that at that stage, because-
Saad Mohseni: [0:52:20] Because at that time, we’re talking about 2005, 2006, as a matter of fact we started to challenge the government. Corruption at that time wasn’t a major issue but it was mostly about civilian debts and-
Andy Coulson: [0:52:35] This is Karzai’s government, this is 2004, first elections. Karzai is in power.
Saad Mohseni: [0:52:42] 2004, 2005 were okay, but I think in sort of 2006 and ’7 we started to sort of delve deeper into what was transpiring across the country. And basically- and I think one of the mistakes the government made, and I had these debates with Karzai at the time, was they were content to allow thugs and warlords, or appoint them in key positions, both in Kabul and also in the provinces. Predators, basically. And their predatory behaviour and corruption led to the Taliban emerging, or re-emerging.
In 2002, 2003, you could not even imagine the Taliban coming back, there was no appetite in the country in any way for these people to come back. I think most villagers would have said, “No, we’ve had enough of the Taliban, we’re happy with things as they are.”
But then what happened was, when you have corrupt officials acting in a predatory manner you have then night raids conducted by US forces, you have bombings of villages which killed hundreds if not thousands of civilians in the first two or three years. That basically allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. It was the mistakes of the state.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:08] Yes, opened up the anger.
Saad Mohseni: [0:54:10] Yes. And there’s an adage, you would know this, that oppositions rarely win, it’s governments that lose, whether it’s elections or a war or anything like that. So I think we allowed for this to happen.
And I remember the first time we did something very controversial, I think it was in 2007, where we interviewed some so-called Taliban and they said, “Listen, we don’t have any affiliation with Taliban HQ, we’re just a bunch of young guys. And there are these thugs in Kabul-” and they named names, “And these people have done terrible things in the ‘90s during the Civil War, and the government is aligned with them, and we were going to resist these people and the people they have appointed in our districts and so forth,” and that was really the beginning of the comeback of the Taliban.
I think they intended to arrest me, but my brother was arrested, our chief legal guy, the reported and one other person. So four people were arrested by the-
Andy Coulson: [0:55:05] Purely for reporting on what you’re seeing in front of your eyes, what was obvious to everyone.
Saad Mohseni: [0:55:10] Yes. So I was summoned to the palace, and one of my friends said, “Listen, Kazai is going to get really angry. You just sit still, listen to what he has to say and then when he’s got everything out of his system then you can have a chat to him.” That’s exactly what I did.
He basically said, “How could you do this? You’ve defamed this fine individuals in Kabul and you’re challenging the authority of the state.” It was a very chaotic scene in the palace. I ended up staying there for four hours. But what happened was over time I sort of became myself and I started to push back on some of these issues. And I told him the story that- do you remember the movie The Marathon Man?
Andy Coulson: [0:55:54] Dustin Hoffman.
Saad Mohseni: [0:55:57] Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. Dustin Hoffman is obviously a man on the run and Laurence Olivier is chasing him, if you know the film. But anyway, Sir Laurence Olivier is coming down in the lift at the Pierre Hotel in New York, and the lift doors open and there’s Dustin Hoffman looking dishevelled. You know, he’s sweating, he reeks of body odour, and he says, “Dustin, what are you doing?” He says, “I’ve been sleeping in Central Park trying to get into this role.” He said, “Dustin, act. Act.” Right?
So I told this story to Karzai and I said, “Mr President, you have to govern. Govern. Because if you govern, none of these things will happen.” And he got really angry because you know, he was this sort of- I don’t know how old I was at that time, maybe late thirties or early forties, you know, this smart-ass giving me a lecture and giving me all these metaphors and these stories from Hollywood.
But it was obvious. Even in 2006 and ’7, that their actions were going to lead to this uprising. It was a slow burn, it took a long time for it to happen, and eventually it culminated in the collapse of a country, of a government that was backed by the entire international community and its military.
Andy Coulson: [0:57:15] Did he threaten you directly?
Saad Mohseni: [0:57:16] You know, Karzai despite his many flaws, and we’ve had this sort of combative relationship over the last twenty years, he was a believer in free press.
Andy Coulson: [0:57:28] Fundamentally?
Saad Mohseni: [0:57:29] Fundamentally, yes. But also there was the international community and I think that- you know, we had a safety net of sorts, which is what we don’t have. Civil society, the international community, we had a lot of supporters globally that would come to our aid. And even the times that they arrested our people, and there were many, many arrests subsequent to that first arrest, we always had supporters who would come.
But yes, there was always the threat that was implied and direct, you know, that “We’re going to shut you down, we’re going to put you behind bars.”
Andy Coulson: [0:58:01] Have you had worse threats directly?
Saad Mohseni: [0:58:03] People would always call us and threaten us. There were these CIA-backed zero units in Afghanistan that would do horrible things to people, horrendous things, and the New York Times did a whole bunch of reports on them. Someone from that unit once called me and threatened me pretty directly, which then I took to the President at that time which was Ashraf Ghani. Yes, it was not unusual for people to threaten us.
But of course, you had to-
Andy Coulson: [0:58:35] It’s a similar question to what I asked in relation to the terror attacks against your organisation. How do you respond to threats? How did that cause you to react?
Saad Mohseni: [0:58:52] You have to be careful, you have to take these threats seriously. The thing that I think gets at you more is when they find- like for example they were trying to get us on taxation. Now that involves years of going to court and it’s just basically like a war of attrition. Or, “Why did you air this drama series?” It’s got a Hindu God symbol in the scene in the far right corner that’s not even obvious to the naked eye, things like that. They build cases against you. You see this in India for example, or a lot of other countries, this sort of way of trying to weaken an organisation, it takes a lot of your bandwidth and energy to deal with.
But direct threats, I don’t know, I think it depends who’s making the threat. But you have to always take them seriously and you always have to have contingency plans. But bad things happen in bad neighbourhoods. So you have to be prepared for the worst case scenario, including losing your own life.
Andy Coulson: [1:00:02] Really?
Saad Mohseni: [1:00:03] Yes, of course.
Andy Coulson: [1:00:05] You’ve had that conversation with yourself, that that is something you’re comfortable with?
Saad Mohseni: [1:00:06] I mean it’s funny because you know, I’m-
Andy Coulson: [1:00:10] Comfortable is the wrong word. It’s something you’ve come to terms with?
Saad Mohseni: [1:00:13] I mean, yes. I’m doing a lot of research into longevity. As you know, I run and I exercise and take vitamins. Sure, I’m going to be able to prolong my life by a couple of years, but we’re all going to go at some stage and I think we have to always be prepared for going. I think the way we are as human beings, we’re oblivious to one day going. It’s just a question of time. So if your time comes before then, not that you would voluntarily step in front of a hail of bullets-
Andy Coulson: [1:00:49] You’ve continued to put yourself in an environment, to work in an environment, and can be immersed in an environment where the chances of that happening have obviously increased, or of your life ending prematurely has been increased. And that’s something you’ve come to terms with, is my point?
Saad Mohseni: [1:01:04] I think if the time comes, and if there’s nothing you can do about it, I think if you’re suicidal that’s a totally different thing. You know, we’ve- and I’m still alive, I’m fifty seven. But-
Andy Coulson: [1:01:13] Well there is something you can do about it, you could have not- this is what I’m getting at, you could have decided not to have spent your time, effort, money, energy, professional life immersed in an environment that has, as you’ve just said earlier, almost rolled from one crisis to another.
Saad Mohseni: [1:01:31] Right, there are a lot of anecdotes and jokes and poetry and how we usually convey a message is through these things. There’s a mental asylum and a doctor goes and visits, and there’s this madman who puts his thumb on the table and gets a hammer and smashes into it. And he cries in pain and is taken to the hospital, it takes three months for him to heal. He observes this guy over a period of twelve months, he does this every three months. He heals, the first thing he does is this thing. He finally goes to the patient and says, “You understand what you do is painful. You know that?” He goes, “Yes.” He says, “You remember the pain?” He goes, “Yes.” He said, “Why do you do it?” He goes, “But it feels so good when the pain subsides.” Right?
So I think for us there’s the flip side of what we do, is that it’s gratifying, it’s very fulfilling. And it is like, you know, we’re not sort of adventure junkies or like-
Andy Coulson: [1:02:37] Are you sure there’s not a little bit of that?
Saad Mohseni: [1:02:39] Well no, because I think we try to be very logical. We don’t stand in front of bullets for example, we don’t do anything that would seem suicidal. I think we have a very logical, professional approach to what we do. It’s methodical in its own ways, we try to mitigate as much risk as possible. We make mistakes no doubt, but we try to learn from those mistakes.
And especially risk to our employees, I think to mitigate those risks is always a priority for us. Even in today’s Taliban regime it’s how to keep those people safe while they’re doing their jobs.
Andy Coulson: [1:03:26] Yes, I’d like to talk about that. Tell us about the day that the Taliban returned, Saad. Because they turned up at the office with guns, right? It was an immediate intervention.
Saad Mohseni: [1:03:36] Well firstly everyone in Afghanistan has got a gun. We were expecting them. As a matter of fact, when Kabul was collapsing many of us reached out the to the Taliban and said, “You’d better come in. Take over the city, because there is no one else running it.” And the concern we had was, you know, weeks or days of looting and murders and mayhem-
Andy Coulson: [1:03:58] Total lawlessness.
Saad Mohseni: [1:04:01] Total lawlessness. They stepped in and they came into our compound, I actually had someone giving me live updates on the telephone.
Andy Coulson: [1:04:09] Where are you at this stage?
Saad Mohseni: [1:04:10] I’m in London at the time. They were very respectful, they came in, they asked us if we needed something, if we were safe, and then they left. And then of course slowly, and then as the government formed and they had a Minister and Deputy Minister and a spokesperson and media relations people, they started to engage a bit more.
But it was a difficult, confusing time, because we were not quite sure what awaited us, what fate awaited us. And you know, the biggest challenge for us was not the Taliban, it was actually losing people. Because every single day between 15th August and the end of August, as the Americans were airlifting people from the airport, people would literally disappear. You’d be sitting in a studio and the guy from behind the camera would just leave. Someone would tell him, “You’re on some list, we’re going to fly you out,” he’d go to the airport.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:10] In practical terms, how did you approach that then? So you’ve got a number you can call? How does one call the Taliban when you’re in London? How do you start the conversation with them?
Saad Mohseni: [1:05:18] Well, it was people on the ground.
Andy Coulson: [1:05:20] Yes, in the first instance?
Saad Mohseni: [1:05:21] In the first instance. And there were relationships, the Taliban always had-
Andy Coulson: [1:05:25] Existing relationships that you’re able to-
Saad Mohseni: [1:05:27] Yes. And then others who came in, and they had numbers and they, you know, they settle in Kabul, they’ve got a house, they’ve got a car, they’ve got an office, they’ve got new phone numbers. It’s ironic that many of the Taliban leaders had not seen each other for a long time, you know? They had cells operating independent of other cells, so it was also they were getting to know each other, the cabinet was forming and all that. So they were getting to know each other, they were getting to know the people, the non-Taliban institutions and organisations and individuals, people like us.
So there was a ‘get to know each other’ period of about a year.
Andy Coulson: [1:06:11] Were you surprised by their approach? Is it the approach that you expected?
Saad Mohseni: [1:06:17] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:06:17] In terms of a dialogue that you were able to have with them?
Saad Mohseni: [1:06:22] Well you know, there were pleasant and unpleasant surprises. The pleasant surprise was that- and I think it’s very important to note that the Taliban, although they have a shared ideology and they’re very united, and their policies will always get the support of the entire leadership, it’s not a monolithic movement. And I think to hope for the Taliban to fragment and for them to pursue different policies is perhaps naïve, but there’s no doubt that within the movement itself there’s debate usually and there’s-
Andy Coulson: [1:06:55] And there are some that are more moderate than others.
Saad Mohseni: [1:06:58] Or at least pragmatic. So engaging with them, from the outset that made that very obvious. We knew that, it’s human nature right? Some are more conciliatory than others, some are very angry towards people like us because we are the ones who took music to Afghanistan, that had women on television. And that anger is very obvious, they don’t want to- for example there was a unit tasked with protecting us because we still have ISIS in the country, which is a serious threat to Afghans on a daily basis. And he made it very obvious, “We don’t like you guys, but we’ve been told to protect you and we’re going to protect you.”
Andy Coulson: [1:07:40] This is one of your very early conversations?
Saad Mohseni: [1:07:42] No me personally, but this person in charge of this particular unit that was tasked with protecting us didn’t like us at all. But then over time, you know, they sort of forged relationships with folks from our side, and then there was at least dialogue. I can’t recall the last conversation that was relayed to me, but it was like, “We still don’t like you, but you’re not a bad person,” type thing. So there’s a softening on all sides and I think that’s why dialogue and engagement is important. You don’t have to accept their ideology, or you don’t have to accept their policies, but at least you have this dialogue which is so important.
Two years on, they’re in charge, and there’s no one serious to challenge them. And the fate of forty million people is in their hands. That’s why you engage.
Andy Coulson: [1:08:33] Yes. Your immediate reaction as a station was to put a Taliban leader on television, interviewed by your female anchor, the first time that’s ever happened, as I understand it, in Afghanistan. A proper moment of history. Since then, obviously, the ability for female journalists to work and operate, for female business people to be able to run- we saw most recently the shut-down of beauty parlours. Just give me a sense of how you have witnessed the regression of all of that progress.
Saad Mohseni: [1:09:12] Yes. It made good television, so you’d do that and it was just-
Andy Coulson: [1:09:17] Were you surprised that they agreed to do it?
Saad Mohseni: [1:09:20] Yes, but I think he was- looking back he’s one of the more moderate figures. It was an important moment and as a media organisation my guys on the ground took full advantage of that opportunity to interview him.
Let me give you the bad news. The bad news is that women have to cover their faces, and they wear surgical masks in order to appear on television. It’s I would say almost impossible to have a set where you have female and male interacting and talking and all of that, but they can interview other women, they can interview teenagers or young kids, that’s allowed. The flip side is, we’ve got more women working for our news network than ever before. It’s gone up threefold, because we’ve gone out of our way to employ women; as producers, as presenters, as journalists. And women still go out and report on issues from across-
Andy Coulson: [1:10:30] Are you concerned that that’s going to be shut down at some point?
Saad Mohseni: [1:10:33] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [1:10:33] Your ability just to employ females?
Saad Mohseni: [1:10:35] Yes. So then, again it’s about contingency plans. If that happens they can work from home. And if they’re not on camera- and of course, there’s a time that we say, “Enough’s enough, we’re going to leave.” But that’s always, always on the cards, basically.
Andy Coulson: [1:10:54] And the rest of your programming, because over the years you drove the whole introduction of modern, progressive entertainment. There’s your version of what we call Pop Idol, Afghan Star. There’s the Afghan Premier League that you built and introduced, a female Premier League as well. Remarkable. All of those things have gone backwards, yes?
Saad Mohseni: [1:11:22] Yes. So you have to understand that media now is not television or radio, it’s everywhere right?
Andy Coulson: [1:11:31] It’s everywhere.
Saad Mohseni: [1:11:32] So we always say that we are platform agnostic. So what appears on the terrestrial networks in Afghanistan is limited. We have game shows and we have chat shows including women’s town hall-type meetings which are very informative, very interesting, very challenging in terms of what’s the idea of Islam, and women’s role in Islam and all that. Those sorts of debates happen all the time, it’s quite extraordinary. I was joking with an Indian friend that even today in Afghanistan there is more freedom to challenge State than there is in India to challenge the Modi government.
In a lot of ways, you know, we just interviewed the Minister of Defence, the son of the founder Mullah Omar, an extraordinary interview, with English subtitles, you’ll see how the reporter pushes back on so many issues.
Andy Coulson: [1:12:21] But the clock is ticking on that stuff as well, right? You fear that that’s going to be-
Saad Mohseni: [1:12:25] Maybe and maybe not. Because as I said, if they silence every media outlet and there’s only the State broadcaster, then this sort of not so monolithic movement will have no other option. You know, there are other individuals who would want to have other media that they would be able to convey their messages through, so I think it’s in their interest, in their individual interest, to have a relatively free media environment.
But the other thing Andy, which I think is important, is that Afghans can continue to watch music clips, can continue to watch soap operas, can continue to watch all these things on YouTube or on satellite or on other platforms. Those things still exist.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:13] And they can’t stop that.
Saad Mohseni: [1:13:14] And they can’t stop that. You know, the genie is out of the bottle now. And I think that’s why there’s no going back. For the leadership at least, education and women’s issues has become sort of their key thing. “You know, how do we create more religious Madrassas, how do we deprive women of education?” That’s for the leadership.
But Afghans are finding ways to educate their girls. Afghans are finding ways to learn online. It’s not the end of the film yet, it’s just the beginning.
Andy Coulson: [1:13:48] How do you think this film might end, then?
Saad Mohseni: [1:13:50] I think it’ll end well. I think the people have changed too much, and I think you talk about the resilience of the Afghan nation, they are survivors. They’ll find ways to survive in this environment, and that’s why the world cannot turn its back on the country.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:05] But there’s survival and there’s progression, isn’t there? There’s progress.
Saad Mohseni: [1:14:09] You have to survive first before you progress. But then I think they will take that leap fairly quickly after they’ve survived.
Andy Coulson: [1:14:18] You’ve said, Saad, I alluded to it in the intro, that the US kind of wishes that Afghanistan would just disappear. Do you feel that they’re not alone in that thought? You touched on it earlier in terms of the UK government, but do you fear that there are other governments in the West who essentially think the same but just won’t say it?
Saad Mohseni: [1:14:39] I think everyone, I think this is the problem. I think there are individuals within these governments who care deeply about Afghanistan, especially the ones who visited the place and travelled and met people and so forth. But I think-
Andy Coulson: [1:14:53] Or who were in the military.
Saad Mohseni: [1:14:55] Or who were in the military. But I think for governments there’s limited up-side and lots of down-side. And I think that they will always make that calculation. “What do I have to gain? And what could I potentially lose?” So let’s just say if you’re sitting in the Whitehouse and you’ve got elections coming up in 2024, what could you gain from engaging a bit more, and what are the pitfalls?
I think the answer to that would be, “Listen, we’ll throw a bunch of money when I comes to humanitarian assistance. On the political stuff, we’re just going to turn our back on it.” But I think they should be forced to deal with the situation that they helped create in a lot of ways.
Andy Coulson: [1:15:41] How do you begin to make that happen?
Saad Mohseni: [1:15:46] Well, I-
Andy Coulson: [1:15:49] At a time, by the way, which is the other obvious challenge, when there are other conflicts, obviously Ukraine front of mind right now, attention, never mind money, is elsewhere, including the media’s attention. You know, getting the media back engaged and interested in Afghanistan again is going to be more and more difficult, isn’t it?
Saad Mohseni: [1:16:11] I think if Afghanistan was to fall apart, which it could, it would be what people saw in Syria on steroids. You would have a massive refugee problem, and they’ll be in Europe somehow. You’ll have a massive drugs problem which will get to Europe, somehow, because it always has. You’ll have issues with radicalism, like things you saw in Syria but it’ll be far, far worse. Every movement on the planet will be based out of Afghanistan. It would destabilise the entire region from Pakistan to Central Asia to the Middle East.
So I think vital Western interests could be in jeopardy basically if they do not re-focus on Afghanistan. Forget about the internal issues in terms of twenty to thirty million people on the verge of starvation, women suffering and so forth. Even if you just forget about those domestic considerations, domestic Afghan considerations, there are enough issues that could impact the globe that would warrant re-engagement of sorts with the current regime.
Andy Coulson: [1:17:24] We started with opportunity in crisis. If you set aside all the moral obligations and the security obligations that you’ve just set out, where’s the opportunity in Afghanistan now?
Saad Mohseni: [1:17:36] The opportunity is to make a success out of this “failure”. Because I think that the country from where I sit has been a success over the last twenty years, because much of that assistance filtered down, people were better educated, more sophisticated-
Andy Coulson: [1:17:54] Lives have changed.
Saad Mohseni: [1:17:55] Lives have changed, people live longer for example. People understand civil society, they understand debate, they understand freedom of expression. Afghanistan, this basket case of a country was really transformed by the twenty years of international engagement. And I think with the Taliban in charge, and you know, let’s not also forget about their attributes in terms of dealing with corruption and drugs and bringing security back to the country, because they were doing half the fighting and they’re no longer fighting with anyone. So I think there is an opportunity.
I don’t think we’ll be sort of- we’re not going to have women in miniskirts like the 1960s any time soon, but it could be better than what we have today. And I think for the world, an engaged, open Afghanistan, if the Taliban have a relationship with the rest of the world, it would potentially open up the country to tourists, to people setting up schools, to people travelling back and forth. And that naturally opens a country up.
Andy Coulson: [1:19:01] Saad, fascinating. Thank you for coming in and talking us through what is an astonishing story of crisis from so many different perspectives. Geopolitics right the way down to how on earth do you run a business in the midst of that kind of environment, which you’ve done very successfully, and I hope will continue to do. I know that that kind of question that you mentioned earlier will be here for as long as we can be here. It’s a question I suspect that you’re asking yourself pretty regularly.
But thank you for coming in, I really appreciate it.
We’re going to end, as we always do, by asking you for your Crisis Comforts. These are three things that you have always leaned on during the tougher days. What would you give us?
Saad Mohseni: [1:19:48] I think humour is very important, to have a laugh. I always run, important to clear your head, and I always listen to classical music. I listen to Rachmaninov, Mozart, Beethoven.
Andy Coulson: [1:20:03] While you’re running?
Saad Mohseni: [1:20:04] Or when I’m not running. Both.
Andy Coulson: [1:20:08] Saad, fantastic. Thanks for coming in, really appreciate it.
Saad Mohseni: [1:20:10] Thank you.
Andy Coulson: [1:20:11] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com
Thanks again for joining us.
End of Recording