Troop Drawdown In Afghanistan Could Mean Civil War For Country, Says Saad Mohseni
LOS ANGELES -- The man the New Yorker referred to as "Afghanistan's first media mogul" said his country's "corrupt," "inept" and "thankless" government would only stand for 12 to 24 hours if U.S. troops left tomorrow.
"I'm not saying the Taliban would come," Saad Mohseni went on to clarify. "I just think that when people realize that the international forces are not there to referee what's going on inside the country, then you will see different forces rise in control of different institutions -- something like we saw in the early '90s" when the Russian withdrawal left a vacuum of power in Afghanistan.
Mohseni expressed his opinion Tuesday night at the Asia Society's "Peace and War in Afghanistan" panel. He was joined by Richard Engel, NBC News' chief foreign correspondent, for a discussion of new media's impact on a changing Afghan society, as well as "what's really going on" in Afghanistan, as the Asia Society put it. The event took place amid a long-running debate in Washington, D.C., about the timetable for President Barack Obama's surge drawdown and a transition of power from American troops to Afghan institutions like the government and military.
The Afghan media mogul was introduced by entertainment executive Tom Freston, who described him as a major "nexus" in Afghanistan. "If you're a diplomat, a journalist, a businessman, a politician, a warlord, if you're the Taliban -- you talk to Saad," Freston said.
Mohseni admitted to the HuffPost in a separate interview that he "was exaggerating, of course," about the speed of the Afghan government's hypothetical collapse, but fellow panelist Engel echoed his sentiment both during and after the event.
"I agree with that," Engel said to HuffPost after the panel. "The fact that there are problems, deep problems of corruption within the Afghan government -- the Afghans know that better than we do."
After the panel, HuffPost caught up with all the panelists to explore what the U.S. media can do to support free media in Afghanistan, the best ways to build up Afghan civil society, and the struggles that the U.S. military face in the country.
Mohseni and Engel also agreed that if Afghanistan were to undergo an "Afghan Autumn" uprising similar to other Arab Spring demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East, the result would be anarchy and chaos.
"There's a danger that there are protests that will spin completely out of control. And you have to understand that Afghanistan is more vulnerable to that spirit -- probably for a long, long time," Mohseni said.
Engel added, "There are these lingering concerns that if people were to rise up and throw off what few systems are in place, the country would descend into civil war."
Still, despite their dire warnings on the consequences of a rapid reduction in troops, Engel believes that both Afghans and Americans will accept the smaller partial withdrawal that Obama was expected to announce the following evening.
"I think the U.S. administration is rightly taking advantage of the killing of Osama Bin Laden to drawdown from Afghanistan, even though one didn't have anything to do with the other," he said. "After all, Osama bin Laden was killed by Special Forces in Pakistan, but it creates a sense of positive momentum and you can drawdown the surge which was going to be drawdown anyway -- just a little faster."
Throughout the panel, Engel and Mohseni discussed the myriad and well-documented failings of the Hamid Karzai administration, as well as the personal limitations of President Karzai.
Engel cited Karzai's 2009 reelection and proven election fraud as a "turning point" that showed Afghans once and for all that his administration was corrupt to the core. "Those elections were not legitimate. Karzai did not win," he said.
The NBC correspondent also cited a United Nations-led audit showing that 1 million of the 3 million votes Karzai received were found to be fake. While Karzai accepted the results and entered a run-off election as the Afghan constitution mandates, his main opponent dropped out of the race at the last minute, leaving him the de facto winner.
To Engel, the reelection results also signaled a transformation in the relationship between the U.S. and Karzai. "Once you've accepted that someone's a thief, it's hard to go and say, 'Well, you better stop being a thief.' You've lost your credibility and you've lost your capability" to exert influence on Karzai, who the United States helped put into power, he said. "And let's not forget he's an emotional person," Engel added. "There's reports that he's on different medication to stabilize his personality. He is a volatile person."
"The U.S. has a responsibility to create some sort of effective system" before leaving, he said. To Engel, that could mean waiting until Afghanistan's next election before a more significant troop reduction takes place.
Mohseni deals with the Afghan government's perceived illegitimacy and Karzai's erratic behavior on a day-to-day basis. As the CEO of Afghanistan's largest media network, Tolo TV, Mohseni has personally been on the receiving end of pushback from some of the highest levels of the Afghan government, including Karzai himself.
Tolo TV's potent programming mix of reality shows, comedy, soap operas and hard-hitting news coverage expose the largely illiterate Afghan public to a whole new world. It also makes the network a target for religious fundamentalists, many of whom are members of the government.
During the panel, moderator Tom Freston quoted Karzai blasting networks like Tolo for being a "cultural invasion" more dangerous than a U.S. military threat.
Mohseni recounted a time he tried to defend Tolo's programming to the Afghan president. "The bulk of the Afghan population tend to watch these programs. That in itself must be an endorsement of how acceptable these programs are," he told Karzai.
"People probably don't know any better," the president responded.
Then Mohseni said, "if people had the wisdom to choose you as their president, they surely have the wisdom" to choose their own television programs.
Between pressures from the flailing Karzai administration, the presence of international troops, and the crushing unemployment numbers, Mohseni predicts that the Afghan people will see "dramatic changes" in the next three to six months: "I don't know what's going to trigger it, and I'm not sure what the end result will be, but I think that something has to give between now and then."
On this point, Engel disagreed. He pointed out that Afghanistan's rural populations, vast geography and poor communications infrastructure precluded it from the demonstrations organized by educated, urban and tech-savvy youth movements elsewhere in the region.
Still, he couldn't help but marvel at the contrast between the Arab Spring uprisings and America's foreign wars to install democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Here's the rub. We spent a trillion dollars... to export democracy to totalitarian regimes, and it happened for free. And that is the great irony: That you can't beat people into moderation -- or into democracy."
Below, more highlights from the panel event.