Youth, Television and What Might Keep Afghanistan from Ending up Like Iraq

07/09/2014 02:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2014

Ever since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began their recent offensive in Iraq, anxieties about the potential of something similar taking place in Afghanistan have abounded. Some commentators have focused on why Afghanistan could look like Iraq in a few years; many more seem interested in what the U.S. can do to keep that from happening. Most have been careful to note the litany of differences between the two countries.

But, in truth, fear for the fate of Afghanistan is nothing new. It has been percolating for some time. With NATO forces leaving by the end of the year, and a crucial security pact to extend military cooperation between Washington and Kabul still unsigned, concerns for a resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been commonplace, and appear well founded. Most recently, Afghanistan's presidential election took a turn for the worst when one of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, accused election officials and President Hamid Karzai of engineering fraud in favor of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, fueling tensions between the country's historically fractious ethnic groups. Looking ahead, the potential worst-case scenario outcomes of any of Afghanistan's big tests this year could precipitate events baring a woeful resemblance to Iraq.

And yet, in assessing whether Afghanistan could devolve into chaos and conflict, and what the U.S. could do to ensure it doesn't, many have missed a crucial piece of the puzzle: the budding generation of educated, connected and hopeful young Afghans that has grown up since 2001.

Although Iraq started much farther ahead of Afghanistan, the U.S. left its infrastructure in ruins, and failed to effectively fill the political vacuum left by Saddam's totalitarian regime. Post-invasion Iraqi youth have faced just as bad or worse conditions than their parents did under Saddam, especially the Sunnis, many of who fill the ranks of ISIS today.

Despite Foreign Policy placing Afghanistan higher than Iraq on its Fragile State Index this year, on a number of counts, the U.S. is leaving Afghanistan in much better shape than we found it, and in better shape than Iraq. Literacy rates have risen; so too has life expectancy. Afghans are more connected - physically and digitally - than ever before, and the governing apparatus they will be left with is more inclusive than the one in Baghdad. In stark contrast to Iraq in 2011, most Afghans feel their country has changed for the better.

Even still, the youth of Afghanistan provide perhaps the greatest promise for the country's future. Those under the age of 35 make up 75 percent of the national population. They have flocked to higher education and built a flourishing civil society. They are also urbanized. And they're eager to take the reigns from a wilted elder leadership class perpetually bogged down in tribalism, patronage politics and historic ethnic rivalries.

Working at one of Afghanistan's largest new media outlets, TOLOnews, I've had the privilege of getting to know members of the Afghan baby boom, who are smarter, more open-minded and more committed to a united Afghanistan than their parents' generation. In fact, the company I work for, along with the promising young Afghans that drive it, provides a perfect example of the gulf that now exists between Iraq and Afghanistan.

TOLOnews forms part of a larger media group called Moby, which has grown over the past decade from a USAID-funded startup in Kabul into a multinational behemoth with TV channels, production houses and strategic communication businesses throughout the Muslim world. It has been spotlighted for its leadership in Afghanistan's media and communications industries. But its work has also been applauded for promoting gender equality, literacy programs and government accountability. Now, in a twist of fate, Moby is expanding to Iraq.

The company will be rolling out a new general entertainment television channel called Lana TV, to be based in Baghdad and staffed by Iraqis. Though most of the technical support and startup capital will be coming from Kabul.

"There are no real general entertainment channels in the Iraqi market right now," Yousuf Mohseni, the Moby executive in charge of Lana's launch told me. "The Iraqi people need a break, they need a fresh source of entertainment that can give them a sense of escape from the day-to-day issues of life."

According to Mohseni, Lana has about 90 Iraqi employees, and Afghans from Moby's offices in Kabul have already traveled to Baghdad to train them in IT, production, programming, sales and marketing. In turn, some of the Iraqis are expected to travel to Kabul for more soon.

"What is significant is that... an Afghan company is now a leading emerging market focused media and entertainment company with 16 businesses in six markets," Mohseni reflected. "[...] We are utilizing our expertise and know-how initially built up in Afghanistan to the benefit of our other businesses including Lana TV, which we hope will have a successful launch in Q4 2014."

Expertise and know-how are important things for a young economy. And the fact that they have been built up in Afghanistan amidst war and turmoil over the past decade is nothing shy of remarkable. But those hard skills are also paired with an inspiring determination among many young Afghans to take action to move their country forward. This was evident in the lead up to this year's election when Afghan youth organized social media campaigns to encourage participation. Then again on both Election Days when they showed up to the polls in droves despite Taliban threats and used their mobile phones to report electoral fraud. They are the ones who have the most promising potential to put in place smart businesses strategy and public policy in Afghanistan, and they are the ones who are most invested in the country's future.

Although Moby is just one small piece of the larger puzzle the U.S. will leave behind in December, the new, biggest generation of Afghans is certainly not. If supplied with the continued support they need from Washington and others, they should have a good shot at keeping their country from following in Iraq's footsteps.