article

10.02.09

The Rupert Murdoch of Kabul

He's impatient with Obama, supportive of McChrystal and alarmed by the UN. Meet Saad Mohseni, media mogul and the face of Afghan enlightenment.

It has been three decades since the term “Afghanistanism” was derisive journalistic shorthand for irrelevant arcana about foreign climes—stories of zero interest to the typical U.S. reader. The 1979 Soviet invasion abruptly changed all that: The United States’ proxy war against the Soviets, and the long chain of unintended consequences that ultimately resulted in 9/11, have placed this previously negligible nation high on the American agenda.

For media mogul Saad Mohseni—who is frequently described as Afghanistan’s Rupert Murdoch—that’s exactly where his country must stay: front and center. The alternative, he warns, is initial chaos, then the powerful re-emergence of the Taliban and al Qaeda, and finally the export of global terror—never mind the export of opium, which today accounts for 40 to 50 percent of this impoverished and largely illiterate country’s gross domestic product. Conspicuous corruption among the ruling elite, and widespread fraud in the recent presidential elections—abetted by a slipshod United Nations, Mohseni says—only add to the toxic brew.

“We felt Obama would do the right thing by Afghanistan, and we’re very disappointed by his hesitancy,” Mohseni said.

Which is why he’s deeply troubled by President Obama’s apparent indecision on whether to surge or split from his country.

“We felt Obama would do the right thing by Afghanistan, and we’re very disappointed by his hesitancy,” Mohseni told me this week. “This hesitancy is sending the wrong signal to the people we are collectively trying to fight in Afghanistan. It’s making them cocky. And it shows, once again, that the United States, despite all its pledges and promises over the last seven years, is not fully committed to Afghanistan.

If he’s worried about Obama, Mohseni is positively withering about the UN and its botched supervision of the August election pitting President Hamid Karzai against opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah.

“How the UN conducted the election was a disgrace—the buck stops with them,” he told me. “They were the international body that basically was tasked with managing the election, and they wasted a quarter of a billion dollars. How could the UN create a system that would allow such fraud to occur?”

When it comes to understanding events in Kabul, this is a voice worth listening to.

Mohseni is a curly-haired, bespectacled 43-year-old who speaks with an Australian accent. Along with his siblings, he runs Moby Group, a family-owned media company that spans television, radio, magazines, movies and the Internet.

Founded in 2002 with an initial $500,000 investment—in addition to $200,000 in seed money from the U.S. Agency for International Development—Moby Group has become a profitable private enterprise whose outlets reach an estimated 11 million Afghans daily, about 70 percent of the available audience in a country of 30 million souls with a median age of 17. With offices in Washington and Dubai, it also beams programming to Pakistan and Iran (where Mohseni recently launched a joint venture with the real Murdoch to provide Persian-language television content).

The London-born Mohseni—the son of a career diplomat who quit his post in Tokyo after the Soviet coup in Kabul and moved the family to Melbourne—is the user-friendly face of Afghani enlightenment. A thrice-married liberal Muslim who, in Aussie fashion, addresses acquaintances as “mate,” he is equally at home on Charlie Rose and The Daily Show, at Washington dinner parties and the Aspen Institute, where during a conference last weekend he argued to his fellow movers and shakers that Afghanistan really isn’t an irretrievably backward, ungovernable country of warlords, tribes and poppy-growers, but a proud nation possessed of sophisticated patriots like himself who, if given half a chance, can lead it to peace and prosperity.

And he is fearless in speaking out against anything that gets in the way. Career American diplomat Peter Galbraith—until Wednesday, the UN’s second in command in Kabul—was recalled this week after sending a blistering letter to UN Secretary General General Ban Ki-Moon accusing Norweigan diplomat Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission in Kabul, of improperly siding with Karzai and sweeping evidence of fraud under the rug. (A joke making the rounds in the Afghani capital: “Have you heard that Kai Eide is going in for plastic surgery? He needs to have his lips removed from Karzai’s ass.”)

Mohseni said he’s alarmed by the recall of Galbraith, whom he likes and respects. “The elections were a failure, and Kai Eide should be held accountable. Galbraith can’t really be held accountable—he’s been there such a short space of time,” Mohseni said. “I think people sometimes don’t really want to be told the truth…I think the UN should deal with the people who failed, not with the person who is blowingthe whistle.”

Nearly a quarter of the six million votes cast were fraudulent, Mohseni says, and the outcome remains unclear—creating further instability in a nation plagued by anarchy, violent crime and kidnappings.

Mohseni and his younger siblings—two brothers and a sister—can’t move about Kabul without armed bodyguards. In a target-rich environment, they are—alas—rich targets. Among Mohseni’s security concerns is the secret police of neighboring Pakistan, otherwise known as the ISI (for Inter-Services Intelligence), which is populated with Islamic fundamentalists sympathetic to the Taliban. Mohseni has been a severe critic of Pakistan’s government for letting the Taliban and Al Qaeda operate with impunity in the border regions.

“I don’t know if they’re tracking my movements, but certainly we have received information from our intelligence agency that we’re targets of groups that are very closely linked to the ISI,” Mohseni told me. “We’ve got to be mindful of that. We don’t take these threats too lightly—they’ve come from a pretty high place.” He added: 0The good thing is that no one knows what we look like.”

Mohseni met me Wednesday afternoon at the grandly appointed Manhattan townhouse of his friend Tom Freston, the former Viacom and MTV executive who is a longtime Afghanistan aficionado. At that very moment, President Obama was parsing Afghanistan policy in the White House Situation Room with his national security team, including, by video link, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal recently asked for an additional 40,000 troops to shore up the 60,000 already deployed in an increasingly unstable, violent situation, and his request and accompanying report have become the political equivalent of a stink bomb.

“This is the sort of debate that should not be happening in public,” Mohseni lamented, noting that the general is coping not only with the Taliban insurgency and threats to his soldiers’ safety, but also charged with developing the country’s tattered political institutions and physical infrastructure. “By his hesitance, Obama in some ways is undermining his own military’s recommendations…McChrystal is the man on the ground, who is fighting on a daily basis, and you cannot undermine the efforts of your general who has been tasked with this, in such a public way. Obama has cornered himself...If you don’t believe in what McChrystal is doing, and have no faith in his strategy, then replace him!”

Mohseni knows a thing or two about strategy. He likes to frame Moby Group—which produces 14 hours daily of original television, everything from soap operas to game shows to investigative journalism—as a force for social change and the empowerment of women, who are ubiquitous behind and in front of the camera.

Mohseni was a producer of the critically acclaimed documentary Afghan Star—about Moby Group’s wildly popular American Idol-ish TV show of the same name—in which a female contestant literally risked death threats from Taliban sympathizers to sing on television. The show’s fifth season starts in a couple of weeks.

A Washington-based Afghanistan scholar told me Mohseni was “pretty impressive” when he spoke there recently. “He seems like a very cosmopolitan character who wants to bring his country into the 19th century—or at least the 18th century,” the scholar noted wryly.

“So many opportunities have been lost,” Mohseni told me, “but I think we can regain the momentum. The optimistic scenario is that Afghans need to be allowed to undertake the very important task of reconstructing the country, and the government needs to start thinking about serving the Afghan nation.”

Lloyd Grove is Editor at Large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.