Reality TV and the New Afghanistan

By David Ignatius
Thursday, December 18, 2008

It's easy to get depressed reading the news out of Afghanistan. The insurgents are getting stronger, the United States is sending another 20,000 troops there -- and yet even Defense Secretary Bob Gates admits that American soldiers aren't a long-term solution. So what to do?

In sorting out these policy dilemmas, it helps to talk to Afghans such as Saad and Jahid Mohseni, who are struggling with these problems every day. The two entrepreneurial brothers are running a media business in the war zone of Kabul and, far from giving up, they keep thinking of innovative ways to adapt and survive.

I first met the Mohseni brothers in April at the offices of their Moby Media Group in Kabul. We met again in Washington last week, and their comments convinced me that many U.S. policymakers are misdiagnosing the real danger in Afghanistan. What will destroy that country's experiment in democracy isn't the Taliban or other insurgent groups, but the lawlessness and corruption that have been allowed to fester under the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The core issue is bad governance. The biggest threat the Mohseni brothers face right now isn't insurgent attacks from Taliban fighters. It's kidnappings by the criminal gangs that are destroying normal life in Kabul. "The resurgence of the Taliban is a result of the public's hunger for law and order," Saad Mohseni told me.

The Mohsenis came back home to build their business after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001. Through their main channel, Tolo TV, they began broadcasting shows that symbolized the new Afghanistan -- from investigative reporting to a musical program called "Afghan Star."

A new documentary chronicling the unlikely story of "Afghan Star" will be screened in January at the Sundance Film Festival. It describes the Mohseni brothers' nationwide talent search to find the best amateur singer. This in a country where music itself had been forbidden by the Taliban and where, as the film's promotion kit says, "you risk your life to sing." Members of Afghanistan's diverse ethnic groups competed by crooning onstage. On the final night of the competition, 11 million people, or one-third of the population, were watching.

That's the first lesson the Mohsenis learned: The best way to pull their war-torn country together was by giving people something they all wanted -- in this case, music. That same principle would apply if the government could provide law and order.

The Mohsenis created other innovative shows. One was "Laugh Bazaar," now in its third season, which features Afghan stand-up comedians. (The Afghan comics are not about to replace Jay Leno and David Letterman, but they're likable.) Then there's a show mocking Kabul's government bureaucrats, called "At Your Service Minister" and based on the famous British series "Yes Minister." A serial called "Secrets of This House" dramatizes drug addiction, family strife and other real-life problems. And in the works is a new reality show called "Corruption" that uses hidden cameras and informants to expose crooks.

Inevitably, the Mohsenis' freewheeling programming upset Muslim conservatives, and when I first met them in April, they were worried about a re-Talibanization of the airwaves. But that hasn't happened, and Tolo TV's success in negotiating a compromise with religious authorities gives me hope that there's a similar way out of the larger Afghanistan mess.

What especially riled conservative Muslims were two Bollywood soap operas. They were pretty tame stuff, but they were Indian-made, which upset some Afghans. So the Mohsenis proposed a deal; rather than killing the popular Bollywood fare, they would add a new Turkish-produced serial called "Secret World" that was based on Islamic principles. That placated the religious authorities who make up the ulema -- plus it was a hit with the public.

Sensing a market for Islamic programming, the Mohsenis launched a new contest show to find the best reciter of the Koran (don't call it "Koran Idol") to be judged by . . . you guessed it . . . a panel from the ulema. Another hit. So was the new "Hadith of the Day" spot, featuring nuggets of the Prophet Muhammad's wisdom.

The Mohsenis' story reminds me that Afghans are like anyone else. They want a normal life, with a decent income, a safe place to raise their kids and good shows to watch on TV. Creating a secure environment may require 20,000 more U.S. troops, but the real breakthrough would be an Afghan government that protects its people rather than allowing criminal gangs to terrorize them.

Honestly now, a country that goes to bed watching "Laugh Bazaar" should not be condemned to permanent strife.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company