This is a proposal for building community radio stations in rural areas of Afghanistan. I will discuss the developments of media since 2001 and explain why community radio is an inexpensive and valuable tool to aid the United States, its allies, and Afghans on the road to creating civility and sustainable peace.
After the United State’s invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 in response Al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, leadership in Kabul switched over from the Taliban to an interim government whose head of state, Hamid Karzai, backed by the United States, remains president today of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The war has had a few successes and many failures.
On December 1, 2009, President Obama committed to sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan and promised to begin withdrawing them a year and a half from then. But growing dissatisfaction with the war is causing people at home and in Afghanistan to question the United States’ involvement. For the U.S. and its allies to improve efforts at help build a steadier nation of Afghanistan, it will require long-term relationships with rural communities, which make up the majority of the country.
One of the reasons the West fails to comprehensively understand Afghanistan and its people is because there has been limited access to its rural areas. According to the United Nations, there are over 10,000 settlements in that country of 100 or fewer homes and 1000 with 100-250 homes (Mahmood 222). Seth Jones, a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation argues this point in his article “It Takes the Villages” in Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010. He explains that most rural Afghans, who are diverse ethnically and politically, govern themselves according to traditional laws and codes of conduct that have remote connection to policies made by the central government in Kabul. They trust their community’s council more than outside entities like Kabul’s politicians or American and Afghan policy makers.
To be effective, Jones argues that we must adopt a “bottom up” strategy rather than the conventional “top-down” approach that has worked in most Western countries. It is necessary for there be a mixture of strong central leadership and community based organizing, Jones argues. Jones explains that the Taliban used “bottom up” strategy to gain control over so much of Afghanistan (2)
An editorial written July 29, 2010 in the New York Times by Nicholas D. Kristof, a regular columnist for the Times, argues that the war can be won at a microscopic fraction of the cost that has been and will continue to be spent. The U.S. has spent more in Afghanistan than “on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, and the Spanish-American War combined” (A23).
The essay notes that the cost of one soldier could build twenty schools in Afghanistan and cites Greg Mortenson, the central figure in “Three Cups of Tea,” a book that chronicles his mission to build schools for girls in rural Pakistan. Today, Mortenson has overseen 145 schools built in Afghanistan and Pakistan mainly with private dononations to his Central Asia Institute. He claims for the cost of only 246 soldiers, the U.S. could fund a higher education plan for all of Afghanistan.
A growing understanding that force will not change Afghanistan is slowly entering the mainstream thanks to people like Mortenson, who is now advising the U.S. army on its counter-insurgency strategy. “Three Cups of Tea” is now required reading for all military personnel. (Bumiller A1). Mortenson says his strategy will take generations, however he says, “Al Queda and the Taliban are looking at it long range over generations…And we’re looking at it in terms of annual fiscal cycles and presidential elections” (Burmiller A1).
An article called, “Afghanistan: What Could Work” by Rory Stewart in the New York Review of Books, January 14, 2010, presents a proposal for a strategy that would reduce troops, but require a longer stay in Afghanistan. Stewart is a former British Foreign Service Officer member who served in Iraq and has extensive knowledge on Central and South East Asia. In 2002, he walked across Afghanistan to witness for himself how Afghanistan had endured the Taliban and chronicled his journey in the “The Places In Between,” published in 2006. Stewart says that the U.S. and its allies should follow through with their call to reduce troops, but in order to maintain a basic level of peace, there must be a permanent military presence. Stewart writes:
The aim would be to knit together different Afghan interests and allegiances sensitively enough to avoid alienating independent local groups, consistently enough to restore trust, and robustly enough to restore the security and justice that Afghans demand and deserve from a national government (63).
Stewart says the type of surge that worked in Iraq will not work in Afghanistan because in Iraq, the insurgents were Sunni Muslims, a minority religiously and politically whose supporters had mostly been driven out of the capital. Plus, Iraq had a central government that was powerful, credible, and largely supported by the masses with its own militias (62). Afghanistan, contrarily, has an insurgency that is far-flung and diverse, spread out across a population of nearly 30 million people, who mainly live in remote areas.
The bottom line is that to prevent terrorists from organizing in any country, there must be a stable and credible government, which provides security and opportunities to its citizens. Education is the key to a prosperous future as well as communication networks. Radio is a great educational medium to connect people, provide education across the country, and help fight the Taliban.
Radio: an essential tool
I propose building a network of community-based radio stations to serve Afghanistan’s rural central and northern regions. The objective of this project is to create a radio listening culture by demonstrating the potential impact radio can have on the empowerment and communication capabilities for and between rural villages. Radio is an essential tool for communicating in the modern world and while it may feel like outside influence to some of the villagers we approach, our goal is to build trust and help them to create a community-based station that will enrich their future. The intention of these stations is to be a tool to connect people through peace and understanding.
In November, 2002, Comunica, a Dutch non-governmental organization (NGO) published a report based on their fact-finding mission conducted during October of that year. The report, titled “The Potential for Community Radio in Afghanistan” assesses the possibilities of establishing independent, radio stations in rural Afghanistan. Their research was informed through interviews with media experts, journalists, Afghan professors, and members of the Afghan government. The report makes a strong case for the viability and benefits of community-based radio.
Community-based radio has three essential theoretical components. It is physically located in the community it serves; it is not owned by either the government, a company or individual; and it is participatory. To elaborate, the station must reflect the views of the community who operate it. Therefore, all political matters regarding the station’s programming and funding must be public information and voted on by council members. The station’s legal owner could be a local non-for-profit organization, an educational system, cultural association, municipality or a partnership of such groups. The station may receive money from the government or from private donors, but those interests may not affect the politics of the station (4).
Based on Comunica’s report and my own suggestions, here are the main benefits community-based radio could offer rural Afghan communities:
- Broadcast in local languages or dialects used only in specific regions
- Provide entertainment such as radio theater, story telling, and music
- Promote education (especially for women if they are customarily homebound)
- Hold debates with community elders throughout the year and during elections
- Weather forecasts
- Announce community events/calendar
- Inform people of projects being done in the area by foreign aid workers (such as traveling health clinics, mine sweepers, agricultural or construction projects) and interview those involved
- Interview local authorities on issues such as agriculture, education, art, and religion
William A. Rugh, a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer in the Middle East, in “Arab Mass Media,” writes that radio is especially important to the illiterate. Radio news produced locally could be a special source of pride and valued higher than news coming from far away in the capital or a neighboring country (13).
During the Taliban’s rule, there was only one radio station, Radio Shariat and two television stations that broadcast the dictum of the Taliban. The Internet was banned as well as all other radio and TV programs and receiving devices. Those who wanted to listen to news from abroad had to do so in secret. Rugh writes that in times of crises, Arabs often turn to Western media to get another view (212).
Waseem Mahmood, author of “Good Morning Afghanistan,” tells the story about the first radio program to air after the fall of the Taliban. He describes how two young Afghans attempted to watch CNN to “see what’s really happening” after hearing something big had happened in New York on September 11th using a satellite dish made of old tin cans (75).
“Good Morning Afghanistan” aired in early 2002 and was a project funded by the United Nations through the Baltic Media Centre, a Danish NGO. The show broadcast from the building that had formerly been Radio Kabul, built in the 1980’s. The producers also created “Good Evening Afghanistan” and both programs are still on the air today. These were the first stations to use hard journalism to tackle Afghanistan’s brutal landscape. Since, Radio Kabul has become the largest station in the semi-national network, Radio Afghanistan, and a number of independent and commercial radio and television stations have been started.
The most successful media company to have risen in Afghanistan is the Moby Group. The company and its chief executive Saad Mohseni were featured in The New Yorker July 5 issue. Mohseni has created a market for modern television and radio programming that is broadcast throughout the country and located in Kabul. The article describes him as a mix of local do-gooder and businessman. He has brought entertainment and raised the bar for journalists. On many occasions he has argued with president Karzai and his staff over the programming and ethics of his stations. Most importantly he has invoked the Afghan constitution to protect free speech when officials tried to censor him. Among the things Karzai has resented are interviews with Taliban and coverage of the corruption in his government and the rigged elections in August 2009. Though Mohseni is bold, he knows that he is walking a fine line and is in danger no matter where he goes in Afghanistan.
Mohseni has encouraged Afghans to be more open-minded when it comes to sex and politics. His staff is made of forty percent women. He broadcasts the country’s number one show on Tolo TV, “Afghan Star.” It is the Afghan version of “American Idol” and allows women and men to compete together. The show has also brought a form of democracy through the voting viewers do on cell phones.
There are plenty who criticize Mohseni’s openness toward truth and sexuality. Leaders in the government have claimed that his programming fuels Taliban insurgents who use it to demonstrate the lack of morality in Western culture to would be Taliban supporters. Mohseni argues that while he may come across as arrogant at times, he says, “I think the Taliban period is an aberration in terms of our culture and history” (43).
Whether his programming is viewed as moral or not, Mohseni has proved there is a market for Western-style media such as soap operas and reality shows as well as aggressive reporting. Joseph Ravitch, a media investment banker says in the article, “no one—unless you want to take your society back to the Stone Age, as Pol Pot and Mullah Omar tried to do—can afford to cut themselves off from the electronic age” (48). Rugh writes that many countries in the Persian Gulf were slow to develop radio and television systems, but eventually did simply because of external pressure (190-92).
Comunica’s report described two independent radio stations: Voice of Afghan Women and Radio Sada el Solh. The first is located in Kabul and the second is nearby. Both stations are headed by women and receive foreign aid. Voice of Afghan Women is funded by United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The station first aired in 2002 and continues to be on the air today. The station’s founder and director is Jamila Mujahed who is a professional radio journalist and has covered events in Afghanistan for 16 years prior to 2001, when the Taliban finally fled Kabul.
Radio Sada el Solh is in Jabal Saraj, a stronghold of the Northern Alliance located 80 km north of Kabul. The station was owned and directed by one woman, Zakia Zaki, who was assassinated by local warlords warriors in her home in 2007. Radio Sada el Solh received funding from a two French NGOs, Droit de Parole and AINA as well as from Canadian IMPACS (14).
Radio Kabul is the leader of the aspiring national network, Radio Afghanistan, which in 2002 claimed to have 17 provincial stations in action. Radio Kabul receives funding from U.S.A.I.D. (12).
Today there are over 35 independently owned community stations across the country according to an article published on Tolo.tv on March 20, 2009 called “Afghanistan’s Media Explosion” by Jan Forrester, a member of Tolo’s staff. However, she writes, independent journalists still have far to go to in the struggle for free speech. She writes that journalists are unclear whether to follow the guidelines set in 2006 or the revised law of 2008, which President Karzai refuses to publish. Journalists also still face intimidation or prison sentences for articles published that depict the government unfavorably. Journalists remain persistent, she writes, and there is hope for the future as exemplified by a story she recounts of young aspiring journalists who risked their lives and passed through Taliban territory to attend a conference in Kabul.
There are conflicting views over the progress of press freedom in Afghanistan. Many are simply proud that there are media outlets springing up at all, while others are more critical. Ahmad Zia Kechkenni sums it up in an article titled, “Journalism in Afghanistan: Getting better but still a long way to go” posted March 8, 2010 to J-Source.ca, The Canadian Journalism Project. Kechkenni is an Afghan-Canadian who studied journalism in Canada and returned to Afghanistan in 2005 and has worked for the Kabul Weekly since May 2006. He was a senior advisor to Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the rigged presidential election against Karzai in 2009.
Kechkenni reports that currently in Afghanistan, 22 of 60 licensed TV stations, 60 of 150 licensed radio stations, and 300 of 500 licensed newspapers, weeklies and magazines are operating. He says when comparing these numbers to the Taliban era, when there was one government-run TV station, one radio station, and two newspapers, it is obviously a big step forward. However, the media is not truly independent and free to report the truth. The majority of TV stations, newspapers, and weeklies are supported by the government (notice he does not include radio) and the majority Afghan reporters do not have higher education and are poorly trained.
Afghanistan still does not have a law that guarantees journalists access to information and most government sources are not willing to co-operate with the media. Journalists face threats, bribery attempts, interrogation and even death from government and insurgents Ketchkenni writes. Over the last four years, ten journalists have been murdered in Afghanistan, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (Auletta 46). Saad Mohseni, owner of Tolo TV, said that few years ago his station was offered $100 thousand not to air a certain story, which they ran. “If someone is powerful enough to offer a substantial bribe, ‘what stops him from killing someone?’” Mohseni asks (Auletta 46).
Here is how we can help: Let us start with the lessons learned by Mortenson in “Three Cups of Tea.” He describes how he wandered into a village in the high mountains of Pakistan and developed a bond with its people. He promised to build a school for its children and went back to America to raise funds. When he returned, he had $12 thousand, enough to buy the raw materials, transport them to the village, and pay the workers to build the school, he thought. He soon realized that there were more immediate problems. Before he could build a school, the village needed a bridge to transport everything in. What they had been using for decades was a pulley system to bring in people and other commodities across the raging river in the high mountains. Here is where Mortenson learned one his most valuable lessons, that the needs of the community are not always the same as the ideal visions of philanthropists. He realized that the people were not being selfish, but that they needed other important things before they could build a school.
Another thing Mortenson learned, was a piece of advice given him by the chief of the village, Haji Ali. “Why don’t you leave it to us,” Ali told him. “I’ll call a meeting of all the elders…and see what village is ready to donate free land and labor for a school. That way you don’t have to flap all over Baltistan like a crow again, eating here and there” (177).
“Ever since then,” Mortenson writes, “with all the schools I’ve built, I’ve remembered Haji Ali’s advice and expanded slowly, from village to village and valley to valley, going where we’d already build relationships, instead of trying to hopscotch to places I had no contacts” (177).
The Christian Science Monitor, August 2 issue reported that U.S.A.I.D. has botched a number of jobs that were meant to help rural communities in Afghanistan, but left the people feeling resentful toward the U.S. for not finishing the jobs. One example was a canal dug to bring water to a turbine to create more electricity for the village. The canal cost $1 million, but it was found that the incomplete concrete walls and drainage created landslides blocking the water from reaching the turbine (Arnoldy 26). On the other hand, in some projects where the villagers were able to choose exactly where the foreign aid went, the results made a happy ending. In once case, a small village was given nearly $50 thousand on condition that they would vote on how to use the money and provide as of their own laborers as possible. The village installed micro-hydro turbine that provides reliable electricity to all 78 households. The money was given directly by the Afghan government, part of the National Solidarity Program (NSP) that is funded by international donors including the U.S. government. According to the article, 30,000 villages (nearly 70 percent) of rural Afghanistan have done an NSP project (Arnoldy 32).
Taking lessons from the previous examples, our project staff will always be conscious of what villagers need and figure out how we can negotiate their needs with our projects’ goals.
The materials for a radio station are relatively inexpensive. But getting equipment to the villages is another challenge. In “Good Morning Afghanistan,” Mahmood explains that most of the equipment for his team was donated by a radio station in Scotland, which had been storing it in their basement, considering it outdated equipment. We will ask stations around the world for similar donations and have the equipment flown to Afghanistan by the United Nations. Additionally, we will need power generators since most of Afghanistan is without reliable electricity (Auletta 41).
The human resources needed are people who can operate the equipment and teach these skills to locals. Initially, this might require foreigners, but after the first year or so the projects can be left to the villagers to propagate themselves. Mortenson said in the New York Times article that he always chooses locals from the community to invest in training because they will be more invested in the long term to help that community. Even if they have below the education or skills necessary, it is important that locals be entrusted with their own project.
We will need staff to stay in the villages for at least six-month periods to train locals in the fundamentals of news gathering, reporting, and formatting broadcasts. The staff would ideally be trained professionals in radio and news and interpreters would be necessary.
One possibility for employment would be to reach out to Afghans expatriates who want to serve their country. Many educated Afghans work for international organizations and earn high salaries as translators, said a report on NPR, June 24, 2010, which interviewed the governor of Kandahar Province, Tooryalai Wesa. He said he may try to recruit former Afghan nationals to help his government, but knows it will be difficult to attract them away from high paying jobs overseas. He himself lived and taught abroad in Canada for nearly 20 years. Most likely this project will only have funding to pay workers a stipend. Therefore it will rely on good-hearted people willing to work purely for the humanitarian cause.
Funding for this project will be requested from the United States Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.) Mohseni was able to start Moby Group through an initial investment from U.S.A.I.D. of $228 thousand and was later given $2 million for further infrastructure. This fiscal year, the article states, the U.S. will budget seventy-two million dollars for “communications and public diplomacy” in Afghanistan (Auletta 41).
News and opinions should be heard from all corners of the country. As mentioned in the introduction, this is part of a “ground up strategy” that is necessary to win the trust of Afghanistan. The most widely distributed news may originate in Kabul, but rural populations need their own sources as well. Mass media tries to reach the greatest number of people with the simplest message. But urban cultures are different than rural ones, so it is necessary that people from rural places in Afghanistan have a voice on the national wires. An argument could be made that giving rural people their own radio disunites the country because it causes localism to rise and may upset the national goals. But as Jones explains, Afghanistan is a country of extreme diversity and ethnic culture. If we do not empower the rural peoples, we cannot expect them to accept or submit to the central regime’s laws and goals (3).
The long-term vision for these stations would be to become a national network—an independent national confederation of radio stations. Afghanistan has never had a central government that truly held the country together, so this would go in line with the historical reality.
Again, the intention is for these stations to become tools to help build a more stable peace between tribes and forge trust between Afghans and outsiders.
Before we can begin our project, we must send a team to Afghanistan to gather basic information regarding the approval of our project by Afghan villagers. The team will try to establish contact with village elders and find out where villagers might be interested in a radio station and how they would like it to serve them. More investigation will be done into Afghan media regulations and how to obtain a license to broadcast.
Reverting back to Stewart for the closing of this proposal, if the United States wants to see enduring peace, it must stay the course in Afghanistan and not withdraw suddenly. Obama has said his strategy is to keep troops there long term, but to withdraw large numbers in the near future. It appears that they agree on the premise that Afghanistan needs the U.S. to hold out and not leave if the Taliban are to be truly repelled. But there is disagreement on how long this engagement should last.
I argue if the U.S. is going to be honorable, it must fulfill its obligation to Afghanistan by not leaving them and investing in programs that will cost much less than weapons, but will save more lives. It is clear that there is an alternative to fighting, which is to invest in education, communications, and basic infrastructure that should not cost billions of dollars if they are overseen and planned correctly. The “surge and flight” strategy of traditional warfare is not proving effective and it will not work. The U.S., after spending this much time in Afghanistan should try something new rather than abandoning all the hard, though misguided work that has been done. Stewart says it will not be easy, and our help is no guarantee that Afghanistan will be a stable democracy, but “with the right patient leadership, a political strategy could leave Afghanistan in twenty years’ time more prosperous, stable, and humane than it is today” (63).
Let us for once finish what we have started, not halfheartedly, but intelligently, using community radio as an important tool in our cause.
Arnoldy, Ben. “Losing Hearts and Minds.” The Christian Science Monitor 102, Issue 36 (2010): 26-32.
Auletta, Ken. “The Networker: Afghanistan’s First Media Mogul.” The New Yorker Jul. 5, 2010: 39-49.
Bowman, Tom. “In Kandahar, It Will Take A Village To Oust The Taliban.” Jun. 24, 2010 NPR.org.
Bumiller, Elisabeth. “Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice.” New York Times 17 Aug. 2010: A1.
Forrester, Jan. “Afghanistan’s Media Explosion.” Mar. 20 2009. Tolo.tv
Girard, Bruce and van der Spek, Jo. “The Potential for Community Radio in Afghanistan.” Comunica, 2002. Comunica.org/afghanistan/cr_afghan.pdf.
Grabowski, Christopher. “Warlords Killed My Friend.” Christopher Grabowski: Photography, Documentary, Photojournalism. 2007 http://www.mediumlight.com/solh.html.
Jones, Seth G. “It Takes the Villages.” Foreign Affairs May/Jun 2010 http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/66350/seth-g-jones/it-takes-the-villages
Mahmood, Waseem. Good Morning Afghanistan. London: Eye Books, 2007.
Mortenson, Greg and Relin, David Oliver. Three Cups of Tea. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Lasar, Matthew. Personal interview. 5 Jul. 2010.
Stewart, Rory. “Afghanistan: What Could Work.” The New York Review of Books LV11, Number 1 (2010): 60-63.
Ketchkenni , Zia. “Journalism in Afghanistan: Getting better but still a long way to go”
The Canadian Journalism Project. Mar. 8 2010. http://www.j- source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=4883
Rugh, William A. Arab Mass Media: Newspapers, Radio, And Television in Arab Politics. Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2004
“1 Soldier Or 20 Schools?” Editorial. The New York Times 29 Jul. 2010: A23.
President Obama’s Speech at West Point, Dec. 1, 2009. http://www.denverpost.com/ci_13902394?source=rss (full text of president’s speech)
“Second female Afghan journalist killed in five days” Obituary. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2007/jun/06/radio.afghanistan
Just one dollar a month makes you a patron of Radio Survivor. Help us through our Patreon Campaign!