A Scrappy Afghan Radio Station Faces a Shaky Future After U.S. Troops Leave

It was the first broadcast station in Panjshir, but now Radio Khorasan is fading fast.

(Matt Sienkiewicz)

Today, the Panjshir Valley is quiet. Once the heart of Afghan resistance against both Soviet invasion and the Taliban takeover, the valley now stands in peaceful contradiction to its war-torn surroundings. Whereas Kabul, only a short drive to the south, remains plagued by terror, the Panjshir offers only relics as reminders of its history of violence. Russian tanks lay, trackless and rusting, on the sides of the Valley's prodigious mountains. A monument to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military leader who famously preserved the valley as Afghanistan's lone bastion from Taliban control, towers over the Panjshir river in quiet solitude. Even the airwaves, once littered with military communications in languages ranging from Russian to Dari to Pashto, have gone nearly silent.

But there is one exception. In a province without a single newspaper, magazine or television station, Radio Khorasan's faint but consistent signal at 89.3 FM represents the sole media connection between the people of the Panjshir and the state of crisis that plagues their countrymen.

Though entirely operated by local civilians, Radio Khorasan is nonetheless a product of the ongoing, uneasy marriage between Afghan society and the American-led NATO military mission in the country. Its roots trace back to an earlier time in the war, when a stable, peaceful Afghanistan seemed only a few battlefield victories and successful infrastructure projects away. From the very start, media was part of the strategy.

As part of the effort to build up the country's broadcasting capacity, NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) scattered across the country, looking for community councils and small businessmen interested in bringing radio to rural locales that had descended into media darkness during the Taliban's rule between 1996 and 2001. Military objectives were thus paired with media goals, with new broadcast outlets not only serving to clarify NATO actions in the region, but also to foster a space in which information exchange might discredit the Taliban and bolster support for Western-style democracy.

Each new station presented challenges to the PRTs and their partners, but the Panjshir and Radio Korocan offered a unique slate of obstacles. Unlike most of the nation, the valley had, literally, never been within range of a single radio station. The Panjshir's mountains had served as fortress walls for decades, deflecting Soviet signals intended to sway local worldviews or diminish military morale. No foreign force had ever penetrated the valley deep enough to start its own station; no Panjshiri had ever had the abundance of time or money necessary to begin his own. A century of war and resistance had left little time for such luxuries as news and entertainment.

In fact, the only person with any relevant expertise was Anwar Yuseffi, a gruff, quiet man, whose modest broadcasting career ended abruptly just two days before America's obsession with Afghanistan would begin. Yuseffi's retirement from the field of military communications came on September 9, 2001--the day his boss, the legendary military leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, was murdered by attackers associated with Osama Bin Laden. Yuseffi's experience consisted of relaying Massoud's messages to his field commanders and providing maintenance for the most basic of military-grade two-way radios. Technically he worked in radio. But in truth he was just a loyal soldier, trained in a simple job and heartbroken at the loss of a man who had come to represent the soul of Afghan nationalism.

For Yuseffi, the offer to start Radio Khorasan in 2007 was a personalized version of the central paradox that Afghan society had faced since 2001. On the one hand, NATO's interest in setting up the station was compatible with one of his life's main objectives. He had fought alongside Massoud in order to keep the Panjshir free from Taliban control. He certainly did not believe all of NATO's promises, but he was certain they had an enemy in common. The same groups involved in the murder of Massoud were thought by most to have trained and sheltered the 9/11 terrorists. But, at the same time, America's offer gave him pause. He feared that his station would one day join the long list of embarrassing Afghan collaborations with foreign powers that cared little for local life or culture.

Ultimately, Yuseffi accepted, believing that Afghanistan's long-term independence required the connective power of media. Comprised of 34 far-flung provinces and profoundly divided in terms of ethnicity and language, the nation was constantly struggling to forge a coherent sense of identity and purpose. Radio Khorasan was to become the Panjshiri people's connection to the rest of the nation, bringing in news and debate from across Afghanistan. Its production staff was to produce and distribute material proclaiming the valley's place in Afghan life and society. But NATO, of course, had its own goals in mind.

The station was offered to the people of the valley as an extension of the centuries old "shura" system, whereby issues of communal importance are made public under the guidance of elder, male leaders chosen from influential local families. All complaints about station content were directed at mullahs who provided a buffer between Yuseffi and wary listeners. At first, the station aired public service announcements and hosted virtual forums intended to articulate and, ultimately, justify the actions of NATO in the Panjshir. Fortunately for Yuseffi, this mostly meant announcing construction projects. Thanks to Massoud and his fighters, the Taliban had virtually no power base within the valley, and military action was rare.

Nonetheless, the need to impose a one-size-fits-all communication model on the vast, diverse country of Afghanistan brought significant problems for Yuseffi and his staff. To this day, some Panjshir citizens hold a grudge against Khorasan's most popular show, "Salam Watandar," an American-funded news program produced in Kabul and distributed nationwide. Locals took issue with the programs' subtle choices in terminology. In referring to the local paramilitary leaders, "Salam Watandar" employed the word jangsaalaar, which means "warlord" and has connotations of violence and corruption.

In most provinces, the word choice was not noteworthy, perhaps even obvious. In the Panjshir, however, it caused an uproar. The term was taken as a highly disrespectful reference to the fallen hero Massoud who, although a warlord in the literal sense, was known for his selflessness and commitment to Allah and country. NATO's generally sound and ostensibly unifying messaging strategy thus collided with the complexity of local Afghan politics, nearly shutting down Radio Khorasan with a single, ill-conceived phrase.

But Yuseffi, having banked considerable good will with local leaders, apologized and ultimately persevered. Slowly, as employees grew in competence, a small news division developed, with journalists moving throughout the valley, filing reports, and occasionally breaking stories that made news beyond the Panjshir. A team of people who had rarely even heard a radio before starting at Khorasan became producers, editors, and hosts, putting together programs that asked locals not only to think deeply about local issues, but also to put them into the broader context of a reuniting Afghan nation. Long held as a prime example of the inability for Afghanistan to coalesce into a single, coherent political unit, the geographically isolated Panjshir was slowly integrating into the greater political landscape, and, by 2010, Radio Khorasan was playing a key part.

But no matter how successful the station was in terms of improving programming quality and impacting its audience, financial independence never appeared any closer. The isolation of the Panjshir limited Khorasan's audience reach and, subsequently, its commercial viability. The station survived on a monthly $5,000 NATO stipend that provided enough income to pay small salaries and purchase the $50 worth of gasoline necessary to keep the station's generators running every day.

In 2011, predictably, these checks began to shrink and, ultimately, disappear. The American-designed 2014 disengagement plan forced NATO Provincial Reconstruction Teams across the nation to shut down, leaving projects such as Radio Khorasan without their core support. The security situation throughout the country has also deteriorated, shutting down NGOs that would have once been proud to work with an outlet such as Khorasan.

The cumulative result has been devastating. Station hours have been reduced to save on power. Employees have been let go and jobs have been combined. Morning show producers turn into night guardsmen as the sun sets on the valley. Many people have not been paid for a year, yet they go to work diligently each day, refusing to give up on a project they have spent the last eight years building.

Yuseffi, somehow, exudes a sense of guarded optimism about the situation. He has, he notes, been through worse. He emphasizes the potential power of Khorasan as the Panjshir's only media outlet. Perhaps local businesses, thus far skeptical, can be convinced to invest in advertising. At times he sounds like the operator of a local station in an American swing state, pointing to the inevitable demand for Khorasan airtime during presidential election season.

For left-wing critics of the war in Afghanistan, it is very easy to call for a complete withdrawal from the country and to demand the United States stop interfering in the cultural affairs of communities it does not understand. For conservatives, it has become popular to fall back on tired free-market platitudes, as though a Panjshiri news outlet ought to live or die by the same forces that would determine the fate of a Houston pop-country station.

Neither approach is appropriate in the case of Radio Khorasan and its fellow rural Afghan broadcasters. For one, the stakes are too high. Realizing that commercial strategies are doomed outside of major urban centers, many small stations have begun looking to alternative outside funding sources, including Pakistan, Iran, and even local warlords. It may make sense to oppose American interference in Afghan, but the alternative to such American-funded programs, unfortunately, is no more expressive of true local perspectives than the current system. Media is expensive and someone has to pay. It is foolish to assume America is the worst possible patron.

Given the goals of both Yuseffi and NATO's original radio project, the most promising avenue would be the creation of a true Afghan public broadcasting system -- a complex proposition and not a cheap one. However, given the tremendous resources America has put into Afghanistan, a concerted effort to fund and establish a state-owned, editorially independent system makes sense. For Americans, this would require putting aside ideologies and acknowledging mistakes. For the Afghan government, this would mean loosening its grip on state media, but perhaps also putting up a stronger fight against outside interference. Most importantly, however, for Yuseffi, his staff, and the citizens of the Panjshir, it would offer a chance to remain a peaceful -- but never silent -- part of Afghanistan's struggle.