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q&a

Saad Mohseni, Director of Moby Media Group, speaks at the "Forward Defense Revisited forum at the Halifax International Security Forum on Friday.Michael Creagen/Halifax International Security Forum

As Western nations cast about for a way out of Afghanistan, the chairman of the country's largest media group says the debates are "giving confidence to radicals" who are beginning to "smell victory." Saad Mohseni, the son of an Afghan diplomat, was a teen living outside his home country when the Soviets intervened in 1979. His family returned home after the fall of the Taliban and established Moby Group. Well-connected, urbane and impeccably dressed, Mr. Mohseni brought his perspective recently to the Halifax International Security Forum. He talked later with The Globe and Mail's Oliver Moore.

When you talk about militants smelling victory, what would that look like? Is it plausible to fear the return of a late-1990s-style Taliban?

I don't know that we can say with a great deal of certainty that there will not be a return to the 1990s.

Don't forget, they've suffered, so there could be a period where they will avenge all sorts of things. I don't think that they will compromise on issues such as the education of women. This ideological movement will believe that they have emerged as victors against U.S. or international colonialism. They will have been emboldened and will try to spread that message through the region.

In four or five to 10 years time what is emerging from the region, whether it's terrorism or whether it's drugs, is going to impact Canadians and Americans. And I think there will be regret as to why the West did not persist.

One thing that struck me in Kandahar was that it was often easier to get a quote from a Taliban spokesman than the Afghan government or Western militaries. Has NATO already lost the information war?

You're dealing with an enemy that's very nimble and very quick, especially on the communications side, and a coalition that's very large, very bureaucratic and very slow to move. The Taliban don't have the hierarchy, it's just one person deciding what they will say. And they can say it very quickly.

The other thing is that mistakes have been made. Civilian deaths, for example. In the early days, the Americans in particular were very defensive. It was like haggling in a bazaar. The Afghan government would say there were 50 victims and the Americans would say no one died. And the Afghan government would say 60 and the Americans would say three. And then they would agree on 45. I think [ousted U.S. general Stanley]McChrystal was smart in that he took charge of that very, very quickly and things have improved a little bit.

Let's talk about Kandahar. What has been accomplished and how fragile are those gains?

Let's not get too carried away with superficial changes in the province. Just because you walk down the streets of a particular village today whereas you couldn't do it 12 months ago doesn't mean that can be sustained. At some stage that needs to be transferred to local forces. And if you transfer to an inept, corrupt, despicable and unpopular district chief or police chief, it's a vicious circle. You go back through the whole thing again.

Afghanistan was the "good war" and President Hamid Karzai was once feted as a nation builder. What went wrong?

I think there were failures on all sides. I think that maybe the West was too optimistic and they didn't really go in there for a long-term, 10-year project. I think most people assumed that they would be in and out in a couple of years. Afghans knew that this was going to be a hard slog.

The West really hasn't done enough to ensure the government actually does the right thing by its people. There's an old adage that oppositions don't win elections, governments lose elections. It's because the government has been so weak on issues such as governance and delivery of the basic services that the Taliban were provided with an opportunity to re-emerge.

I think the Americans are learning. Are they doing the right things today compared to 10 years ago? It's hard to tell. I mean, the proof's in the pudding. The government is very unpopular, the popularity of the international forces has dropped a bit and people have become very apathetic. And as I mentioned in my talk, Afghanistan and Pakistan collectively will have half a billion people, the majority of which will be a very young population, by 2050. So the region is not something we can just sweep under the rug and expect to go away.

Many of those young people boosted the ratings for the American Idol-style show Afghan Star on your network. It's drawn the ire of fundamentalists, but is its popularity a positive hint that the next generation is resisting radicalization?

I think it's very possible. Our young population, 60 per cent of Afghans are under 20, is aspirational like young people in Canada and in the United States. We've seen urbanization at a rate that is unheard of. Now with urbanization people forget about tribalism and so forth - they become city dwellers and they have the same ambitions as young kids in your major cities would have. It's a very hopeful period for them and I think we cannot lose their trust and their hope. It's not about changing the country overnight, that's going to take a long time, it's about regaining the momentum and empowering the young people.

This interview has been edited and condensed