Security of RFE/RL and VOA Employees in Afghanistan and Some U.S. Broadcasting History

I’m watching with great concern the perilous situation of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA) journalists and other U.S. international broadcasting personnel in Afghanistan. My hope is that the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) has a plan for keeping them safe and getting them to a safe location. When I was RFE/RL President in December 2020-January 2021, I can say that the head of our Office of Security took many decisive steps to minimize threats to RFE/RL staff in Afghanistan. We knew in what direction the security situation was going. I’m quite sure that RFE/RL, now headed by Jamie Fly, is doing everything possible to keep the Afghan Service employees protected from harm. I don’t have any information on what steps USAGM officials in Washington may have taken to provide for security of VOA employees in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, much of my previous program placement work for RFE/RL and VOA in Afghanistan will be lost, but media outreach by U.S.-funded broadcasters must continue using all available program delivery methods. In my view, the U.S. government’s goals in Afghanistan should have been from the beginning much more modest and limited in time, presence and money. We should have focused more on providing news, information and Afghan and international commentaries rather than being perceived, because of massive U.S. involvement, as direct participants in governing Afghanistan. The end result might have been different if the various U.S. administrations showed less hubris in their Afghan policy.

All I can say that in the early 2000s, while working for the U.S. government, I tried to help Afghan officials and journalists develop their own broadcasting facilities. I also tried to persuade them to receive and to rebroadcast programs from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the Voice of America. They had no objections to such rebroadcasts but insisted that the programs should not be disrespectful toward Afghan culture and customs as it might contribute to increasing the local support for the Taliban. I think that they appreciated my previous experience of living under communism when Eastern Europe was dominated by the Soviet Union and the fact that I was an immigrant who became a U.S. citizen, a journalist and a representative of the U.S. government.

An article in the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) 2002 Annual Report, titled “Afghanistan Project,” described the work I and my office did in Afghanistan. The article also quoted Ali Jalali, the former head of Voice of America’s Pashtu Service who in 2003 became Afghanistan Interior Minister. Ali Jalali said that “Afghans depend more than ever on accurate, balanced and comprehensive news coverage about politics, health, education and many other topics.” The Broadcasting Board of Governors was the former name, prior to 2018, of the U.S. Agency for Global Media.

In the last few days, Dr. Ali Jalali’s name has been mentioned in connection with the events in Afghanistan, but Dr. Jalali tweeted today: “Rumors circulating in social media saying that I have been appointed the head of the interim government in Afghanistan are false. I have not been considered for such a post nor am I interested in the position. I dismissed the rumors as baseless in my earlier posts.”

2002

In 2002, while I was Director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Eurasia Regional Marketing and Affiliate Relations Office at the RFE/RL headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic, I flew to Kabul via Pakistan to arrange for local rebroadcasting of RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan and Voice of America programs. Per usual practice, I requested on March 5, 2002 and later obtained country clearance from the U.S. Embassies in Kabul and Islamabad. In my country clearance request cable, I wrote that I and three Radio Free Afghanistan and Radio Free Europe/radio Liberty journalists and managers who were not U.S. government employees were planning to arrive in Islamabad on March 15 and depart on the next available United Nations flight to Kabul. The cable also said that our group planned to leave Kabul on March 20. I could not find any other information to confirm the exact dates for my stay in Kabul. While in Kabul, I slept in an RV parked within the Embassy compound. The security situation was still unclear. At the U.S. Embassy building, I found old audio tapes with Voice of America programs which embassy personnel distributed in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979.

During my stay of several days in Afghanistan, I negotiated and obtained the Afghan government’s approval for a 24-hour FM frequency in Kabul. The station went on the air in record time with 24 hour VOA and RFE/RL programming. Also in 2002, I negotiated cross-border medium wave rebroadcasts to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan from Tajikistan, to Iraq and Turkmenistan from Armenia, and FM rebroadcasts to Uzbekistan from Kyrgyzstan. I also negotiated a rebroadcasting contract with Afghanistan Television for showing VOA TV programs in Dari and Pashtu in Kabul and seven other cities. Following my trip to Kabul, a special September 11 program, versioned by VOA, was shown on the anniversary of the attack. At that time VOA TV was still developing a weekly TV program in Dari and Pashtu. With the help of my Prague office deputy Enver Safir, we put in a system in place with local contractors who recorded and distributed VOA television programming.

I received full support for my work in Afghanistan, as well as in northern Iraq, from BBG Chairman Ken Tomlinson, RFE/RL President Tom Dine, and Voice of America Director David Jackson. The BBG provided $10.2 million to build two high-power medium-wave AM transmitters with nationwide reach, one for use by U.S. international broadcasting, and the other for the Afghan government.

I initialed the U.S.-Afghanistan Radio Agreement in Kabul with the then Minister of Information and Culture Dr. Makhdoom Raheen. In October 2002, Dr. Raheen was in Washington and signed the agreement with Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, the then Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the agency’s name was changed in 2018 and it is now called U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM).

Also in 2002, I reported to Washington on what I discovered during my trip to Afghanistan.

Lack of security and unclear control in areas outside of Kabul represent the greatest impediment to local rebroadcasting in Afghanistan. During the war, IBB [International Broadcasting Bureau – the technical support arm of the BBG] arranged for nightime medium wave rebroadcasts of VOA and Radio Free Afghanistan programs from Tajikistan. These rebroadcasting leases are still in place. In April 2002, BBG concluded an agreement with the Afghan government to install two FM transmitters in Kabul, one of which (100.5FM) is currently being used to broadcast the Voice of America and Radio Free Afghanistan programs in Dari and Pashtu 24 hours a day. An agreement to install FM transmitters in four more major cities in Afghanistan is expected to be signed with the Afghan government later this month (September 2002). IBB also plans install two high-power medium wave transmitters, one of which will be used exclusively by BBG broadcasters. The AM transmitter will provide coverage of all of Afghanistan and of neighboring countries, including Pakistan and Iran, at least during nightime. IBB has also signed a separate agreement with the Afghan Television to record and show a weekly VOA TV program in Dari and Pashtu in Kabul and six other major Afghan cities. IBB has hired local contractors to oversee the recording and distribution of television programs. VOA is still in the process of training staff and developing its regular weekly television program for Afghanistan, but a special September 11 anniversary program versioned by VOA TV into Dari and Pashtu was shown in Kabul. A viewer in Kabul commented after seeing the program that while he knew from newspapers and radio about the attack on the WTC, only seeing the video footage convinced him how much the American people had suffered and how terrible the attack was. The combination of FM, medium wave, and television coverage should significantly improve BBG/IBB’s ability to communicate with the Afghan population and to reach radio listeners in Iran and Pakistan on medium wave during periods of darkness. In addition to local distribution over terrestrial transmitters, VOA TV weekly program in Dari and Pashtu is expected to be watched by the Afghan emigree community and by economically well-off Afghans living in Afghanistan who can afford the cost of a satellite receiver. Such television programs can be enhanced by reports filed from Afghanistan by Radio Free Afghanistan and VOA correspondents. Installation and operation of FM and AM transmitters will require additional resources to provide for security and regular maintenance under difficult conditions. (2002)

The U.S.-Afghanistan Radio Agreement was negotiated and initiated during my trip to Kabul in 2002 when I was director of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) Regional Eurasia Marketing and Affiliate Relations Office based at the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) headquarters in Prague, the Czech Republic.
Broadcasting Board of Governors 2002 Annual Report.
VOA Authors: Many Years – Many Stories, A Voice of America Publication, Ali Ahmad Jalali, page 70.
VOA Authors: Many Years – Many Stories, A Voice of America Publication, Ali Ahmad Jalali, Page 71.
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