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Afghanistan's New Middle Class Could Be Key to Stability

Inside Tolo News, young, educated Afghans bring hope and optimism to nation's future.
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KABUL -- The Tolo News compound of old villas protected by armed security guards has next-to-nothing in common with Silicon Valley, but it feels like a startup. Desks are crammed in where they fit. Screens line the walls. Computers are humming. Papers are strewn across meeting tables. Employees are busy discussing the latest ideas for the upcoming show. From here, Tolo News broadcasts 16 hours of live television per day.

A day after the country's elections, Tolo's young employees (the average age is 24) gather in a small courtyard to celebrate their successful coverage. The team was happy with their coverage, but also felt relieved that election day was less violent than expected and voter turnout was reported up. The bosses are here to sponsor a free lunch – a perk seen here to be as lavish as a free massage at Google's headquarters.

This team is Afghanistan's new middle class – a stratum that slowly grew in the decade after the fall of the Taliban. This is the first generation that widely received an education and had access to information. Under the Taliban had only about 20,000 working phone lines; today there are 18 million cell phones. While many mountainous regions are still remote, the internet has arrived to the cities.

It is still a small slice of the population, and concentrated in the country's major cities. But once foreign troops and foreign aid leave the country, this middle class could become the force of stability in the troubled country, the force to reject the extremists. Many challenges exist, from terrorism to corruption, but these young people are optimistic.

"I really don't see that the youth who have seen the benefits of education, of ethnic diversity, globalization, traveled around the world, are willing to put an AK47 or an RPG on their shoulder and fight for the warlords," said Lotfullah Najafizada, news director of Tolo.

He's seen a lot of change for a 27 year-old. Under the Taliban television was banned. A single radio station run by the state mostly broadcast religious poems and prayer times. Today, there are 150 private radio stations and 50 private television channels. Najafizada now heads one of Afghanistan's largest newsrooms with 100 editors, producers and talk show hosts.

'A Decade of Peace'

Dressed smart in a grey suit and a slim tie, Najafizada vividly remembered life under the Taliban in Mazari-Sharif in Northern Afghanistan. He grew up poor and studied English in secret.

"Against our will we had to put a turban on our head and go to school, simply no choice, no quality of education," he said. "I was walking a kilometer every single day to go to school and coming back without food. But that has been changed, not only for me, but for millions of Afghan youth."

He said the US-led invasion, which brought about the fall of the Taliban, allowed his generation to get a better education. According to UNESCO, the enrollment in primary education grew from 26 percent of all children under Taliban rule in 1999 to 97 percent in 2011.

"That's why we have such a vibrant team of journalists here," Najafizada said. "For the Americans it's a decade of war as you've had troops on the ground. For us, it's a decade of peace."

With the Taliban stripped of power, he started a new life working as a journalist for a family-run newspaper. Now he's working in a 24/7 newsroom with access to five bureaus in Afghanistan's major cities and an additional 10 reporters in more rural areas.

"You never get tired of, you never get bored of the environment here, because every minute you get new information," he said. "You get sometimes bad news, sometimes good news, but there is always things to digest, to analyze."

Election day was another milestone for Najafizada's team. Working late into the night, they covered the election not only on cable, but also through a live blog on the web and Twitter. Najafizada said it was a great day to witness democracy in action.

"You've had millions of first-time voters, who went to the polling stations and voted, because for us it's a matter of survival," he said.

But this is still Afghanistan. And even on an election day that was described as successful by the country's media and the government, a tenth of polling stations were closed for security reasons, and 19 security forces, seven civilians and 89 militants were killed.

Saad Mohseni, Afghan media entrepreneur and president of Moby group, which owns Tolo News said, "we have a lot of challenges ahead." Mohseni, who spent most of his previous life as an investment banker in Australia and Great Britain, returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban and started his media group with seed money from USAID. Always bullish about Afghanistan's future, he said that the country would have to fix the economy, strengthen the security forces, eradicate corruption, and build up educational institutions.

"Much will depend on the next government," he said.

The past years under president Harmid Karzai were ones of stagnation. Foreign soldiers kept the militants at bay and foreign aid propped up the economy. With the international community pulling out of Afghanistan, it will be on the country's emerging middle class to keep the country on track. Afghanistan turns into one big startup project.

"It's not just about production, it's about keeping our politicians happy, it's about keeping the warlords happy, working with the police, avoiding the Taliban and the terrorists."

Mohseni believes in the next generation. "They're aspirational. They're willing to adapt and adopt new things," he said. "They have ambitions for themselves and for their country. Of course, we have to provide them with jobs, we have to provide them with education, there are a lot of 'ifs' along the way, but I think we're on the right track."

On the news desk and in the control room of Tolo News Afghanistan's new middle class is trying to set an example for the rest of the country, but it's an uphill battle. In a country as volatile as Afghanistan running a newsroom is not an easy task, Mohseni said.

"It's not just about production, it's about keeping our politicians happy, it's about keeping the warlords happy, working with the police, avoiding the Taliban and the terrorists," he said.