Viacom’s ex-CEO on Kabul’s front lines

February 13, 2009, 1:17 AM UTC
Fortune

While the global economic crisis consumes our focus, did you realize that Afghanistan is sliding into greater chaos? Yesterday, on the eve of U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke’s visit, Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked three government sites in Kabul and killed 19 people.

Personally, the news out of Kabul captivates me because I’ve been there. It was January 2003, and I was part of the first official delegation of women – a dozen women, mainly from the Bush Administration and the business world – to visit after the Taliban was defeated. At least back then, we thought the Taliban was defeated.

Through the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, which I chair, we did humanitarian work, building a women’s resource center in Kabul. And then recently, Afghanistan came back into sharp focus for me thanks to a man I profile in the current issue of Fortune: Tom Freston.

Freston, CEO of Viacom until he got the boot by chairman Sumner Redstone in 2006, considers Kabul his third home – after New York City and Los Angeles, where he’s now working with Oprah Winfrey. (See “Behind Oprah’s new TV venture.”) Freston lived in Kabul for six years until 1978, when the communists took over and he returned stateside to help start MTV. He’s been back to Afghanistan three times – for two months altogether – recently and is now making films there, doing humanitarian work and also funding a new Afghanistan program at the New York-based Asia Society. “Tom is way ahead of the curve in understanding Afghanistan’s complexities,” says Holbrooke, Barack Obama’s point man for the region.

Given the latest chaos and Freston’s expertise, it’s worth sharing a few of his observations from my interviews and from a breakfast he hosted at the Asia Society:

“In 1972, when I came into Kabul from Iran, it was tranquil, peaceful, safe, tolerant,” he says. “There were Sikhs, Jews, and Hindus living beside Muslims, and even women in miniskirts. I fell in love with the people.” Three decades later, returning for the first time since 1978, “I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I found a country tortured, broken, yearning for peace, yearning for connection with the modern world.”

“Most people you meet put an increasing amount of blame on President Karzai,” he notes. “They view [his period of rule] as opportunity lost. There’s very little security or justice. The people view the local police as corrupt and almost a predatory force.”

Is he ever in danger? Yes, but he doesn’t let it faze him. “The Serena Hotel – which used to be the Kabul Hotel, a five-star hotel – right after the second time I stayed there, a suicide bomber killed eight people.”

“What you see is a rat’s nest – the Taliban, war lords, drug dealers and a corrupt government. But you also have people with great determination to have better lives. People are doing business. It’s an anomaly to me. As security declines, business seems to be getting better. The media sector is exploding. And the media are great forces for change.”

“The cell phone market is huge,” Freston, 63, adds. “There are four carriers. Under the Taliban, 1% of households had land lines. Now 40% have cell phones. The Taliban was blowing up cell towers, but they backed off because they needed cell phones too.”P.S. Freston is glad to be gone from Viacom, which today reported a 69% drop in fourth-quarter net income due to $454 million in restructuring charges. For more on his post-Viacom life, see yesterday’s Postcard, “Tom Freston’s Supreme Court Surprise.”