IT Can Help Beat Taliban in Afghanistan

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In one of the final scenes of the movie, "Charlie Wilson's War," the story of America's part in Afghanistan's victory over the Soviet Union, Congressman Wilson is shown asking for more funding to rebuild Afghanistan, a request that is denied.

The message was clear: extremists gained a foothold in Afghanistan after the war because nobody else was willing to step in and rebuild the government, schools and other institutions. Instead, civil war broke out, and fighting continues today despite rebuilding efforts.

Still, technology is playing a growing part in rebuilding Afghanistan, said Amirzai Sangin, Minister of Communications and Information Technology of Afghanistan.

Mobile phones, for one, have become popular in the nation. Now, people can call for help in medical emergencies or to report suspicious activity. Mobile phone base stations have been targeted by the Taliban over such calls.

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) association also wants to help reshape Afghanistan. The group is working with the Afghan government, U.S. Department of Defense and others, including Afghan mobile phone operator Roshan, to start distributing its green low-cost XO laptops to school kids in the country.

Such measures are small today and difficult to carry out for a variety of reasons, but kids in Afghanistan are excited about the Internet and want to know more, says Sangin. The laptops, and other technologies, could be instrumental in keeping kids in school, and away from extremist groups.

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with Sangin at the ITU Telecom Asia show in Thailand.

IDG News Service (IDGNS): What role can technology play in Afghanistan?

Sangin: If we can invest in our youth, with ICT (information and communications technology) and with a quality education, it will make a huge difference in the future of Afghanistan.

I think it will help us to stop them from joining groups like the Taliban.

How can it be that hundreds of people are so easily brainwashed to blow themselves up? It's because of a lack of education.

A lot of our problems in Afghanistan today, why this war is going on, why so many youngsters are joining the Taliban, is because of a lack of education. These people have never gone to school, they do not have any education and they are without work. Can you imagine young people just going around with nothing useful to do?

The good thing is, the young generation has a tremendous interest in ICT, for computers, for going on the Internet.

IDGNS: What are some of the hurdles?

Sangin: We are getting a lot of support from other countries but after 35 years of war, what happened?

Afghanistan was a less developed country before the war but the war destroyed everything we had, so from the end of the war in 2002, we're starting from zero.

Many people probably cannot imagine: no roads, no education, no hospitals, no infrastructure, no schools, no defense, no army, no police, and you want to start a country and build all these sectors in parallel? The task is enormous.

The task has been made more difficult because we still have terrorism living next to us. You build a road or bridge and the next day they blow up the bridge. You build a telecom tower and the next day they blow up the telecom tower. We don't have an easy job.

IDGNS: What are the schools like today?

Sangin: Education is one area our government gives high priority, but you cannot ignore health care and other areas, either.

Also, because of the war, many teachers have left the country, many have died, many are now old so they don't want to keep teaching.

Afghanistan has 5 to 6 million school-age kids. If you want to teach 6 million people suddenly, where do you get the teachers? It takes a long time to gather the right teachers with the right background and I'm talking about teaching from a book, not ICT teaching.

So it will require some training. It's not going to be a short, quick effort. It's going to be a long process.

IDGNS: What's the plan with OLPC in Afghanistan?

Sangin: This is still in the talking stage. We have agreed to sign an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with them. Roshan has also said they will buy a limited number of these (XO laptops) to give to a few schools.

The concept is good. The laptop is cheap and that's good, and it also requires less power so that's good for rural areas...the bottleneck for us will still be connectivity. We don't have connectivity in most areas.

We also will need to solve the problem of recharging the laptops. Most of the country has no electricity.

But if you really want the project to be successful, you have to have content. Content will be a problem.

OLPC is just the hardware, but what will you do with it? What software will you put into it? What content will you put into it for the Afghan schoolchildren? Who will prepare the programs and other materials that will be useful for the children, especially in the local language?

IDGNS: How do you see implementing OLPC's laptop program in the country?

Sangin: We will likely start on a small scale, a pilot in different areas of the country, in a rural area, in a small town, and in a big city and try it with the students. That way, we gain experience and see the results, see if the investment is worth it.

In Afghanistan we have about 6 million people of school age, so if you have to pay $200 per laptop, that is a lot of money.

IDGNS: What kind of technologies has your government promoted since taking over?

Sangin: Well, you see when we first started back in 2002, initially we put in place policies that would pave the way for fast telecom development.

Looking at the country's situation at that time, we had almost no telecommunication infrastructure. You know, the Afghan people had to go to neighboring countries to make a phone call, the situation was as bad as that.

We also knew that to build a telecom infrastructure in Afghanistan would cost hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. So the answer was to create an environment to draw private investment. We created a fair and transparent way of giving out licenses, and putting in place a regulator to regulate the telecom market.

IDGNS: What kind of incentives did you offer?

Sangin: Our incentives were in the form of giving companies a large amount of spectrum, which is a problem in many countries, but in Afghanistan the spectrum is minimally utilized so you can give companies a lot of spectrum.

The other support was to limit the number of licenses initially to attract strong investors. This is probably one of the key things. We introduced first two operators, saw how the market was going, and then introduced two more. The first two came in 2003 and another in 2005 and one in 2006.

Fortunately it has worked well.

We have strong investors. We have Afghan Wireless, which is an American-based company, and the first license holder. We have Roshan, which is the second license holder, we have Etisalat from United Arab Emirates, and Mobile Telephone Networks (MTN) from South Africa. So we have good investors.

All of them have so far invested US$1.2 billion in Afghanistan. The telecom sector is actually the largest receiver of foreign investment in Afghanistan.

IDGNS: What are your plans for the future?

Sangin: We are building a fiber-optic backbone in Afghanistan which is a vision for the future. We currently don't have land connectivity with the outside world, which means that any broadband connectivity becomes very expensive because you have to go through a satellite connection and with satellite, as you know, the bandwidth is limited and the cost is very high.

So we are actually putting in a fiber-optic backbone which is in the form of a ring around all the major provinces of Afghanistan. This ring will be connected to our neighboring countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Once we have this fiber-optic backbone in place, then we can implement broadband.

The demand for broadband is there, but it should not be overestimated because Afghanistan is one of the least-developed countries in the world. You don't bring broadband services to areas where people don't have electricity.

IDGNS: What about wireless broadband such as WiMax?

Sangin: WiMax is definitely going to come but how widely it will be used, how successful it will be we'll have to see from its success around the world.

But definitely from a technology point of view, WiMax is attractive with the large coverage area as well as with unlimited high speed broadband connectivity. But it will depend on its commercial viability. What will be the terminal pricing? how well will it be accepted globally? This is something we will have to see.

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