Years after it was banned, the Internet has made a comeback in war-torn Afghanistan
Asma dabbles on her computer indulgently, switching from site to site. Calmly, she chats with friends around the world, has a good look at something she hates most -- the war -- and gets ready to email a long message to her cousin in London. She isn't afraid of burly men patrolling outside her house anymore. Things have changed for good. Asma still lives in Kabul, but gone are the days of Taliban and a ban on the Internet.
The lifting of the ban has been one of the most welcome changes in the post Taliban scenario. The Internet was accused of being a wayward medium promoting obscenity, immorality and illicit material. It is really ironical to note, therefore, that something denounced as a crime now plays a big role in getting Afghanistan back on track.
On March 10, 2003, Afghanistan went live on the Web with the official country domain .af (dot af), gaining legal and technical control of the 'dot-af' domain for Afghan Web sites and email addresses. "This is like reclaiming part of our sovereignty," said Mohammad Masoom Stanakzai, Minister of Communications, taking into account the moment of knowledge and truth. "It is the country's flag on the Internet."
The first sites registered under the new domain are that of the Ministry of Communications that is heading the country's Internet liberation and the local site of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which provided legal counsel and technical support.
The efforts by UNDP, in this regard, have been commendable. Working closely with Afghan communities and government ministries, it has many other IT-related initiatives in the country. It helped ensure Internet connectivity with direct satellite access for important government set-ups including Chairman Karzai's Office. A UNDP contribution of $80,000 also provided assistance to the creation of the Government's intranet system, including the training for and installation of microwave towers.
In July, 2002, the first Internet café was opened in the country, opening the gates of the World Wide Web to liberated Afghans. The café was the brainchild of Eshan Bayat, an Afghan emigrant living in New York. Aimed mainly at foreign businessmen who have invested in the country and those who have returned to Afghanistan from abroad, the move was engineered by the Afghan Wireless Communication Company (AWCC) -- the country's first Internet service provider (ISP).
This was preceded by an infrastructure jump -- the launching of the first cellular telephone network, which was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai by placing a call to an Afghan refugee living in Germany. Bayat launched the first mobile phone network in April -- a feat that would be unimaginable a couple of years ago, considering the poor state of communications during the Taliban regime.
Later, in July, USAID -- The US agency for International Development -- provided Afghanistan with an Internet Centre valued at $50,000. The Centre, including 10 computer terminals with Internet connectivity, is aimed at providing necessary Internet communication facilities for businesspersons and traders to sell their products and services worldwide via ecommerce.
The Internet potential gains larger proportions considering foreign investors are citing great potential in the country's telecommunications, hotel, oil and gas industries. The understanding is that a powerful and effective medium of communication is a must for the elevation of the country. The digital divide that deprived Afghanistan of the fruits of global interaction is now being bridged. Authorities are even contemplating educating rural Afghan women about the technicalities of Internet usage so they can trade products online!
UNDP is also playing an important role in educating the Afghans about the Internet. It has helped establish ICT training centres in Kabul, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif, offering training to civil servants as well as private citizens, with a special emphasis on women.
But can we expect an Afghan to go online without digging a big hole in his pocket? With cafes charging $4 per hour and satellite phones costing around $2 per minute, the reality is that only a few can afford it in a country where the annual GDP per capita is $160! A few social issues are also raised, involving cultural and religious aspects of the environment. Afghan Wireless Communication Company, which owns the equipment in Kabul's first cyber café, has installed a blocking programme to monitor and censor online content. In this way, topics offensive to the Muslim community are taken care of.
On a brighter note, the comeback of Internet will bring new life to voluntary organisations like RAWA, the oldest political/social organisation of Afghan women struggling for peace, freedom, democracy and women's rights in Afghanistan. The organisation had been using the Web effectively to fight atrocities against women in the pre-taliban era. For them, the return of the Internet is the best thing to have happened in a long time.