Foreign Policy Blogs

A Public Relations Makeover for Afghanistan

If you read most of the news and editorial pieces I posted on Monday, you probably have a negative outlook on the stability and chances for progress in Afghanistan, and for the most part, rightly so. But there are positive things going on in the country, things that before 2001 probably seemed impossible to most Afghanis. I have mentioned before on this page that the tremendous work of NATO soldiers, humanitarian aid workers, and skilled trainers, both foreign and domestic, has brought progress to many sectors of Afghan life and that these people's work was largely unreported, and this is still true today. The US State Department and the Afghan government are aware of this and have started to try to get the word out, but they need to do more. So does the overall US/Western/Middle East/Asia media, who too easily just report on the latest bombing, Taliban attack, civilian casualties, all vitally important, but not the entire story.

So as I said above, how has Afghanistan ‘improved’ lately and how has the US State Dep and Afghan government tried to get the word out about this progress? While US Ambassador and Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy David A. Gross and his Afghan counterpart, Amir Zai Sangin, Minister of Communications and Information Technology have written editorials and made appearances in an attempt to showcase the nation's progress in the communication field, mainly in the growth of the Internet and telephone industries. Though they acknowledge the tremendous amount of work to be done, they are proud of the accomplishments so far of the Afghan ministry of communications, which has ‘quickly licensed private mobil phone providers, effectively regulated a competitive communications environment and encouraged direct foreign investment into the extremely challenging post-conflict economy.’ In 2001, Afghanistan had fewer than 40,000 telephones and no cell phones, but today the country has 6 million telephone subscribers, of which an incredible 5.4 million of are cell phone. Five national and three highly competitive regional carriers support these networks. The amount of foreign direct investment in the telecommunications industry has exceeded $1 billion and the sector was expected to bring in revenues topping $100 million for the Afghan government.

Regarding the Internet, Afghanistan now has more than 500,000 Internet users and at least 18 providers. With US government support the Afghan government has started a project to construct a national fiber-optic network ring along with a new national system of highways. This project in Afghanistan is part of a larger State Department endeavor called the Global Internet Freedom Task Force, which brings together government, NGOs, and private industry to work toward these goals: 1. To address the challenges to free expression and the free flow of ideas on the Internet, 2. To advocate for the availability of the widest possible universe of content through the Internet, and 3. To actively minimize the success of repressive regimes in censoring information, and increase the transparency of content restrictions.

Perhaps the best aspect of a growing telecommunication's network in Afghanistan is its ability to provide employment opportunities, as Gross and Sangin stated that already the sector has created 60,000 jobs. The other positives are that greater availability of phones and Internet services can help businesses begin and start up with greater potential for growth and these industries provide outlets for the Afghan people to see and hear views and cultures from anywhere in the world. New ideas and avenues for information will be more and more at their finger tips. The spread of greater telecommunications networks will hopefully also aid the Afghan government's work, helping it be more efficient and effective in reaching its citizens and providing them the services they deserve. As Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post warns though, we must be careful where our aid money is spent, as even positive steps such as those mentioned above could have unintended negative consequences.

Tomorrow I will discuss another sign of progress in Afghanistan, the role of women in the workplace and in society. A few personal stories will show how far the nation has come since the oppressive Taliban regime, but also how far it has to go.

 

Author

Patrick Frost
Patrick Frost

Patrick Frost recently graduated from New York University's Masters Program in Political Science - International Relations. His MA thesis analyzed the capabilities and objectives of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia and beyond and explored how these affected U.S. interests and policy.

Areas of Focus:
Eurasia, American Foreign Policy, Ideology, SCO

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