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Connecting Afghanistan: The rise of technology in governance and society

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“In 2001, I wanted to call my brother living abroad. I went to a local public call office at 6 o’clock in the morning and had to wait four hours before I had a chance to finally make the phone call,” says Israr Ahmad Karimzai, Director of Information and Communication Technology and E-Governance of the Office of the President. “I look back to those days and compare them to today, when I can call my brother at the touch of a button on my own mobile phone, at any time and from anywhere in Afghanistan.”

This change is indicative of the remarkable transformative power of technology in Afghanistan. Telecommunications, for example, has grown from a practically non-existent sector in 2001 to a thriving $2 billion industry today. Under the Taliban, fewer than 15,000 telephone lines were operational, with telephone coverage extending to less than one percent of the population, mostly limited to the country’s largest cities. Limited international connections and a lack of indigenous cellular service left Afghans socially and culturally isolated, both within the country and from the rest of the world. Prior to 2002, only one Afghan in every 450 had access to communications services,  according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT).

Today, an estimated 22 million Afghans are active phone subscribers, with service coverage extending to 90 percent  of the country, across all 34 provinces. Afghans are newly connected with a world of knowledge through the internet, which didn’t exist in Afghanistan under the Taliban. 3G mobile services were launched in Afghanistan in 2012, and have rapidly expanded to all 34 provinces. In 2001, none of the country had access to internet, but by 2013 this had grown to 3 million users, and has since jumped to 5 million  in 2016, a number still expanding rapidly today. In 2014, Afghanistan launched its first ever satellite. This internet is provided in part via more than 4,000 kilometers of optical fiber, the infrastructure for internet services and data transfer. Afghanistan’s optical fiber network connects the country to neighboring Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Iran, transforming Afghanistan into a digital silk road and communications hub for Central Asian regional countries .

Afghanistan’s telecommunication sector is a major contributor to the country’s GDP and a major source of revenue for the country. The industry’s $200 million in annual revenues account for 12 percent of total government revenues —optical fibers alone contribute more than $50 million in revenue. The telecom sector employs 120,000 people nationwide  and contributed to the rise of a generation of tech savvy and connected young Afghans. Afghanistan is among the best in the region in terms of communications infrastructure development and deployment. “We started from zero,” says Ajmal Ayan, Executive Vice President of Wireless in Afghan Telecom. “Today it is possible to call anywhere in the world from every village in Afghanistan.”

As technology has revolutionized communications across the country, the National Unity Government has also undertaken a series of initiatives to better integrate e-governance within the administration . A centralized system through the President’s Office, called Presidential Docs, has replaced bureaucratic procedures for processing petitions by automating petition intake and processing. This has reduced the paperwork time from days or even weeks to a government-imposed maximum of 48 hours.  A videoconferencing system facilitates communication between the President’s Office, ministries and provincial government officials, and a digitized system manages and follows up on activities generated by presidential decisions.

 “The incorporation of technology into government systems has enabled the president to connect directly with senior officials across the country,” says Nader Nadery, Senior Advisor to President Ghani on Public Relation and Strategic Affairs. “It has improved the government’s ability to coordinate, make real-time decisions and speed up paperwork processes. It has brought more transparency to the work of government and has made government officials more accountable.”

The Ministry of Finance has successfully established customs monitoring, human resources management and budget planning systems . Under the National Unity Government, the ministry implemented an e-pay system, through which Afghan traders pay customs duties directly to any bank in the country, rather than to the central bank. This reform dramatically increases the ease of doing business in the country, allowing traders to conduct business more quickly, transparently and easily . The implementation of e-governance in the ministry has led to financial transparency and accountability, which in turn has contributed to Afghanistan’s domestic revenue increasing by 21 percent under the National Unity Government .

The Ministry of Interior has also used technology to increase transparency and augment internal capability. Beginning in 2014, police have been registered in a system that tracks their data through unique biometric indicators. Today, 97 percent  of the police force has been registered in this system. More than 80 percent  of the police force and 73 percent of the government’s total 800,000 military and civilian employees receive their salaries electronically.  This transition to e-payments and biometric tracking cuts down on corruption by ensuring payments are made accurately and traceably.

Technology has dramatically transformed communications and governance in Afghanistan. The National Unity Government has embraced technology both as a way to tackle some of the country’s most pressing and deeply rooted problems such as corruption and good governance, and simplify previously bureaucratic processes. As Afghanistan adopts and embraces technological advances and strengthens its telecommunications infrastructure, Afghans are becoming increasingly connected, both with each other and the world—creating hope for a progressive, transparent and corruption-free country.