Can technology save Afghanistan?
Exploring the role of technology in the current Afghan war
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Around thirty years ago, the Soviets left Afghanistan under the control of a puppet regime which eventually led the country straight into the jaws of Taliban rule. Today, we’re experiencing the same thing. The main difference is that we now have the Americans abandoning the country, and what took the Taliban years to achieve was accomplished in a handful of days.
Many are interpreting this hostile takeover as the beginning of the end for the country. Women, in particular, are afraid that the Taliban administration will strip away the rights they’ve acquired in the past years under the pretence of Sharia Law. Others are afraid of the retribution which they might suffer under the hands of the Taliban commanders.
Naturally, there is mass hysteria in the country, and locals are trying to flee using all possible means. But this invasion will be very different from the first one. The Taliban leaders are already showing some signs of goodwill. One of their first statements claimed that people should continue to live their everyday lives, and women will have access to education. But on the other end, locals are reporting door-to-door manhunts.
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So whether this change in policy is a ploy to appease the rest of the world and acquire legitimacy or a significant change in direction is still to be seen. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What’s for sure is that the Taliban leaders cannot rule with the same iron fist which they used 30 years ago.
One has to keep in mind that telecommunications made giant leaps. In the 90s, the gulf wars were the first two conflicts broadcasted live on TV. People could see the Tomahawk missiles, raining on Bagdad, almost in real-time. Since then, all major News channels have started reporting wars with local correspondents on the ground.
Very few pockets on earth like North Corea managed to elude the indiscreet eye of international reporters. But Afghanistan won’t probably be such a state! It is clear that the Taleban value international recognition because it brings in financial aid such as the 1.2 billion euros in development assistance budgeted by the EU or the Chinese One-Belt One-Road (aka Silk Road 2) initiative.
The Afghanistan of today is also very different from the one of 30 years ago. Back then, almost no one had a mobile phone. Today, the majority of the population has an internet-enabled smartphone. People are no longer isolated; they know what’s happening around the world, they tasted the western lifestyle, and it will be tough for them to go back to a rigid Taliban rule.
Furthermore, social media already played a significant role in the country. In these past years, people used online networks to expose cases of corruption or injustice. They savoured the fact that they could express their voice freely against the state.
It is still early to understand whether the Taliban plan to ban the Internet or maybe restrict it. What’s for sure is that such regimes typically suppress any dissenting voices. But the Taliban are different from other regimes. When they were in hiding, a powerful tool at their disposal was the Internet. Indeed, large corporations like Facebook try to forbid Taliban messages from circulating online, but sometimes they are overwhelmed.
A few days after the Kabul takeover, a Taliban spokesman uploaded five videos to his official YouTube page showing senior leaders congratulating fighters and celebrating their victory. Twitter immediately got flooded with new pro-Taliban accounts where they shared the five videos and racked more than half a million views in less than 24 hours.
So social media is essentially a propaganda tool for the regime, and as such, it will be hard for them to contain it. Similarly to what happened during the Arab spring a decade ago, local resistance will use Social Media to fight the occupation. From the international community, we’ve already seen global celebrities like Angelina Jolie denouncing what was happening on Instagram, and this will only keep on intensifying in the coming months.
Another significant change is that there were almost no girls in schools during the first Taliban rule. In the past decades, millions of women received an education. Thousands of which successfully read for a University degree and are today experts in their field.
Furthermore, many of them work in gainful employment, thus contributing to the general wellbeing of the country. It will be a national tragedy if these opportunities get stifled. Such policies will create a brain drain within the country whereby female professionals (and possibly their families) seek employment opportunities abroad.
For those who are left behind, the Internet can be a lifesaver. Parents can still educate their children online while also providing them with the opportunity to upskill or even work remotely.
What’s going to happen is still to be seen. What’s for sure is that the Internet can provide the Afghan people with a virtual escape from their current oppressors. It can act as a communication medium between people to inform the outside world about what’s really happening over there.
From our end, we must not forget the people of Afghanistan, but we must listen to their pleas, support them in their needs and urge our national governments to act. We have no excuses, and we can accomplish all of this instantly using our technological means!
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.