Fresh from the Department of Crazy Ideas: Phonebomb Afghanistan

As I mentioned on KOW a few weeks ago I was in Afghanistan recently researching ISAF strategic communications specifically and campaign strategy more generally. My assessment of the situation can be summed up in a word: bleak. My point with this post, however, is not to add to the dismal chorus on the war which you’re hearing now from practically every quarter. For what it’s worth, I see no fault with this sober assessment in Armed Forces Journal, War on the Brink of Failure‘.

IF (double underline) there is any way to resolve the situation in a way congenial to our interests it will not be through conventional thinking. Fresh thinking is required, something different, unexpected. Here’s my crazy idea (reader feel free to add your own in comments).

Just before I left for Afghanistan I read Neville Bolt’s excellent article ‘The Leak Before the Storm: What Wikileaks Tells us About Modern Communication’ in the latest RUSI Journal.  (It’s a subscription journal but I imagine many KOW readers have access to it. If not, why not?  It’s a vital read.)  Something he wrote in the paper really stuck with me throughout my trip:

Any true test of opening communications space goes beyond just expanding the number of phone-in shows in a country where radio thrives, however productive this may be. More imaginative measures are called for, such as distributing a free mobile phone and free airtime to every one of Afghanistan’s 29 million people, regardless of large numbers falling into the hands of hostile Taliban.

Crazy, no? No. Actually very clever, I think. Quite a few years ago now Marshall McLuhan (he of the aphorism ‘the media is the message’) described the emergence of what he called a ‘global village’ as a result of the rise of global communications. War, he argued, in this situation would be a ‘war of icons’ in which the belligerents would seek to defeat their rivals by the erosion of their ‘collective countenance’ with ‘electric persuasion… dunking entire populations in new imagery.’[i] He was ahead of his time, but not by much; what McLuhan saw building in the early 1960s is now a self-evident reality—just look around, according to the United Nations the chances are now one in two, wherever you are in the world,  including Afghanistan, that the person next to you will own or have access to a mobile communications device.

It seems to me that Afghans, as a society, are poised on the brink between two extremes. On the one hand, they exist in a state of premodernity–poor, illliterate, superstitious; on the other hand, the dense web of interconectivity which is powering the emergence of a hyper-modern global ‘network society‘  is reaching into Afghanistan too.

So push them over it. Take McLuhan at face value; dunk the entire population in new imagery, in ‘electric persuasion’. Accept that creating a true ‘public sphere’ in Afghanistan gradually by conventional means, in the same way Western societies did, will take longer than we have patience for, if it ever works at all (which is doubtful). Take a lesson from Flashman, George Macdonald Fraser’s fictional creation, who nonetheless had more than a few persuasive things to say about Afghanistan: ‘when the going is tough, stay calm and cheat.’

Provide every Afghan who wants one a free mobile phone but require from them in return normal census-type data, ideally including biometric (i.e., fingerprint in lieu of signature)—name, occupation, address, or village, and so on. The Afghan government which has already strongly opposed the collection of biometric data should be reminded that it is effectively a ward of the international community. Alternately, as an emollient, the data, and resulting database, might be couched as a simple commercial matter—a normal contractual arrangement between phone user and provider.

In other words, create a real communications space and ‘let ideas find their own levels’, as Bolt says; it will probably not hurt us—most likely the opposite, in fact—but it will place the Taliban in a highly awkward position with respect to the population whom it wishes above all to control. Creating a wider and more open mobile phone network might give the Taliban some additional opportunities, but by and large it makes life for them difficult rather than easy. Does it deny people something which the populations of all developing countries have shown that they want very earnestly indeed, the ability to communicate with their friends and loved ones, to receive information and participate in economic enterprise which they otherwise could not? The telecom sector is the most thriving part of Afghanistan’s economy and responsible for more than 10 per cent of government tax income. And the Taliban’s technical ability to use the internet and mobile phone services to their advantage is nowhere close to that of an advanced state and unlikely to evolve much.

Moreover, this sort of communication space is something that we can really use. As opposed to the purely ‘tradcomm’ Afghan public sphere where ISAF is inherently disadvantaged by being too few as well as culturally alien and unable to speak the language, a digital communication space is something which plays to our strengths in network analysis, relational databases and sheer number crunching capability. A great deal of societal intelligence can be gleaned by simply understanding who is speaking to whom and correlating that with information on location, time and other known events. It is not necessary even to know particularly what is being talked about—the metadata associated with communications in aggregate is more than sufficiently useful, as one can see by looking at the business model of firms such as Google and Amazon, on-line retailers and search engines which build ever-more sophisticated profiles of individual with every interaction.    

It also might act as a vehicle for pro-government information and propaganda. The Taliban, as Thomas Johnson and his colleagues at the US Naval Postgraduate School have analysed, has already cottoned on to the potential for mobile phones to be used as a propaganda channel both for coercion (e.g., threatening texts) and more benign persuasion (e.g., chants, music, videos and sermons lauding the Taliban and valorous resistance to the ‘infidel invader’).[ii]

And it could be used for generating ‘atmospheric’ data which ISAF, as noted above, chronically lacks. This could be done by monitoring the actual content of traffic, which surely must play some role in the intelligence picture (as it does now). But much could be accomplished quite openly. For instance, if what is required is specific atmospheric data on a particular region, or demographic, or both, since you have that data in your database already select a representative sample and interview specific individuals. As an inducement for participation in a friendly chat offer free minutes—the model is already well established by phone network providers which use the same techniques for generating market data in abundance. 

Over at Danger Room I note that others are asking similar questions, see ‘Can Cellphohes Bring Justice to Afghanistan?‘ An extract:

… if a bland virtual-office tool doesn’t sound like it can turn around a deteriorating war, consider that much of Afghanistan is beyond the reach of any court, whether due to incompetence, corruption or sheer remoteness. That’s a vacuum insurgents exploit. The lawyers behind the Silk Road project, known as the Internet Bar Organization, want to pair traditional structures for adjudicating disputes that Afghans consider legitimate and match them with formal legal institutions.

The effort is just taking shape and there are a lot of obstacles to it. But the basic idea is simple. ‘People would dial in their disputes, a jirga would gather, the disputes would be resolved,’ Jeff Aresty, the Internet Bar Organization’s president, tells Danger Room at STAR-TIDES, a demonstration of next-gen tools for nation building and disaster recovery. His central question: ‘How can we add some justice structure to the communications that people are already using?’ Aresty calls the idea the M-Jirga, for Mobile Jirga.

My answer would be it’s worth a try. Let’s have more creative thinking like this because sure as anything thinking ‘inside the box’ is not going to get us out of Afghanistan with much dignity intact.

Incidentally, I heartily recommend Charles Stross’ sci-fi novel Singularity Sky which explores some of these ideas. In it a highly technologically advanced ‘trans-human’ culture subverts a lesser developed one by bombarding it with high-tech mobile phones which are essentially able to grant any user’s material wishes in return for information. A recurrent theme in the novel is that information and progress are inexorable and inseparable. In this case, the contact of the lesser developed culture with the advanced one is utterly devastating for the status quo of the former. The parallels are pretty obvious.


[i] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Abingdon: Routledge, 2001), p. 370.

[ii] Thomas Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, ‘Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact’, Small Wars and Insurgencies (forthcoming).

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26 thoughts on “Fresh from the Department of Crazy Ideas: Phonebomb Afghanistan

  1. Quintin says:

    A diabolical plan David, but I like it. In fact, I stated some time ago on a Reuters blog that, since we cannot take the Afghanistani to the World, we should bring the World to Afghanistan. I suggested free internet cafe’s back then. But I like this idea more… more practical – and with some hidden advantages.

    We’ve been doing a lot of work commercially to calculate KPI’s for mobile providers, and as a result have come a long way towards geo-location of callers, in particular since KPI’s like ‘dropped calls’ have to be expressed in terms of the network hardware (antennae) that had caused it.

    The volume of data is staggering, but we’re finding ways of dealing with that as well. The upshot? A fantastic source of information, albeit not one that lends itself to PowerPoint. Just a thought.

  2. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    Nice idea, but I have my doubts. And I will tell you why. When I worked in the City in the heady days of the Tech Bubble at the beginning of the Oughties, the buzz at first was all about ‘channels': get a device into everyone’s hand. Heck, the business modellers thought, we all got two hands, so get a device into both of them. Imagine the possibilities. 12 billion handsets in sales, easy. Cha-ching. The only KPI anyone talked about at the time was ‘penetration’. (Hmmm…)

    And then some smart-arse Cassandra said, ‘You know what, chaps, thinking about channels is so wrong it hurts. Content is king.’ People will not buy 6 telephones just to talk to their friends and play Snake. You need to have something to say to them.

    And so it goes. So now no one talks about penetration: they talk TV, apps, FaKebook,location specific advertising, streaming porn. (Stop it, you! This is an academic blog…)

    So, think D+1. What do we say to those plugged in Afghans?

    Crickets.

    ‘Democracy is great. Women are equals. We’re here for you, as long as it takes. Honest.’

    Right. Talk about dropped calls.

    I take the point that channels are important, and that without them, you have no entry point, but what strikes me as the problem in Afghanistan is that we don’t know what to say. I mean, based on current strategies, the ISAF telemarketing call centre (imagine it: chock full o’ Warriors! Hu-ah!) script would read like that of a bad Lionel Ritchie video: ‘Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?’

    I would suggest that in trying to figure the rest of the conversation out, we might want to consult Ann Swidler’s classic article (http://www.pierpaologiglioli.it/web/uploads/Ann_Swidler.pdf) where she conceives of culture as a toolkit, a source of symbols that are meaningful to the people who are on the receiving end. I think if we don’t have a toolkit developed (and as of right now, I believe we are a few screwdrivers short, to be frank) we aren’t going to have anything to say to Johnny Afghan.

    And I think other people in Afghanistan have a pretty well developed toolkit, who exploit all channels–face to face and electronic–with panache.

    • Quintin says:

      Classic FB, I haven’t enjoyed a response as much as this one in quite some time. And yes, you’re right – content is King. Perhaps we should give each a BlackBerry and let them find content by themselves on the Web, rather than tailoring content for them?

  3. Madhu says:

    So, think D+1. What do we say to those plugged in Afghans?

    We stream Bollywood movies, serials and videos, CSI – Kabul edition, CSI – Kandahar edition, Afghanistan Idol, crop reports, weather reports, how to read-and-write-and-do-sums programs (make sure we add Chinese to the language menu – the Chinese are going to build a fair amount of railroads and do some mining, yeah?), health advice, an Afghan CRAIGS list listing jobs with ISAF, anti-Taliban puppet shows, movies, serials and videos, and lastly, the Harold Pinter Playhouse – Kabul edition.

    Wait. Scratch the last suggestion. That might be going a tad bit too far.

    In other words, what Quintin said.

  4. Madhu says:

    Hey, my research (twenty seconds on Bing) shows that CSI Miami is one of the world’s most popular shows.

    But why????

    • Quintin says:

      I did some field research on this (I asked my wife) – apparently it has something to do with the way Horatio removes his sunglasses.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Those glasses have actually become an internet meme. I don’t even watch the show and those glasses have shown almost everywhere I go. If it hasn’t already I imagine that memes would be the source of a good sociological study (albeit complicated by the transience of the subject matter).

    • Ed says:

      My response to Mr Grant’s point: carrying out such a study…would be murder. (YEAAAAHHHHHHHH)

      ps Well someone was going to say it.

    • Madhu says:

      That’s funny about the field research.

      Although, just you wait! I’ll find a way to make all the blog commenting that I do “academic.”

      “Blog-commenting as a Personal Educational Tool in Medical Education and Teaching.”

      “Blog-commenting: A New Pedagogy.”

      “The sociology of online medical communities and blog-commenting.”

      Oh, wait….

  5. Pericles says:

    ‘Provide every Afghan who wants one a free mobile phone but require from them in return normal census-type data, ideally including biometric (i.e., fingerprint in lieu of signature)—name, occupation, address, or village, and so on. ‘

    You go first! We have just ditched one government in the UK largely because it increasingly infringed ordinary civil liberties in ways exactly like this. The other problem with this idea is that it appears to take no account of the fact that open access information often actually radicalizes people. The idea that open media will create liberal tolerant submissive ‘Western’ societies is a typical positivist utopia. Read some John Gray, Loretta Napoleoni, or look at how that story panned out in Russia after 1991. We should not continue this Barnettian/Fukuyamian lunacy that ‘connecting’ the world will somehow make it all more ‘Western’. Organized crime incidentally also LOVES increased connectivity, as does rogue economics.

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  7. Formerly Grant says:

    We shouldn’t presume that such a plan would necessarily rescue Western operations and I also would council against making it a free plan. Overenthusiastic views and total government control can create problems. It would probably be better to experiment with what the free market can do in a few select areas.

    On another note Stross is an interesting pick. Considering the predictions made by writers like Wells maybe we should consider a list of the most realistic science fiction for the 21st century.

  8. If the central government doled out mobile phones it would be easy for the Taleban to characterise them as ‘western plans’ and declare that anyone caught with one would be punished or simply discredit them by saying ISAF is listening to everything you say, they are a homing beacon for UAV missiles and all sorts of other nonsense.

    You are right that we need innovative thinking though and there might be ways in which the mobile network could be expanded or exploited, cell broadcasting for example

    Not saying it wouldn’t work and with all these ideas I don’t see any harm in trying

  9. Wodheim says:

    Unfortunately, the insurgents already recognise that control of the population extends into the communications domain. They suppress the mobile phone networks by physical destruction and intimidation of mobile providers. As a result, the mobile phone towers get switched off in the hours of darkness – inhibiting local business, social interaction and security tip offs.

    Until we provide persistent mobile phone coverage, wider ownership is just going to increase the number of Afghans over whom the insurgency can demonstrate their control and channel propaganda.

  10. Chirality says:

    Lateral thinking like this is what is desperately needed!

    Maybe ISAF contributory governments should focus more on ‘culturally relevant soft power’ (the ability to obtain what you want by attraction, persuasion and co-option) to the two extremes of Afghan society mentioned ?

    No doubt it’s a big task – but it’s not just about the lovely power station or school we built, but about how we go about the whole process. How it is perceived locally? What strings are attached? “Thanks, but we know you’ll be going home next year”? Otherwise the population will take what’s on offer but not be brought on board.

    Take the Chinese example of doubling an order for combat fatigues to the head of one African army. When China were questioned about the over delivery, the answer was basically, “there’s no error, keep them as a gift from the Chinese government”. Result – one very pleased head of the army. That’s soft power!! Subtle but very effective.

    Now if only we had the people capable of making the bold decisions without being powerpointed to death….

  11. David Betz says:

    Thanks for comments all of you.

    @Faceless Bureaucrat, well, I don’t disagree that ‘content is king’. My point is that Afghans should make of it what they will, let ideas ‘find their own level’. I too am doubtful that we can sell the whole liberal democracy enchilada in Afghanistan. But I don’t think anyone in ISAF really thinks that either, anymore. The point is how to do something constructive at all with far fewer troops on the ground. Of course another option is to just throw everything on the back of a C17 and leave–let ideas find their own level that way. On balance, I dunno… The reason I see this ‘electronic public sphere’ as useful, potentially, is because it is at least one that we can take part in, which we cannot now, and generate information from which at present we do not have.

    @Pericles, oh to be sure if someone was to do this to me I would be up in arms about it. The difference between me and the average Afghan, however, is that I have fewer genuine security fears. If I had greater fear I might feel differently. Moreover, as opposed to the plan I have described in which people get something that they really want, phone and phonetime, in return for data on themselves, the government actually expects people to pay for initiatives such as the UK identity card which rather adds insult toi injury. The truth is that if the government offered £100 in Threshers vouchers as opposed to levying the same for the cards people would line up to surrender their data. After all that’s how Tesco works it, and Amazon, Google, all the rest which is why the corporate sector already has a ton of information on you which is growing all the time. As far as connectivity growth goes, there is nothing that we could do to stop it if we wanted. Afghan dope lords don’t need free phones anyway. My point is how can we make use of if. As for your point about Fukuyamaian utopia, well, that’s not what I’m aiming at, as noted above, but equally I must admit that I’m not so jaundiced as you about ‘progress’ either. Let’s discuss it again in fifty years.

    @Wodheim, you put your finger on the salient point that the Taliban, outrageously in my view, considering their capabilities, already has outstripped us in the exploitation of the electronic communications realm. And not just in terms of content, as Tom Johnson’s work talks about, but through the expedient of threatening phone companies they are able to shut the network down where they desire. Why are we not building microwave towers in all our FOBs? How about this, create an ‘ISAF network’ as a backup. If the Afghan networks go down then people will still be able to connect via it. A hundred years ago counterinsurgents controlled terrain by building blockhouses by the hundreds and thousands, mutually supporting, in a dense network that had the effect of shutting down guerrilla movements. We can’t do that now because of manpower constraints. We don’t want to be there and we probably can’t afford it either. Microwave towers are cheaper. And we’re good at building them.

    @Formerly Grant, agree, should look at seeing what the market will achieve on its own. It might not actually require all that much new investment. Also in respect to Think Defence’s point Afghans want these things, they already are willing to devote a high portion of their income toward getting them. The Taliban could label anyone who owns a phone a spy/saboteur/stooge etc and seek to punish them but this would be alienating, no? It is good to drive a wedge between the insurgent and the people they wish to control; even better to find a wedge and let them drive it themselves.

    • Pericles says:

      My point was only a basic one about the need not to confuse technological progress with homogeneity of values/outlook in the way that most Positivists do. If Afghanistan were to be transformed by the cellphone, then they may indeed reach a stage of sophistication where, one day, members of the Afghan Taliban armed with boxcutters will have the piloting skills necessary to fly an entire passenger aircraft into the Pentagon.

  12. For the record, Singularity Sky, fantastic book. Havent quite finished it yet but enjoying every word. Bless the Kindle for delivering it to me within one minute of reading this post!

    Up there with Daemon for me.

  13. ael says:

    A better plan is to drop lots of $5 bills out the back of a Hercules.

    Picking up the money will take time away from blowing stuff up and then they have money to spend it somewhere, hence good economics. Plus, it is real easy to hide a few bills, so it is hard for the local thugs to take it away. Mix up the currencies as required.

    You can even fine tune it by dropping more over areas that you want to do better (but keep dropping some everywhere to keep their eyes on the ground and not sighted along a barrel)

  14. Pingback: Should we stay or should we go? A Swedish perspective on Afghanistan | Kings of War

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