What will the longest-lasting and perhaps most important
legacy of the United States' 11-year war in Afghanistan be? A
4G cell phone network
capable of supporting smartphones. That's right, according to retired Marine
Corps Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, who stepped down as vice chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff in August 2011, smartphones are the most important thing
the West has introduced to Afghanistan.
"As we leave Afghanistan, the thing that will most affect that culture over the long term is leaving behind that network and those cell phones because they are talking across mountains and social barriers that heretofore have never been crossed by that culture," said Cartwright today at the Center for Strategic and International Studies during a speech on how information technologies are changing war. "I don't know where that's going to take them, but the introduction of that technology is probably far more lasting than anything else that we're going to do in Afghanistan and far more influential."
"We don't yet understand the power of these tools," he added, pointing out the literally revolutionary power of cell phones and social media tools like Twitter and Facebook, which played a role in the Arab Spring.
Update: While Cartwright said that there was a "4G network that we've already put in place in that country," a reader working on cell networks in Afghanistan emailed Killer Apps to clarify that there isn't a 4G network there. Instead there are "robust 2G networks" with 19 million subscribers and a "3G network coming on line at this time." The Afghan ministry of communications expects the 3G network to bring "Mobile Internet" to roughly 85 percent of the country in five years, according to the reader.
"Even with the technical error by Gen. Cartwright, I could not agree with him more," writes the reader. "In Afghanistan, Information and Communications Technology (ICT), has the ability to transcend historical, cultural, tribal, religious and geographic boundaries in ways no other aspects of development can. Put a cell phone in the hands of an Afghan woman and you have just integrated her into the global society."
Here's some background on the Afghans and smartphones.
A few years ago, ISAF found several problems with paying Afghan security forces. First, Afghan troops would go AWOL after receiving their pay so they could bring it home to their families because there was no reliable banking system, according to Cartwright. The other problem -- as explained to yours truly several years ago by a U.S. general involved in building up the Afghan security forces -- was that corrupt commanders would siphon off troops' cash. The solution (which your author was very skeptical of when he first heard it years ago): get the Afghan troops smartphones so they could conduct mobile banking. This way, cash could be deposited directly into the soldiers' accounts, and it could also be sent across the country to their families.
The only problem was that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences estimated that it would take the largely illiterate Afghan population one to two years to be fully able to use smartphones on the network that the U.S. and NATO had already put in place, according to Cartwright.
But it wound up working better than that.
"So we took iPhones and we say OK, let's try something here; we had a thousand iPhones and we handed them out across a broad part of the country and we moved to a game [in which Afghans vote for contestants on Afghanistan's version of American Idol using their mobile phones] … and ran that on iPhones, and it was more like two weeks to be comfortable with SMS text and moving data."
That's how ISAF got the Afghan troops comfortable with using smartphones.
So forget all the billions in roads, schools, military aid, and everything else the international community has spent on "nation-building" in Afghanistan. The thing that will bring about the most change is the exchange of information between a population connected by pocket-size computers, according to Cartwright.
If he's right, let's hope that the cell network survives after NATO withdraws and that Afghans are able to afford to keep buying smartphones -- a trend that, as this report by NATO's Civil-Military Fusion Center points out, is still just getting started and still faces many challenges.
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.