Sunday, December 12, 2010

Afghan Radio Wars

At dusk last Friday, four Taliban mortars crashed to the ground near the district center in Miri, a small town in eastern Ghazni province where a U.S. Army company is based. Shrapnel from one of the blasts injured two children in a residential area, a 12-year-old girl and one-year-old boy, who later died of his injuries. It was the second time in as many months that militants had killed local civilians, and U.S. forces were not going to let it be forgotten.

Within two hours of the attack, a message was drafted by the battalion's "information operations" team to be broadcast by its new on-base radio station. In the cramped confines of a steel shipping container-turned-studio, Karimullah, the Afghan announcer, broke the news that both children were taken to an area hospital by American soldiers "for the best possible care, but the little boy was too badly hurt. The insurgents," he lamented, "continue to harm their fellow Afghans and kill your children needlessly."

Words are now weapons in the fight for Afghan hearts and minds — but they must be deployed faster than ever to be effective. In recent years, the Taliban-led insurgency has evolved a vast propaganda machine with a full range of tools to spread their message. The once anti-media movement now operates websites featuring updated battlefield reports; it also mass-produces DVDs with raw video of attacks against coalition forces. Meanwhile, the Taliban's regional spokesmen communicate with domestic and foreign press in real time via cell phone.

But no medium is as powerful as radio in this poor, largely illiterate country with limited access to TV and the internet. On both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, Taliban-sponsored FM stations drive home the insurgents' messaging campaign, with the threat of physical punishment or worse reserved for those who don't tune in. Mobile clandestine radio stations and portable transmitters enable militants to tap and commandeer local airwaves almost at will.

Recognizing the Taliban's head-start on this critical front, NATO military officials have ramped up the spin cycle in the Afghan backcountry. Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, recently issued operational guidelines stressing that the "information war" must be fought aggressively to ensure insurgent propaganda is not just promptly challenged but also beaten to the punch. "Turn our enemies' extremist ideologies, oppressive practices and indiscriminate violence against them. Hang their barbaric actions like millstones around their necks," the guidelines say. "Be first with the truth."

U.S. forces in Ghazni have tapped into alternative funding streams to support the wider radio effort. Ever-popular hand-cranked radios are being distributed in larger numbers at the village-level to expand the audience.

The push has struck a chord. In some districts the Taliban has responded by collecting hundreds of radios and destroying them. Elsewhere, they've targeted radio towers. The Americans, in turn, have started jamming Taliban radio frequencies and going door-to-door with "reverse night information papers," their own version of the Taliban's notorious "night letters", turning an intimidation tactic on its head. The battalion commander, Lieut. Col. David Fivecoat, calls it a necessary measure to stay a step ahead of the militants, and the Afghan news cycle. "We are working hard to make sure the insurgents don't have the opportunity to blame us," he says. Indeed, as the fighting season winds down, the information war is still in overdrive.

Yet given the insurgency's long-standing chokehold over areas like Ghazni, old fears are proving difficult to shake. A day after the errant Taliban mortars claimed two innocent casualties, soldiers stationed in Miri went to assess the damage in a nearby neighborhood. According to Lieut. Philip Divinski, most people had already heard the Taliban was responsible from word-of-mouth or the radio. They could also assume as much, based on the previous militant mortar attack in October that killed two people and injured at least 10 more in the bazaar. Despite the deadly reprise, he was struck at how indifference exceeded anger among the victims' families and friends. "Sadly, it seems people have gotten used to this kind of thing," says the officer. "They understand who's at fault, but they're just too afraid to turn against them."

Monday, December 06, 2010

Telecom Fraud

Telecommunication is the biggest industry in Afghanistan; creating billions of dollars for the economy and millions in taxation benefit the government. However the conduct of the industry and the relationship between ATRA, the regulatory body and GSM companies haven’t been scrutinized. One of the things I have noticed lately is the revenue from international calls. Telephone companies in different countries use a variety of international telecoms routes to send traffic to each other. These can be legal routes or other arrangements the industry calls grey routes, a euphemisms.

Grey routes are arrangements that fall outside the regular course of business between the licensed telecoms companies in each country. The grey part of the route is usually at the far end where the call is terminated. Up to that point, there are normal arrangements to deliver the call from the subscriber to the sending carrier and between the sending carrier and the satellite or cable operator for the trunk part of the call. The grey-ness arises because at the far end the call is made to appear as if it originates locally, as a domestic call, rather than a more expensive international call.

By terminated the calls through grey channels telecoms and other organizations make millions of dollars. I just did an assessment of how much money is made by GSM operators and other agencies and calculated how much is therefore lost in taxes. According to CIA, world factbook, there are 15 million cell operators in Afghanistan. Data on the volume of international calls terminated in Afghanistan is unavailable. Instead I used data available from similar least developed countries (LDC) taking into consideration the volume of diaspora and the heavy presence of international community. I then multiplied that figure with the 15 million users estimated by various sources, but deducting 13 percent which is the normal rate for dual simcard ownership in other LDCs. My calculation estimates that the government is losing 17.5 million every month in revenue due to fraudulent termination of international calls coming into Afghanistan.

The situation where international calls are being terminated on mobile phones as local cell phone numbers is a fraud.


ATRA, the communications regulator, should ensure a uniform tariff of $0.19 per minute on all in-bound international calls. This would safeguard government's revenue earnings of about $210 million a year from in-bound international calls.

International calls to Afghanistan usually terminate on the receiver's phone as either 'Private Number', 'Unknown' or '000000', but lately some international calls terminate with local cell phone numbers, as if they are local calls.

the technology for terminating international calls is real simple and I know a few of the “operators”. All needed is a small satellite dish on the roof and a little capacity on a transponder, a company can become a small-scale international carrier. A device GSM gateway is needed to hack into mobile networks and route international calls to local mobile or landline numbers within the same network the call was to terminate, then re-route the call from that local number to the number the international call was originally intended for.

the telcos and whoever is in the business make it look like the call originated and terminated within the same network so the payment of international interconnectivity fee is avoided and government loses in terms of taxes on such calls.

I suspect that some of the telecom operators have their own grey routes for terminating international calls or are conniving with external contractors. it would be repetitive to talk about the old song of corruption in Afghan government but the the telecom regulator, ATRA, i suspect is deep in it to the neck. i happen to know that member of ATRA board are regularly greased up by the cash rich GSM operators.

I also suspect some of the telcos are not here to operate a GSM network but terminate international calls. MTN for instance has 7 Afs (14cent) rate for internetwork connection. This is extremely high to any standard; moreover they do little advertising to expand and diversify their products. One can’t help not to wonder why they are here.

i am not saying this to point to obvious corruption in telco but the potential of the industry and how little any player knows about it. the government has little idea and the proof of that is lack of time and money invest ment in regulation; as a result most of the profit is swept away by a few players.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What do you think about wikileaks?


 

Wikileaks is publishing new content from the leaked US classified cables each day on the Internet. The documents published through Wikileaks so far have no doubt answered people's need for information. As the rhythm of life and the dissemination of information accelerates with explosive speed, documents that were not meant for publication must now be published quicker than bureaucrats are accustomed to it being the case so as not to warp or distort people's view of the world. As long as truthful information on society is considered dangerous because it contradicts false information spread by governments, information leaks will always be more than welcome.

This method of publication restores some freedom to readers and creates a global public sphere. Democracy can only function on the basis of transparency - yet at the same time it requires the option of secrecy. We are now moving within this tense relationship. It is fascinating to see how these opposing needs are now being balanced as readers watch. Journalists and all online readers are naturally watching closely what the competition reveals. Wikileaks is showing once more that what we read in the press is what was thought and known at a particular point in time. To what extent this corresponds to reality must be subject to continual re-examination.

Here is a point for you to ponder:

The notion of the informed reader is dangerous populism, one could say. True. But without it there can be no democracy.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Pakistan in US diplomat secret cables

Confidential cables to Washington from the American embassy in Islamabad, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of news organizations, illustrate deep clashes over strategic goals on issues like Pakistan's support for the Afghan Taliban and tolerance of Al Qaeda, and Washington's warmer relations with India, Pakistan's archenemy.

One cable, sent less than a month after President Obama assured reporters that Pakistan's nuclear materials "will remain out of militant hands," expressed concern that a stockpile of highly enriched uranium, stored for years near an aging research reactor in Pakistan , could be used by militants to build several "dirty bombs" or perhaps an actual nuclear bomb.

That cable is among the most unnerving evidence of the complex relationship -- sometimes cooperative, often confrontational, always wary -- between America and Pakistan nearly 10 years into the American-led war in Afghanistan.

Over all, though, the cables portray deep skepticism that Pakistan will ever cooperate fully in fighting the full panoply of extremist groups. This is partly because Pakistan sees some of the strongest militant groups as insurance for the inevitable day that the United States military withdraws from Afghanistan — and Pakistan wants to exert maximum influence inside Afghanistan and against Indian intervention.

In one cable, Ms. Patterson, a veteran diplomat who left Islamabad in October after a three-year stint as ambassador, said more money and military assistance would not be persuasive. “There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support for these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India.”

In a rare tone of dissent with Washington, she said Pakistan would only dig in deeper if America continued to improve ties with India, which she said “feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmir focused terrorist groups.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Revelation of the War


 

After the publishing of more than 90,000 obviously compromising documents on the wikileak one would wonder what else can be done in Afghanistan. No matter what strategies the US, Brussels and Kabul come up with their credibility has been severely damaged. There was already much distrist between the three parties especially between Kabul and Brussel and Washington; this takes it to a new level. It will help undermine the trust between the coalition partners fighting in Afghanistan - as well as increasing public anxiety.

I have been monitoring some media today to see the response and I think they got it wrong again. Instead of dealing with what has been leaked they are only blaming the whistleblowers. Children or Generals? Here are my questions: How are they supposed to explain that a special task force has been hunting down the Taliban for years now without success? How can they justify publicly praising cooperation with the Pakistani authorities when it turns out that the Pakistani secret service is 'probably the Taliban's most important non-Afghan helper'? … Governments should start reading them. This also shows how risky this operation is no matter what NATO is trying to do about it. For Nato, which since the end of the Cold War has seen it's role as that of the global policeman, this raises the question of its legitimacy.

The parallels with Vietnam are becoming obvious: In 1971 a US court forced the publishing of secret documents on the situation in Vietnam, nowadays the Internet ensures transparency. Is the same fate waiting for the US? many has argued 'Yes' but I disagree. The war in Afghanistan is winnable; only if Washington, Brussels and Kabul stop making mistakes; only if Washington and Brussels could stifle corruption in Kabul administration. These documents show how widespread corruption in Afghanistan is and how far it goes behind the crippled Kabul administration.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

SMS government: District Government registers client via cellphone

We are trying to promote the idea that district level government in Afghanistan need to engage population more proactively in the face of general disillusionment.

We work with a few district governments in southern Afghanistan to facilitate constituencies who are visiting the district offices to use government services. We have recruited and trained a few constituency caseworkers in the provinces of Wardak, Paktika, Nangarhar and Kunar; we are placing them inside the district governor offices. The candidate was briefed that the role is not to initiate a broad array of actions resulting in a speedy, favourable outcome. When performing casework, the scribe cannot force an agency to expedite a case or act in favour of a client. Scribe role is to intervene to facilitate the appropriate administrative processes. The scribes have a form which they fill out with details of each client/constituent visiting district government office. The form has three copies and one goes to the client.

Local governments (both district and provincial) should try to stay engaged with the public. Keeping continuous and systematic communication with them is a tool to gauge their mood and needs. The challenge in Afghanistan is lack of security, geographically dispersed villages, corruption and public reluctance to engage with the government; under such circumstances it is impossible for local governments to remained informed about public need and raise awareness of government efforts.

Using cellphone local governments can easily gather citizen input via voice platforms and SMS, grouping constituent interests by keywords. Then, based on those keywords, informing them of government actions in their interests.

we are working to use frontline sms to automate the system. this idea came to me when working with telephone operators; there is alot of neglect on the part of staff in a place like Afghanistan. they are not serious about details and cannot be bothered to be accurate.

Project Description and Technical Workflow

The idea is to make the inprocess form available via cellphone, so scribe can use client – or his cellphone when they don’t have – to directly input their detail into the database. we can automate the process this way. Client will be promoted to give regular feedback. District governor and related staff will be reminded about client status and scribe will be tasked to follow up on issues when hitting a barrier. The digitization of bureaucracy on an easy to use medium not only streamlines process but also makes up for lack of physical interaction as a result of worsening security situation.

We can make the form for data entry available via phones without using java enabled features. That we it can be available on all phones. The telephone which receives the form can send a simple hand-written SMS and our dB sms software can receive it. the data is not interpreted, validated or written in a database by FrontlineSMS. For this purpose we can develop a MySQL or MS Access database system to host the SMS data and to provide validation on the data received and to send an automatic reply to follow up with the sender, relate the problem to other stakeholders. For instance a client sends in form with a petition for Tazkira (birth certificate), the sender will receive an sms back, giving him the contact information for the Tazkira manager and working hours of the dept. the dB will also send a message to Tazkira manager informing him about the petition and any unusual notes.

For the functioning of the system we need two dBs, one at the front end and another at the back. The front-end database is the system that performs the validation and the queries would require adaptation for porting to another system.

We have received some money and currently working on a short-codes to toll-free SMS lines, to lower the barrier to entry for ordinary citizens who may not be able to afford a multiple SMS ‘conversation’ based on a menu tree.

There are a few other features that we could add to the casket: I am interested to look into geo-tagging, to give additional geographic context and trends analysis of citizen feedback and information requests.

So far we are only building this text based but we would like to bring in the voice; by using text to speech technology we can trigger recorded audio call-backs for those instances where audio is more appropriate than text.

Friday, June 18, 2010

good luck dying

I grew up at a time when most people had to confine themselves to closed spaces or there was serious risk of getting shot. This give people a good chance to make an income from by doing labour extensive handcrafts. People would spend ten hours a day working on a piece of embroidery or weaving carpet. The amount of money they were making was closer to nothing. Most women would severely lose eye sight in their mid thirties and the job general deteriorate worker health condition. this is the story of my uncle http://sanjar.blogspot.com/2006/05/i-am-terrorist.html. I had turned out to be against handcraft labour as a mean of income.

I was particularly pissed off by the international community and all other fancy people who would stand around and say how pretty certain carpet or embroidery was. If you google for Afghan handcraft, carpet, embroidery or etc you will see millions of dollars had been spent to revive or build such a niche where vulnerable people such as children and women labour so some fancy guy could show off. I always thought the way out is not through creating menial labour extensive camps but economic prosperity. My argument had a logic that is common sense - unless sweatshop workers are literally slaves, they are presumably working long hours in horrible conditions for low pay only because the alternative ways of making a living are worse or none existent.

When you take away iconic handcraft labour from a woman or child the obvious risk is that they lose whatever financial power they have, they will be out on the street begging or resorting to worst activities often with criminal inclination. This is surely not the aim. The only alternative is economic growth: while it may be frustratingly slow, it finishes off Afghan handcraft by producing far more attractive jobs. There is also a psychological element to the persistence of “afghan handcraft”. Many labours, traders and international buyers and sponsors see this work as the only way some afghan can make a living. In the head of the labourer it has resonated that he or she is not good for anything else but this repetitive task. This kills imagination and a will to life. The traders and international sponsors reinforces the belief by supporting the interprise.
While the economic logic is straightforward enough, it is not watertight. But I am starting to believe that economic development is not alleviating this particular problem. Economic growth itself can increase the demand for child labour as well as reducing the supply. While luxury customers are willing to pay a dime more for well established carpet brand, increasing the chances of handcraft labouror income. So I was intrigued to discover two new pieces of research addressing these questions. One is an article in March’s American Economic Review, written by Ann Harrison of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jason Scorse of the Monterey Institute. Harrison and Scorse study data from Indonesia. Harrison and Scorse look at the footwear, textile and clothing sectors with brand names for handmade products. After US boycott of such products profits did fall, and so does investment. Some small plants closed. But few, if any, jobs seem to have been lost. The minimum wage in Indonesia more than doubled between 1989 and 1996, after inflation, and this did depress employment. But there seemed to be no additional effect in the districts with lots of high street handcraft suppliers, despite the fact that wages in those regions outpaced wage increases elsewhere by almost a third.

The second paper was presented in draft form at the Royal Economic Society meeting in Guildford in 2010. This research, by Nigar Hashimzade and Uma Kambhampati of the University of Reading, shows that economic growth – at least in the short-term – is not enough to reduce child labour. Complementary policies to strengthen schools and the incentive to attend them seem to be necessary.

Neither piece of research is the last word, and neither discounts the long-term effectiveness of economic growth in improving working conditions. But I am thinking about women and children who work 15 hours to waving carpet and inhale the dust from the wool. There is no quick solution for them and it seems like they have to keep doing it for another few decades.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Information via mobile phone

Tamas is a project intended to provide crops and market prices to farmers. I was earlier talking with a few of people about it. It is a brilliant idea but they are not doing it right; I am not impressed by the people who had designed the project there is not much enthusiasm on their side – not a good attitude to start with. I was surprised by a predominant attitude that expects it to fail…

Tamas have a few sever shortcomes – apart from crappy attitude. They don't have a good user/client base. The number of people who use tamas falls in 0.000X figure of the people who need the information. The number of people with technical capacity to extract such information is between 15-20 % of those in need; given cellphone ownership. this line of thinking is valid for planning the user base but the project should be based on specifics; the inflow of user numbers within the first quarter and subsequent timeframes. I don't know what they originally planned but they can't readjust that to the reality and revise the figures. Reality for Tamas managers is more like we are not sure. The key to success of this enterprise is creating a user base and the inflow of users. I am a big fun of anthropological theory of innovation diffusion in this regard. It explains who and how the user base will expand. Many e-commerce enterprises used the concept, for instance paypal was giving free credit to attract experimenters when it first started.


 

Second problem with Tamas is the marketing approach they have. Mass advertising is not efficient for promoting technological innovation in communication chain. We need to provide knowledge to bridge the understanding gap. Projects such as cellphone innovations need education for end users. The efficient way to do this is through direct marketing,1.  it gives a virtual product a living face 2. Interactive information for user and step by step guide. 3. Targeted . Moreover technological innovation need to focus marketing effort on previous customers; to keep them engaged – so they are not there for a one time shop. This is all I have learned with a similar project I am working on. The radio advertising and print campaign didn't work out for us. Our marketers on the ground are drawing clients by dozens; with this inflow we are creating the customer base we need in a quarter.


 

The third problem with Tamas is the availability of price index. I texted for banana and apple price in Kabul and they didn't have it while now is the season for both. This is like having a radio station but it is not on air.


 

The failure of tamas doesn't mean text or voice based cell application doesn't work. For the starter it means that USAID and its partner did a lousy job in doing it. they need to have people who believe in texting and have entrepreneurial spirit , not the type experimenting on Afghanistan. "Tamas doesn't work" or "mPaisa doesn't work" are the common type of arguments I hear on daily basis when people want to oppose mobile phone applications. All of the above arguments also apply to mPaisa but I have to say they are getting better at it and will have a larger user base especially if the could successful enroll the entire police force for salary transfers.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Explosion on darullaman road at 8:10

I just heard a big explosion near our house; it is around 8:10am. The explosion happened on darullaman road toward the ministry of rural development. The smoke is mushrooming in the sky and i can hear sirens. Trucks are rushing toward the scene. This part of town was quiet recently and not many explosion had happened in the last few years.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rationality and Taliban and how can we rationally handle them

Here is a daunting question; are Taliban rational? i say terrorism is the only rational thing Taliban are capable to do. Taliban as individuals are not rational. they lack control over basic human instincts such as anger, joy, jealousy… etc. that is why they decided to be Taliban as a result of foreign occupation, corruption or anything that is happening in Afghanistan which made them angry. Taliban movement is the only framework that helps the lunatics behave rationally and have a sense of fulfillment.

Mullah Rockety, Waheed Mozhda and Abdul Salam for instance were all Taliban but they are not any more. They are in the government or have something going that is engaging and provides that rationality which they once enjoyed from being a Talib. No longer these men have nothing to lose.

There has been many theories to reconstruct a rational theory of terrorism an one of the best is Eli Berman's. Reverse the story of mullah rockety or abdul salam and you get a sense of Berman's argument: effective terrorist groups are effective only because their members are cut off from the outside world and have little to gain from quitting the group. This could be caused by many things such as poor education and etc but the core reason for the majority of a nation is bad governance and in Afghanistan failed state for decades.

Of course, the world is not short of terrorists, but there are many grievances, many disaffected young men and hundreds of thousands of murders or deaths on the battlefield. Given what an impact terrorist violence can have, and how low-tech it can be, Berman is probably right to suggest that the rarity of effective terrorists, however welcome, is a puzzle.

Lets pursue rational terrorism and the answer is in former Taliban. A single defector can jeopardise a terrorist network, and defections do happen. Sudanese militant Jamal al-Fadl quit al-Qaeda in the mid 1990s and jumped ship to the US, reportedly for huge sums of money. Abu Musab alZarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, died when his safe house was bombed in June 2006 – it has been reported that an associate betrayed him for the $25m bounty on his head.

The higher the stakes, the more tempting it will be for a half-hearted terrorist to defect. Berman argues that radical religious groups are well-equipped to ensure that there is no such thing as a half-hearted terrorist. It is not the theology of such groups – martyrdom, for instance – that makes the difference, but their ability to cut off outside options and create very strong ties between group members. there was not a single thing that we didn't fear not to do without fearing Taliban reprisal, from flying kite to the colour of cloths and even genital hair. Everything was Taliban business. The aim is to reinforce a group identity and make everyone part of the circle.

At the core of Taliban is a set of rules that makes it unattractive for adherents to leave, and attractive for them to stay. If they stay, they enjoy the membership of a group that provides substantial social services to members. If they leave – having been cut off from education, work and isolated from real life – their options will be limited, even if they do run off with a truck full of smuggled goods or a pay-off from the Americans.

Berman's theory is puzzling in some ways. He devotes very little attention to the fact that the violent religious groups he studies – the Taliban, Hamas, Hizbollah and the Mahdi Army – are all Islamic. But the focus on the way some radical religious groups are able to control defection does seem very fruitful. It points to clear solutions, too: give potential terrorists attractive outside options, offer effective social services and try to cut off their sources of funding. Not at all easy, and not altogether new. but, what is?