Cell Phones Connect Afghans to Rest of World The mobile phone business is booming in once-isolated Afghanistan. Afghans and Taliban militants are increasingly relying on cell phones. Rory Stewart, chief executive of the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, talks about the rapid pace and importance of telecom technology in Afghanistan.

Cell Phones Connect Afghans to Rest of World

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A simpler sound is having a profound effect in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of cell phone ringing)

That's a cell phone. Nothing special in America, but it's becoming more popular in a country that had very few reliable communication lines before 2001. Many Afghans now rely on cell phones, as do Taliban militants. We were reminded of that change this week when a Taliban spokesman complained that foreign troops were tracking the Taliban using cell phone signals. The spokesperson threatened to blow up cell towers if companies if they do not shut off service at night.

The British author Rory Stewart has an idea what cell phones mean for this country. He lives in Kabul, and we reached him on a cell phone.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RORY STEWART (Author): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: How isolated was Afghanistan a few years ago?

Mr. STEWART: I remember when I first entered the country at the end of 2001 that in Herat the only way you could make a call was by going to a small shack in the street where somebody had a stolen satellite telephone. And they'd charge you $3.00 for a call out.

We're now in a situation in which I'm running a non-profit in Kabul. And of my 350 staff, I think 250 of them have mobile telephones.

INSKEEP: And how much has that changed life in the country?

Mr. STEWART: I can now sit in a car driving through Kabul and get messages on a BlackBerry. It's also changed it in unexpected ways. The Taliban, who've been using mobile telephones in Helmand as a way of passing messages to coordinate attacks against British troops. And the British troops have been reluctant to shut down the mobile telephone communications, because it would irritate the local population.

Mobile telephones have become a very powerful symbol both of the rapid change and advance in Afghanistan and also the strange ways in which insurgency's developing.

INSKEEP: Now, are there a number of companies competing for Afghans' business and investing in cell phone networks?

Mr. STEWART: There are indeed. The first mobile telephone company called Roshan(ph) has well over a million customers. It was launched with charitable money. But there are now at least four other companies competing. And you can see now mobile telephone marks all over the country. I was up in the very far north in a very remote region and was able to walk up to the top of the mountain, because I was following a track which had been carved out to create a mobile telephone antenna.

INSKEEP: Now, when we talk about the way this has changed the country, I recall in the days immediately after September 11, 2001 when one of our correspondents - an NPR correspondent, Anne Garrels - made it to a remote corner of Afghanistan, got on a satellite telephone with one of our anchors and began a report by saying, I'm about as far away from you as I could possibly get.

Now, Afghanistan is still far away on the map, but are there ways that it is closer to the rest of the world now because of that communication?

Mr. STEWART: Yes. There's now a situation in the country where perhaps four or five million young Afghans have returned from being refugees in Pakistan and Iran. They've come in with many more modern attitudes.

The mobile telephone network is probably the biggest success story in the country. And this means that a country which was once probably one of the remote and isolated places on earth is suddenly encountering many of the challenges in the modern world.

INSKEEP: Such as?

Mr. STEWART: Well, they're learning much more about what happens in the United States or in Japan and that, of course, breeds a lot of disappointment and frustrated expectation. It also means that they're getting in touch with much wider political ideologies. Young Afghans are now much more in touch with what Muslims are doing in other parts of the world.

But the positive consequences are in terms of trade. Afghanistan's economic future will really depend on it being able to open up to its neighbors and to benefit from very rapidly growing economies along side it. And mobile telephones and road networks and all forms of communication are going to be key to that.

INSKEEP: Rory Stewart is a former British diplomat and author of "The Places in Between," about traveling across Afghanistan. He's on a cell phone in Kabul. Thanks very much.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)


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