Afghan Self-stabilization from Below – and Above

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Lee Felsenstein

As the end game begins for NATO and the US in Afghanistan, and as the potential mineral wealth of that unhappy land is revealed, one confronts despair when contemplating the fate of the Afghans. With the Taliban poised to move once more into the coming power vacuum and exploit a resurgent drug trade as well as establish a protection racket parasitic to the future mining industry, one looks for some glimmer of hope for the Afghan people.

After all, Afghanistan has never been conquered except by the Mongols. The much decentralized, tribal society that makes them vulnerable to decentralized gang rule has confounded each centralized invader who attempted to bring about their own version of order. Is there hope that the Afghan people will be able to expel the Taliban as they expelled the others? After all, the first government of the Taliban was not overthrown by the Afghans themselves, but by military invasion with the passive consent of the Afghan people.

Now, with the outside military forces beginning their final period in-country, and with little if any evidence of a viable government staffed by officials who will not bolt the country with their pockets stuffed, what can give the ordinary Afghans the means to resist as they have resisted other occupations?

The answer, I believe, lies in the essence of government. Government operates by communication. People in government gather, refine, transmit information, both from the populace to the seat of power and in reverse after policies and laws are defined based upon the information gathered. People have political power to the extent that they are included in this process of information flow to the exclusion of others.

Gangs are political organizations in that communications are restricted to members within a defined hierarchy. The power of a gang can be broken when the people on whom they feed as parasites develop their own structure of communication and use it to coordinate countervailing power.

Given that the Taliban is a gang it is necessary to ensure that Afghan communities have access to a communication structure which will enable their own ability to organize concerted action against the parasites. Attempts to set up this structure in the form of a classical government have not been successful.

But is a government really necessary at the outset? I will suggest that a telephone network would provide the necessary means for coordination among communities as well as the basis of trade that would allow a functioning economy to develop. In a land where weapons are everywhere, the missing element for military power is coordination.

Of course, communication infrastructure is one of the first targets of any invading military force to control or destroy. Therefore, one may say, a nationwide cellular network would not survive the depredations of any military force.

However, only a few powers can project force into space. The low-earth-orbit (LEO) network of satellites is immune from threat from armies or gangs tied to the ground.

What if a satellite phone were left with each village and tribe in Afghanistan, with service prepaid by the withdrawing powers, and with means for solar recharging? Batteries and other accessories could be made available to local merchants at subsidized prices. While the Taliban would immediately declare possession of these phones to be a capital offense, enforcement of such a ban would be very difficult. The Afghans are well familiar with concealment and protection of the means to their economic and social existence.

The cost of such an effort would be minuscule compared with the cost of military occupation. Economic development would come as a concomitant to social and political stabilization, not as an aftermath. Practice in developing countries shows that availability of telecommunications enables the creation of markets that were previously nonexistent, and enables the middlemen to move up the economic chain instead of squeezing the producers.

I do not know the capacity of the LEO systems, but great capacity is not needed where communication lead times on the order of an hour counts as near-instantaneous. And more channel capacity can be created.

This space-based telecomm system can give way to ground-based systems as the military threat decreases. Open-source software-implemented GSM base station designs have been under development for years. The costs now understood to be inherent in the operation and maintenance of first-class telecomm systems can be greatly reduced as the costs of computers have been reduced. No significant technical problem remains to be solved – this can all be implemented in fairly short order.

The means to allow Afghanistan to stabilize itself are at hand. It remains to be seen whether adequate support can be brought to bear in time. While it would be fitting for the governments involved to provide this support, it does not have to be done by government action.

Lee Felsenstein
Fonly Institute, Palo Alto, CA
[email protected]
9 July, 2010

Phi Beta Iota: Lee Felsentein was one of the original home-brew garage hackers that created Silicon Valley, and today is one of the small number of living people that rate their own Wikipedia page.  He is both a genius and a gentle soul, precisely the kind of person who should be a national institution and whose work should be funded and promulgated.  He has offered the above in the public interest.