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.