Midday this past summer in Kabul, the electricity went out in the neighborhood where I live. Power outages are frequent, lasting hours during high-usage periods. I needed the internet to turn in some work. I followed what ordinary Afghans are increasingly doing.
I booked a taxi to a café with a generator, using the Kaweyan app — a cab aggregator akin to Uber — which showed that “AR” had accepted the booking. He arrived within minutes and drove me toward central Kabul, taking an alternate route when we came upon a police roadblock, navigating around donkey carts and police with AK-47s. The café’s neighborhood was being sealed off.
From behind the café’s compound walls, I checked a popular Facebook security page where people report attacks — Kabul Security Now — which confirmed ISIS terrorists had attacked the Iraqi Embassy, just blocks away. As gunfire and occasional bomb blasts echoed across the café’s garden, I got updates through messenger apps like WhatsApp, Skype and Facebook. A friend living in an apartment high-rise in the area sent photos taken by a security camera of two men trapped on the embassy roof, waiting out the attack below. The Kaweyan dispatcher confirmed all its drivers were OK.
Welcome to Afghanistan’s unofficial safety check — social media and messenger apps. Security issues shut down businesses in the Western world, but Afghans are increasingly using technology to keep work going. An explosive boom in mobile phone usage and in apps is shaping the way people communicate, stay safe, keep informed and fill governance voids. This fast growth has spawned some concerns within the Afghan government over the possibility of terrorists also using technology. But the wide support these web-based platforms tailored to Afghanistan’s specific needs enjoy has stymied government efforts to overregulate the internet.
“These resources have incredible potential to bring hope to young men and women in Afghanistan,” says Milad Mehraban, a web developer.
To bypass corruption, Afghanistan’s police are using an app from Roshan — a leading Afghan communications provider — which makes electronic salary payments to police officers, even on simple Nokia phones. Salaries went up by 30 percent by cutting out bribes. An app produced by Mehraban enables users to buy and sell items online like the popular Kabul Online Bazar Facebook page. Another, which he created for Kardan University, allows students to check grades and transcripts and to communicate with professors. And safe transportation remains a growing field. Zood, a taxi app like Kaweyan, launched in September and already has more than 11,000 Facebook followers.
Female activists are using digital media to share information on how to get out of abusive relationships. Noorjahan Akbar founded the Free Women Writers, a collective of women who write, via digital media, about harassment and abuse. Their work is shared through Twitter, Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp. The collective published an e-book that defines abuse within an Afghan legal context and advises women how to find support.
Mehraban is part of a team leading the local chapter of the Founder Institute, with courses starting in the spring for aspiring app developers. He says hundreds of mostly university students — 250 young men and 125 young women — attended the introductory session. A total of 21 women and 30 men will attend the courses.
The demand for Afghanistan-specific apps is large, experts suggest, in part because standard technology-based tools that work effectively elsewhere just don’t work in the country.
“Facebook’s safety check feature is hit or miss and doesn’t get activated for most attacks in Afghanistan,” says Ahmad Shuja, an independent researcher. “So now they use Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and SMS to check on each other.”
Houses and streets in the war-ravaged country often don’t have numbers or names. Kaweyan’s geolocations feature helps get around that, says Abdullah Dastgir, the developer team lead, while providing work for young Afghans, who, as with Uber or Lyft, can drive their own cars to bring in an income.
Wi-Fi is expensive in Afghanistan, with one gigabyte of data costing $100 to $400, while mobile data is much cheaper, making it a practical and economical way to access the internet, Shuja points out. And while most Afghans can’t afford a laptop, smartphones can open the same doors, adds Mehraban.
Afghanistan has more than 80 percent mobile phone penetration, according to Tim Receveur, director of PeaceTech Lab, which works with technologists from the government, civil society and the private sector to brainstorm low-cost technology solutions in conflict zones. Afghanistan had 2 million 3G mobile broadband subscribers in 2017, a number projected to rise to 8.5 million by 2020.
Literacy remains a challenge. Illiterate women, for instance, won’t have access to the resources Akbar’s team is putting together. A lack of education among young men is also seen as a contributing factor to the recruitment of extremist factions, like the Taliban and ISIS.
At the same time, both these groups have used apps with encrypted communications to plan attacks, which led to the Afghan government attempting to block the WhatsApp and Telegram apps in November. The block was dropped after a few days following a civil society outcry, because the apps have become a mainstay, even among government employees.
The government’s inability to ensure security doesn’t help its case. The Afghan Shiite community is one such example. “Mohammad,” a 25-year-old university student studying engineering, lost seven family members to an ISIS attack last year. I met him in October 2016, after an ISIS attack on several Shiite mosques in Kabul. He fights ISIS — which he refers to by its Arabic acronym Daesh — in Syria during his school breaks as a way to protect his community.
Afghan militia fighters living in Iran use Telegram to communicate with their families in Afghanistan; in Syria they use SMS through a local SIM card, Mohammad says. “By fighting them, we defend our country here,” he says.
Iran provides the logistics to the Afghan Shiite fighters in Syria, he says. But to stay in touch, and check up on each other in Afghanistan, these fighters use weapons that are no different from the ones I had to deploy, Mohammad concedes: social media apps and platforms.