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Afghan tech boom: Mullah, many others embrace cell phones
KABUL -- Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He spent almost four years in Guantanamo. He wears a black turban, has a thick beard -- and is never without his Apple iPhone.
The ultraconservative Taliban banned modern technology like the Internet and TV during its harsh 1996-2001 rule, but those items have boomed in Afghanistan since the regime's 2001 ouster, helping to bring the country into the 21st century.
Zaeef, who reconciled with the Afghan government after being released from U.S. custody, said he uses his iPhone to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS. He even checks his bank account balance online.
"It's easy and modern and I love it," Zaeef said. "This is necessary in the world today. People want to progress."
Beyond making life easier, some say the country's embrace of technology could help break the cycle of 30 years of warfare. It puts at the tip of a finger many things that were strictly outlawed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar -- music, movies, pictures of people and games like chess.
Young Afghans see the world differently from older Afghans because of their use of the Internet and mobile phones, and their participation in sports, said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and former newspaper editor.
Afghanistan's youth are not caught up in "the old circle of war," she said. "They are engaging with the rest of the world. That's why technology is so important for Afghanistan."
As an example she uses the popular television show Afghan Star, a version of the American Idol-style singing contest, which draws millions of viewers each week, both young and old. Viewers vote for a winner by text messaging, helping to promote democratic practices, she said.
Eight years ago Afghanistan had only a few hundred cell phone users, mostly members of the Taliban government. Today it has more than 8 million, meaning roughly one in four Afghans uses a mobile phone, according to government figures.
NATO secretary-general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a speech earlier this year that Afghanistan was "in the Middle Ages" when the Taliban was toppled. Today, he said, half the country is at peace and access to education and health care are up 10-fold.
"When I saw an Afghan fellow pull out his Apple iPhone in Kabul, while I was talking on my 5-year-old NATO mobile, I saw another symbol of progress," he said of a recent trip to Afghanistan.
The Afghan capital has one gleaming mall, with glass elevators and escalators and a rare European-style coffee shop. Electronic stores stocked with GPS units, Sony PlayStations, flat screen TVs and iPods fill the shopping center.
Faridullah, the owner of an electronics store who like many Afghans goes by one name, said he sells about four iPhones a month to wealthy Afghans. The price in Kabul has dropped from $1,100 one month ago to about $800 today, he said.
"The country is really progressing now. Nine years ago the country didn't know about mobile phones. We can't compare today to nine years ago," he said. "It's like a custom now in Afghanistan that even if someone doesn't have enough money to eat he'll still carry an expensive cell phone."
The nation's leading mobile phone company, Roshan, added 1 million customers between June and early February, when it surpassed 3 million users. Roshan offers mobile banking services so users can send money to others through their phones, and it began offering Blackberry service in August, the first company in Afghanistan to do so.
Still, the average annual income in Afghanistan is just $800, so shop owners must target the ultra-wealthy and foreigners. Most Afghans never have heard of an iPhone, and Roshan reaches only 56 percent of the population.
"It's still pretty expensive," Jawid, the owner of another electronics store, said of iPhones and other modern gadgets. "The problem is the economy, otherwise people are very interested in the new technologies."
Many shops in Kabul sell a Chinese-made iPhone copy that shop owners say can do most things a real iPhone can. The fake sells for $300. "People use the Internet on it and it goes for a reasonable price," Orash said.
Zaeef, the former Taliban official, said he has always been interested in technology despite his militant links. He used a laptop and satellite phone to access the Internet in the late 1990s, and now he surfs the Web an hour a day, he said.
Zaeef said he tried to persuade top Taliban officials to let Afghans have more access to modern electronics in the late 1990s, and he noted that the Taliban itself now embraces technology. Militants use remote control devices to set off roadside bombs, and they produce high-quality videos of attacks that they post on militant Web sites.
The Taliban movement is highly fractured and is essentially a loose knitting of commanders who wield ultimate authority in their regions. As a result, some commanders have relaxed strict social rules against technology and now allow TVs and music. But others have ripped down satellites from homes and thrown out TVs from village barber shops and tea houses.
"All the time with the technology I tried to get them to investigate about the negative and the positive. I thought the positive outweighed the negative," he said. "I tried, but unfortunately I was not successful."