Internet provides link with home for troops in Afghanistan

BAGRAM, Afghanistan -- U.S. forces hunting down al-Qaida and Taliban fighters have brought more than just firepower to this dust-ridden Afghan air base.

They've strung fiber optic cables through the treetops and installed satellite uplinks, providing thousands of American troops with a crucial link to home -- the Internet.

"Most of the soldiers here use it," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Franklin, 34, from Blue Ridge, Va. "I e-mail my family to let 'em know I'm OK, that I hadn't hit no land mine."

The network at Bagram air base was set up by the U.S. Army's 11th Signal Brigade to facilitate communications between military units and help gather intelligence in the war on terrorism. But it's also helping soldiers keep in touch with their loved ones more than ever before.

"We didn't have all this during Desert Storm," 38-year-old Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Proctor said of the U.S.-led operation to push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait a decade ago. "It makes coping with being away from home a lot easier."

The Internet in its current form didn't exist back then. By the mid-1990s, U.S. troops deployed in parts of the former Yugoslavia had slow-speed links for the first time, and limited access to e-mail.

Afghanistan marks the first time such an elaborate network has been set up in a tactical theater to support combat troops.

At Bagram, it began modestly on Dec. 17 when a satellite dish, mounted on a four-wheel drive Humvee, was unfolded in one of the few parts of the base that had been cleared by minesweepers. Twenty-four hours later, cables were running into a single sandbagged green tent, filled with computers.

Today, the network has expanded several miles across the base, providing Internet access to 250 computers -- many with T-1 speed Internet connections -- at 45 different locations, most in tents.

Unlikely addition

That's no small feat in a place that has no telephone system of its own and no electricity. Full-time diesel-powered generators provide the juice to keep it all going.

The technology stands in stark contrast to the spartan surroundings. Few people in Afghanistan have phones and fewer still have ever seen the Internet.

At Bagram, most buildings and power lines were trashed during years of fighting between northern alliance troops and the Taliban.