Missed Chances, Glimmers of Hope

July 2010
By Linton Wells II, SIGNAL Magazine

It really is frustrating. For years, the U.S. government—and others—consistently have failed to treat information and communications as either a critical infrastructure or as an essential service in Afghanistan. However, in the past few months, innovative people have been making some important progress. AFCEANs can help a lot—starting with reviving the Afghanistan Chapter.

In Afghanistan, there seem to have been three main reasons for the neglect of Information and Communications Technology, or ICT—the international term for telecommunications and IT—in integrated planning. First, it has not been a priority for government-supported development efforts. Development of Afghan telecommunications is going well. The country has more than 7 million cell phones, up from virtually none in 2002, and some 85 percent of the population is within reach of cell phone coverage. As a result, development funds can be allocated elsewhere with the assumption that the private sector will take care of future telecommunications needs as well. That may be the case, but the integration of ICT planning with projects for roads, airports and dams can multiply the benefits of these other efforts, even as the development projects provide the power and transport to help make ICT more effective.

Second, coalition militaries have focused on improving communications between commanders and the edges of their networks. Until recently, little priority has been given to communications “outside the wire.” As I have noted in other columns, this is changing as more emphasis is placed on unclassified information sharing with nongovernmental organizations and other civilian entities. But these interactions need to be integrated into planning at all levels.

Third, the extent of high-level ICT coordination between the U.S. mission and the Afghan government has fluctuated. The senior telecommunications adviser to the U.S. ambassador departed in 2008 without replacement. At one point last year, the principal liaison between the U.S. mission and the Afghan minister of communications and IT was a mid-grade U.S. military staff officer.

Other factors also complicate coordination. Everyone is overworked, travel between different offices can be difficult, and personnel rotations compound already complex organizational interactions. But ICT, especially the information component, is a critical enabler that will shape many of the commercial, security, educational, public health and governance activities in Afghanistan’s future—the more so as young people obtain broader access to cell phones and other connectivity. More structured coordinating mechanisms from Kabul down through local levels could help leverage emerging opportunities and avoid pitfalls.

Unfortunately, this neglect of information and communications integration has not been unique to Afghanistan. Similar problems have arisen in Iraq, Haiti and other complex contingencies, both at home and abroad. In some cases, forward-leaning individuals have tried to set up integrated approaches, such as the Iraq Communications Coordination Element (SIGNAL Magazine, July 2008), which later was changed to Iraq Strategic Engagements. But such cross-cutting approaches never were institutionalized, so the process re-started with each major personnel rotation.

Information and communications and their supporting infrastructures too often are treated as the techie adjuncts to other perceived major muscle movements—reconstruction of power grids; delivery of food, water and shelter; conduct of kinetic operations—instead of being valued as the critical enablers of everything else that happens.

Fortunately, some attitudes are changing. In Afghanistan, a highly qualified expert in telecommunications is being assigned, along with staff personnel, to support the International Security Assistance Force. This can be an opportunity to promote consultation and planning and to enhance coalition leadership in support of Afghan and coalition mission objectives.

Another innovative approach is a mobile phone project that is being established to facilitate governance, security and development by expanding cell phone coverage to 24 hours a day in key areas where cell towers currently are stressed. The intent is to allow commercial subscribers to roam more freely and to encourage increased cell phone coverage in rural areas while supporting long-term commercial and Afghan government goals.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense is pursuing very innovative approaches of integrating government activities with civilian partners through the use of unclassified information. This applies not only to Afghanistan but also to all other regions.

The spectacular work done by the open-source community in Haiti needs to be combined with forward-leaning U.S. government efforts to build structures—tap the information in the “cloud,” “bridge” to the organization, “filter” information as needed, “channel” to decision makers—that can be generalized to activities ranging from stabilization and reconstruction to disaster relief to building domestic resilience. The Executive Office of the President, through its chief technology officer, and the State Department, through Secretary Hillary Clinton’s innovation efforts, are promoting significant initiatives as well.

Information and communications in complex contingencies are receiving more attention, but the momentum needs to be sustained. We have wasted nearly a decade on false starts, uncoordinated efforts and the underappreciation of ICT’s value. Many AFCEANs know how to improve these areas, and constructive suggestions are very welcome.


Linton Wells II is the director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP) in the Institute for National Security Studies and a distinguished research professor at the NationalDefenseUniversity in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are his own and not those of the U.S. Defense Department or of SIGNAL Magazine.