Peacekeeping: The Electronic Peacekeeper


March 6,2008: The recent Taliban violence against rural cell phone facilities in Afghanistan is yet another example of how much the Taliban depend on a lack of communication in rural areas. The Taliban can afford to give their combat units (of a few dozen to a few hundred armed men) a satellite phone. But in most of rural Afghanistan, there is no quick way to communicate. No landline phones, no shortwave, no nothing. This is great for the Taliban, because it means local villagers, shepherds or whatever, cannot report Taliban movements. At least not quickly enough to have any effect.

It's not just the Taliban, either. Around the world, guerilla type movements are hurting when cell phone service arrives. Suddenly, all those rural folk who oppose the gunmen are able to report activities quickly to the police. Some rebel groups have taken to seizing all cell phones when they enter a rural village. But if they miss just one, they won't last until dawn. Peacekeeping operations have also found cell phones to be a marvelous tool. Terrified locals now have someone to call, and as the peacekeepers distribute the new emergency number, the bad guys take notice and reconsider their career options.

This has led to some creative thinking on the part of civil affairs and Special Forces troops. One idea is a takeoff on the successful campaign by an NGO to sneak cheap radios into North Korea. For a long time, only radios that received one, state approved, station were allowed there. Normal radios were illegal, and in North Korea they could receive Chinese and South Korean programming, which proved to be very uncomfortable for the North Korean government.

A similar plan for Afghanistan is to drop cheap cell phones, that can also receive radio broadcasts, in Taliban dominated areas. These broadcasts would come from U.S. psyops aircraft or blimps overhead, that would transmit useful programming (weather reports, health, farming religious messages from moderate imams, husbandry tips and local and national news). The cell phone would only be able to call the equivalent of 911, which would be manned by the Afghan police. One of the elements leading to this concept was the existing program back in the United States, where old cell phones are modified to just call 911, and given away free for that purpose. The basic message here is; "Let us know if you need something . . . or see something . . ".

Getting something like this off the ground and into action is another battle entirely. But it shows you the kind of thinking that's going on.


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