The October 7, 2001, invasion of Afghanistan did more than mark the beginning of the "War on Terror." It also paved way for the introduction of the first mobile phone networks into the country, networks that today find themselves pawns in the fight between the Taliban, the government and security forces.
Within months of the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, the first Afghan mobile networks began to appear. Today, Afghanistan has four privately-owned networks and, according to a recent report by the BBC, mobile phones are the only way most Afghans are able to communicate, especially in remote areas. The importance of mobile technology hasn't gone unnoticed by the Taliban either, who have recently been destroying towers in an attempt to stop security forces using the technology to coordinate night-time attacks against them. That particular game of cat-and-mouse continues.
The dangers facing many in Afghanistan are often in the headlines. Recently news broke of three aid workers and their driver being killed near Kabul. Decades of invasion, war and fighting have run the country ragged. There are fewer more dangerous places on earth to work. As recently as July 2008, the Crime and Safety Report described the security situation as volatile and unpredictable, and warned of the limited ability of Afghan authorities to ensure the security of citizens and visitors who face threats of kidnap and assassination.
In such a challenging and hostile environment, nonprofit organisations expend considerable time and effort limiting their exposure to risk. With improved communication often at the heart of any security strategy, many have turned to the growing influence and availability of mobile phone networks in the areas where they operate, and to tools that give them the ability to communicate quickly, widely, efficiently and effectively.
Facing a continued and growing security threat, in January 2007 a major international humanitarian organisation (that shall remain anonymous for its own protection) began using FrontlineSMS for field communication in their Afghan operations. FrontlineSMS is free software that allows for two-way group text messaging (SMS) using a laptop computer and an attached mobile phone. This makes it particularly useful in situations where messages need to be communicated quickly and in a coordinated fashion. Following the recent attacks, as a representative of the Afghan nongovernment organisation reported, the tool was "essential" to getting the word out quickly: "E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We also had two female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quieted down. All my staff made it home safe today."