06/13/2012 04:21 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2012

Heads in the Cloud and Eyes to the Stars: Why Afghanistan's Answer to Post-Conflict Development Is Just a Ringtone Away

When I sat down to choose my new Internet provider in the U.S., I never imagined longing for Afghanistan. But after being forced to choose between the only two options, both expensive and both with equally unimpressive reviews of their services, I'm now lamenting that telecommunications in Washington, D.C. lacks the competitive edge that exists in Afghanistan.

At a talk by Afghanistan Communications Minister Amirzai Sangin at CSIS today, I was intrigued to hear about their zeal for the Internet and mobile phones as a key building block to post-conflict development. Sangin described how during the years of conflict, many educated people fled Afghanistan, and the next generation struggled to access education, leaving the country frustratedly regressing in their development.

But now, according to Sangin, the country is bursting to develop. However, rather than focusing on the more typical pathways of aid, he says the government's priority is attracting business investment. And one of the key ways they see to both bring in that investment and to educate and empower their population to grow the economy is through Internet and mobile phones. Impressively, 18 million people in Afghanistan apparently have mobile phones -- that's more than one for every adult member of the population. And the government has used negotiations and competition to drive down the costs, and drive up the quality of service. An Afghan communications satellite is on Sangin's wishlist. His vision is to give everyone in the society the opportunity to succeed by providing full access to broadband for the entire population... and the Afghan government has committed to covering at least half by the end of 2014.

Sangin told us how his vision is for Internet-enabled people to access health and education, develop IT skills, become entrepreneurs, and communicate throughout and beyond the country with ease, using their phones. More, he wants to use the technology to circumnavigate physical infrastructure deficits such as lack of banks, using mobile phones to pay government workers in a manner that is both timely and ensures the full amount reaches the intended recipient. He wants to replace current easily forged paper ID cards with electronic versions to reduce election fraud. I don't know how much of this will be realized. What I found most cheery though, was Sangin's enthusiasm, the way he looked up as though he could almost see his shiny new communications satellite, and his vision of delivering something truly inspiring to empower the people of Afghanistan.

Exciting opportunities for innovative development exist when you can't fall back on centuries-old infrastructure. I wonder what America, or Britain would look like, if we had to start from scratch. If Sangin's vision is anything to go by, rather than looking down at bricks and cement and Internet cables, we might be gazing straight up at the stars.