Connecting to modernity

A NATO-sponsored training course helps Afghans go online

  • 22 Jul. 2009 -
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  • Last updated: 22 Jul. 2009 10:48

Mujibudrahman, 31, from Kabul, and Badam, 30, from Nangarhar, are having lunch on the patio of a Brussels restaurant with eleven other Afghan professionals in information technology. Later that afternoon, a ceremony is to be held at NATO Headquarters in their honor. Then they will return to Afghanistan, where an important task awaits them.

Afghan IT managers

During the previous three weeks, the thirteen Afghans have participated in an Advanced Training Course on “Managing an Academic Network Infrastructure” at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. The NATO Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme sponsored the course.

Upon their return to Afghanistan, the trainees are to assist in the expansion of the Virtual Silk Highway project in Kabul and in Afghanistan’s provinces. The Virtual Silk Highway provides affordable, high-speed internet access via satellite to the academic communities of the Caucasus and Central Asia. The project has been operational at Kabul University since 2006.

On scuba-diving and state-building

Mujibudrahman – or simply Mujib – is a charismatic Tajik who is also the IT director of Kabul Polytechnic University and a native of Kabul. Badam is a lecturer in computer science at Nangarhar University.

Mujib left Afghanistan in his 20s to look for employment in Turkey, and by 2001 he was working in an internet coffee shop in Istanbul while taking computer courses at night. Hearing that the Afghan economy was improving, he returned to Kabul in 2002 and enrolled at Kabul Polytechnic.

“When I came to Polytechnic, they had no computers,” he says. “Just pens and paper.” Various organisations, including the German and South Korean governments, donated computers over time, and now the University boasts 250 terminals. A Computer Science Department was established in 2008.

The training course was difficult, he says, but the group also enjoyed a bicycling trip to the Dutch island of Schiermonnikoog, and scuba-diving in a pool near Groningen. “He went in the pool two times,” Mujib says with a smile, gesturing at Badam as the latter laughs and covers his face with his hands. “He ran out of oxygen.”

When Badam was 22, he saw a computer for the first time during a trip to Karachi, in Pakistan. “I was fascinated by it,” he says, his eyes sparkling. “So I decided to learn about computers.”

He graduated from Nangarhar University with a degree in computer science in 2006. “When I was a student, we always played computer games.” Any game in particular? “Age of Empires,” he says with a laugh.

Badam believes that programmes such as the IT training course will assist in Afghan state-building. “The government, especially the police and the army, need to become strong. This programme is very helpful in that way.”

Communication brings emancipation

Also in the group are two young women: Roya, IT coordinator, and Somaia, lecturer in computer science, both at Herat University. Confident and loquacious, both wear colorful headscarves. Roya’s birthday is in two days. “But if you like, you can start celebrating now,” she says, laughing.

Somaia is married; Roya is not, a fact that makes her exceptional. “When girls are 19 or 20, most of them are married or engaged,” she says.

“Some are 14,” interjects Somaia.

Roya continues. “My friends married, but I didn’t marry. If I marry, I will choose a person who has an open mind and who will allow me to continue my education.”

Although born in Herat, Roya’s family left Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet invasion to live in Iran where her father became a university instructor. In Iran, however, she found it difficult as a woman to attend university.

In 2004, Roya and her family moved back to Herat where higher education had become more possible for women. She graduated from Herat University last year with a degree in computer science. Eventually, she hopes to earn a doctorate.

“The course was interesting and useful for us,” she says of the IT training programme. “We can manage networks for our university. We hope in the future we can learn more practical details, because the course was very generalistic.”

She sees a clear link between internet access and women’s rights. Through the internet, “women can communicate with women in other countries. This programme will help with that. Trips [like the IT conference] are changing minds about women.”

A recipe for progress

Soon lunch ends, and the group takes taxis to NATO Headquarters.

While NATO security officials process passports, Salim Saay, the IT head for the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education, talks about the programme. “For three years we tried to have a team for NATO projects,” he says. “This year it finally happened. We had a lot of technical issues, so we requested training from NATO.”

He mentions the importance of “The Ring of Fibre Connection” – a Afghan Telecom endeavour to install a fibre optic ring around major Afghan cities as a step towards greater connectivity. How long will it take to complete the Ring? “If you have security, it will take 6 or 7 months,” he says. “If you don’t have security, it won’t happen.”

The students are excited, curious what the ceremony holds in store. They pace near the main pedestrian entrance to the Headquarters and make jokes. Mujib is more pensive. He gestures sadly towards the small cement bollards that surround the entrance. “In Afghanistan, everywhere is like this,” he says.

After a short walk through the HQ’s white corridors, they take their seats in a small bright room filled with dignitaries. Standing behind a podium, Mr Jean-François Bureau, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, opens the ceremony. “With these professionals, we are looking to support the priorities of Afghan universities,” he says. Mr Bureau notes that the course’s objective is to connect Afghan universities with others throughout the world.

Mr. Bureau introduces the Afghan Minister of Defence, H.E. General Wardak. “Information technology is the recipe for progress in the 21st century,” the General says to the trainees. “The country needs you, and for me, as an old warrior of that country, I think we can only totally depend on our young generation for the future of Afghanistan.”

Also participating in the ceremony were Mr. Fred Olthof, the Counsellor of the Netherlands Delegation to NATO; Mr. Mark H. Godlieb of the University of Groningen; and Mr. Saay. General Wardak, standing next to Mr. Bureau, then distributes the certificates to the students with a handshake and a word of congratulation in Farsi.

A job well done and another job begun

Afterwards, Mujib, Badam and Roya share impressions at a small reception held in the trainees’ honor. “I feel very successful,” Badam says, his certificate in one hand. “But I would like to learn more specific things.”

Mujib is a bit star-struck after shaking the hand of his Minister of Defence. “I had never seen my minister in person. In Afghanistan, if you see a Minister, there are always lots of bodyguards.” He smiles widely. “It’s a great pleasure for us,” he says of the programme. “Now I can put the certificate on my resume.”

“When I saw he was here, I was very happy,” Roya says of General Wardak’s presence. She also has a chance to exchange views with Mr. Bureau.

Days later, having returned to Herat, Roya uses an email to send a concluding thought back to NATO HQ. “If NATO would like to help Afghans and especially Afghan women more, it would be great to have more projects in training and education,” she writes.