With the ban on modern technology long lifted, Afghans have embraced the future. One in four people uses a mobile phone and Kabul shops do a brisk business in electronic gadgets.
KABUL — Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef is a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. He spent almost four years in Guantánamo. He wears a black turban, has a thick beard — and is never without his Apple iPhone.
The ultraconservative Taliban banned modern technology like the Internet and television during its harsh 1996-2001 rule, but those items have boomed in Afghanistan since the regime’s 2001 ouster, helping to bring the country into the 21st century.
Zaeef, who reconciled with the Afghan government after the U.S. released him, says he uses his iPhone to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS.
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He even checks his bank-account balance online.
“It’s easy and modern and I love it,” Zaeef said as he pinched and pulled his fingers across the iPhone’s touch screen last week. “This is necessary in the world today. People want to progress.”
Beyond making life easier, some say, the country’s embrace of technology could help break the cycle of 30 years of relentless warfare. It puts at the tip of a finger many things that were strictly outlawed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar — music, movies, pictures of people and games like chess.
Young Afghans see the world differently from older ones because of the Internet and mobile phones, and their participation in sports, said Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker and former newspaper editor.
Afghanistan’s youth are not caught up in “the old circle of war,” she said. “They are engaging with the rest of the world. That’s why technology is so important for Afghanistan.”
Eight years ago, Afghanistan had only a few hundred cellphone users, mostly members of the Taliban government. Today it has more than 8 million, meaning roughly one in four Afghans uses a mobile phone, according to government figures.
In a speech this year, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said Afghanistan was “in the Middle Ages” when the Taliban was toppled. Today, he said, half the country is at peace and access to education and health care are up tenfold.
“When I saw an Afghan fellow pull out his Apple iPhone in Kabul, while I was talking on my 5-year-old NATO mobile, I saw another symbol of progress,” he said.
The Afghan capital has one gleaming mall, with glass elevators and escalators and a rare European-style coffee shop. Electronic stores stocked with GPS units, Sony PlayStations, flat-screen TVs and iPods fill the shopping center.
Faridullah, the owner of an electronics store who, like many Afghans goes by one name, said he sells about four iPhones a month. The price in Kabul has dropped from $1,100 one month ago to about $800 today, he said.
“The country is really progressing now. Nine years ago, the country didn’t know about mobile phones. We can’t compare today to nine years ago,” Faridullah said. “It’s like a custom now in Afghanistan that even if someone doesn’t have enough money to eat, he’ll still carry an expensive cellphone.”
The nation’s leading mobile-phone company, Roshan, added 1 million customers between June and early February, when it surpassed 3 million.
Still, the average annual income in Afghanistan is $800, so shop owners must target the ultrawealthy and foreigners. Most Afghans never have heard of an iPhone, and Roshan reaches only 56 percent of the population.
“It’s still pretty expensive,” Jawid, the owner of another electronics store, said of iPhones and other modern gadgets.
Many shops in Kabul sell a Chinese-made iPhone copy that store owners say can do most things a real iPhone can. The fake sells for $300. “People use the Internet on it, and it goes for a reasonable price,” Orash said.
Zaeef, the former Taliban official, said he has always been interested in technology despite his militant links.
He said he tried to persuade top Taliban officials to let Afghans have more access to modern electronics in the late 1990s, and noted the Taliban itself now embraces technology.
“All the time with the technology I tried to get them to investigate about the negative and the positive. I thought the positive outweighed the negative,” Zaeef said. “I tried, but unfortunately I was not successful.”