News, views and commentary from the telecoms sector across emerging markets and developing countries worldwide

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Iraq and Afghanistan: rewarding markets, but not for the faint-hearted

Former Taliban official Abdul Salaam Zaeef: loving his iPhone

Several times over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to chat with people who have worked for mobile operators in countries where the security situation is extremely challenging. Afghanistan and Iraq naturally stand out. Something which I've found interesting is the consistent nature of the answers I've received when asking how often telecoms networks and the personnel responsible for them come under violent attack. Such attacks, I have been told, are rarer than those of us living in safer parts of the world might imagine. Why? Well, I remember being told by someone with Afghanistan experience that those engaged in armed conflict with US and UK forces were enthusiastic users of mobile phones and were therefore not very interested in destroying the infrastructure carrying their own calls and messages.

That particular conversation, however, was in March or April 2007. Since then, I have seen reports of Afghanistan's mobile networks being targeted by the Taliban. In the first quarter of last year I noticed a report from Radio Free Afghanistan story about Taliban demands that networks be shut down overnight because "U.S. and NATO forces track the [them] through their phone signals and then launch attacks on their hiding places." When these warnings went unheeded, attacks on tower sites followed on February 29 and March 1. A third attack on March 2 was said to have "destroyed" a tower in the Sangin district.

One former Taliban official who seems not to be hostile to mobile communications is Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef who, according to a recent article in Britain's Metro newspaper, is an enthusiastic convert to the wonders of the iPhone. Zaeef, who spent four years in Guantanamo Bay but is now "reconciled with the Afghan government after being released from US custody", uses his Apple handset to surf the Internet and find difficult locations, employing the built-in GPS. "He even checks his bank account balance online," chuckles the Metro.

The article goes on to make the case for communications technology possibly helping "to break the cycle of 30 years of relentless warfare." An example cited is that of the Afghan Star singing competition, inspired by the likes of croon-athon/Simon Cowell-ego-vehicle American Idol. The Afghan version draws millions of viewers each week and just like similar shows around the world, fans vote for a winner by text messaging. Shukria Barakzai, "a female lawmaker and former newspaper editor", is quoted as believing that this helps to promote the democratic practices. I must confess to wearing a wry smile when I read this. Here in the UK, home of the so-called Mother of Parliaments, young adults voting in greater numbers for X-Factor contestants than in the General Election is an oft-repeated (though apparently untrue) piece of 'evidence' for the notion of we Brits going to hell in a handcart.

Iraq, too, has recently been the scene of acts of violence directed at mobile operations and their staff. The news item which set me off on the chain of thought explored here today was Monday's Cellular News piece about Asiacell towers and personnel being struck in the province of Kirkuk. A spokesperson for the cellco has said that one of their security guards was killed as a result of the attack, while another suffered serious injury. According to the article, this is one of several attacks waged against the company, including the bombing of the company's customer service center in Mosul and several of its offices in Baghdad, the arson attack of the company's warehouses in Tikrit, and the destruction of the company's headquarters in Mosul.

"It is indeed unfortunate that the wave of attack against Iraq's larger companies - and Asiacell in particular, continues to be carried out by groups who seek to unsettle security and mar our national unity," said Asiacell's CEO Dr. Diar Ahmad. "I still fail to understand what these individuals gain by slaughtering innocent civilians who are guilty of nothing but undertaking their responsibilities with loyalty to Iraq first and the company second."

This, and other complications around doing business in Iraq, do not seem to have deterred Etisalat. A February update on the UAE-based telco, written by Dario Talmesio of Middle East and Africa Wireless Analyst, indicated that a deal enabling Iraq market entry was imminent. Talmesio reported that Etisalat CEO Mohammad Al Qemzi had recently announced that the operator was about to sign a joint-venture deal with Korek Telecom, which operates in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Korek Telecom, noted Talmesio, intends to operate a nationwide network but has not yet found a suitable financing partner.

Afghanistan and Iraq - not for faint-hearted investors and certainly not for faint-hearted individuals when it comes to running operations on the ground. Both markets, however, continue to prove sufficiently attractive for certain telcos to look for ways around these numerous challenges.

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