How Technology Could Help Save Afghanistan From The Taliban

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Given the timing, I was expecting the usual “look how wonderfully high-tech the Obama administration is” kind of promotion at Monday night’s NY Tech Meetup, when United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park presented on some of the projects sponsored by the Federal government’s Office of Science and Technology.

However, as a Republican who’s staunchly pro-reform, I was quite intrigued by one anecdote he offered. He told of an experiment involving mobile payments to Afghan National Police (ANP) officers for their regular pay.  When implemented, ANP officers thought they had received as much as a 30% raise as a result.  It turns out that they had only now been receiving their full pay as opposed to what was left after superior officers and other agents skimmed off the top when payment was made in cash.

As Mr. Park told it, the diminished cash payments due to this corruption was creating an incentive for ANP officers to work with the Taliban who would happily pay the difference and then some for cooperation, thus undermining security operations in Afghanistan.  See this infomercial about the program for more context:

Now I was thrilled to hear of such a technologically innovative way to address a truly complex problem in a country like Afghanistan.  So, like the pragmatic citizen I am, I decided to delve further.  Of course it is usually at this point that the story and reality meet.  It turns out that did a thorough investigation of how this technology can be used and abused, and reported, among other things, the following:

In April, citing a State Department cable released by Wikileaks, Foreign Policy reported that a senior Afghan National Police officer whose subordinates were in the mobile pilot project tried to register fraudulent accounts in his subordinates’ names. In another case, the same officer forced his subordinates to turn over their SIM cards and tried to redeem them for cash from an M-Paisa agent. The agent refused to hand the money over, but had to go into hiding for fear of retribution.

So it appears like any other piece of technology, it has its flaws and is just as susceptible to corruption as any other system.  But perhaps with continued attention and improvements, it will be faster and easier to catch this kind of corruption.  By doing so, we could then help to foster a more independent Afghan National Police force with the level of integrity necessary to manage their own security without a longer term commitment from the United States and our allies.  That would be a true win-win all around.

If nothing else, I hope a Romney-Ryan White House would continue to inspire innovative and inspiring ways to utilize technology to solve more of these problems abroad and at home.  And for those of you interested in what each campaign has to say about how they will encourage such tech innovation, read this post on NY Tech Meetup’s site featuring written responses from both the Romney and Obama campaigns on the subject.

Jonathan J. Judge is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Brooklyn Young Republican Club. He is currently a web entrepreneur after a lengthy stint working with the City of New York, and despite long working hours, he continues to be a part of civic and political life in Brooklyn and beyond.

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