KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Taliban insurgents always seem to stick in the craw of Western capital’s best-laid plans. Since bursting on the scene in the wake of American and Soviet proxy wars in Afghanistan of the 1970s, the resistance fighters only had to leverage the popular distrust of their bribed officials and foreign-induced corruption to gain the support of the masses.
Their rise to power in the late 90s threatened one of the main sources of global capital liquidity when the Taliban’s leadership banned opium cultivation, cutting off an important source of revenue for U.S.-backed Mujahideen commanders and shutting down the Golden Crescent’s enormous heroin trade, which relies heavily on Afghan poppies.
As the twenty-year war in Afghanistan launched in 2001 by the U.S. to protect this crucial node of the financial markets comes to a close, the Taliban may be at it again. This time it’s Western capital’s new toy, blockchain-based smart contract technology, that is at risk from resurrected Taliban rule, according to Code to Inspire founder Fereshteh Forough.
Billed as the “first coding school for women in Afghanistan”, the non-profit focuses on teaching its female students the “basics of crypto and blockchain programming” to build smart contract applications on the Ethereum blockchain, in addition to game design and related skills. Forough, who runs the school from New York City, is concerned that the Taliban’s return will mean the end of her dream to open the door for women in the country’s tech sector.
Like many mission statements littering the big tech landscape, Forough’s tugs at the heart strings and appeals to the universal aspiration of a fairer and more equal world. But, when we start to peel back some of the layers behind the hackneyed copywriting and emotional origin stories, we invariably run into the same ruthless networks that incited the very wars that displaced Forough’s family to begin with and are, once again, poised to impose their hegemonic designs on the world through emerging blockchain and parallel digital technologies.
The Education Strategy
Born and raised in Iran, where her parents had fled during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Fereshteh would return to her ancestral hometown of Herat sometime after the U.S. invasion in 2001. In 2010, after earning a Master’s in Engineering of Database Management Systems from the Technical University of Berlin, she would become part of the Computer Science faculty at Herat University in Afghanistan.
Founded a year after she was born, Herat University, started as a modest enterprise offering degrees in economics, medicine, engineering, law, agriculture, fine arts, humanities and Shar’iah (Islamic law) despite having no campus of its own, according to a 2002 interview with the school’s vice chancellor.
Soon after George W. Bush’s deployment of U.S. troops ousted the Taliban and restored opium production to previous levels, the university’s curriculum would undergo a “partial or tota[l]” change as a result of the development of technical vocational education (TVE) programs at Herat University sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and The World Bank.
In 2005, USAID revamped its global education strategy, refocusing its efforts from access to education to the content of the education itself. Dubbed “Improving Lives Through Learning“, the agency’s significant realignment of priorities regarding its educational assistance programs inaugurated a series of public-private partnerships with NGOs and major technology corporations like Cisco embarked on a global mission to recalibrate the curriculums of secondary schooling and higher education to “[meet] sector-focused development objectives”, of at least 75 target nations, according to a USAID Workforce Development (WfD) “sector guide“.
By the time Fereshteh began teaching classes on information management systems at Herat University’s new computer sciences department in 2010, USAID had laid the groundwork for her future, gender-based entrepreneurial endeavors. In 2008, USAID awarded Afghani “ethnic apparel” company Tarsian & Blinkley a $194,500 grant as part of a WfD program to train women in “advanced equipment and production techniques”.
Collaborations between Afghan universities and USAID would continue with its University Support and Workforce Development Program (USWDP) – a five-year program implemented in Afghanistan from 2014 through 2019 by the University of Massachusetts, Purdue University, Altai Consulting and the Afghanistan Holding Group “to enhance the skills and employability of technically qualified and professionally capable Afghan women and men in the private and public sectors”.
USAID’s Digital Matriarchs
Two years before creating Code to Inspire, Forough co-founded The Digital Citizen Fund (DFC) with Herat University grad, Roya Mahboob. Originally called the Women’s Annex Foundation, the non-profit ran programs in Afghanistan to “help young women and children how to use Bitcoin“. Forough and Mahboob also co-founded Afghan Citadel Software Company (ACSC) with two other Herat classmates in 2012.
John Kerry featured Mahboob in an Op Ed for Politico in 2013 titled Afghan Women on the March, boasting about how the U.S.’ “training and mentoring [of] Afghan women entrepreneurs” was producing “leaders” like Roya Mahboob. In 2015, Forough spoke at the 11th annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, addressing “The Future of Impact“.
Forough’s and Mahboob’s rise to the forefront of gender-targeted digital literacy programs surrounding blockchain and micro payments in Afghanistan began with a USAID-sponsored “last-mile project” called the Film Annex in 2012, which aimed to build 40 “Internet Classrooms” in the occupied nation. The project’s “methodology” was described as training “Afghan Youth […] in Social Media from day one [to compete] with Western and Asian Social Media population”.
The Film Annex’s creator, Italian businessman Francesco Rulli, lays out the areas he wanted USAID’s help with as part of his pitch to then USAID administrator and current president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Rajiv Shah. Rulli cites the U.S.’ 11 years of military operations in Afghanistan and the “urgent need replace military operations with digital operations”, in addition to millions invested by the agency already, as the prime motivations for the agency.
Rulli also noted Film Annex’s experience developing a similar web television project for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization called NATO TV, which he credits with capturing the attention of millions of viewers, including Roya Mahboob, herself.
On Monday, the last American soldier was evacuated from Afghanistan amid public outcry over the disorganized withdrawal after two decades of war and occupation, that has touched virtually every part of the country’s economy and culture.
Fereshteh Forough joined the chorus of people expressing dismay over the end of the war, lamenting that Code to Inspire had to close its only physical location in Afghanistan over concerns that the Taliban’s retaking of power would spell trouble for women’s rights. Perhaps Forough is also worried about whether the digital literacy programs she and Mahboob run from Manhattan have collected enough data to serve the WfD outcomes measurements needed to transition into the blockchain-based economic systems on the horizon.
Or maybe it’s just a nostalgic reaction to the end of the hands-on-training as the 300 graduates to-date of Code to Inspire now have to fend for themselves in a strictly digital environment. Her mentor, Rulli, estimated that his “internet classrooms” could train about 160,000 young Afghanis in a period of four years. While hard and fast numbers about his project’s success are unavailable, the end of America’s occupation of Afghanistan may very well be the opening salvo of a new cyber war.