Afghanistan Prepares for Opening of Net Cafes

KABUL, Afghanistan -- After decades of near-total communications isolation, Afghans are about to make a leap onto the World Wide Web with the opening of the country's first Internet cafes.

"We plan to open up to three Internet cafes in Kabul within the next two to three weeks," said Alex Grinling, managing director of the Afghan Wireless Communication Co., which will become the war-ravaged country's first Internet provider.

Afghanistan took a major step forward in the telecommunications field in April when the state-affiliated AWCC company launched the first cellular telephone network. President Hamid Karzai placed a call to an Afghan refugee living in Germany, something nearly impossible through the old telephone lines that served the hard-line Islamic Taliban regime.

The nation's thirst for telecommunications became apparent during the loya jirga, or grand council, which met last month to choose a new national leadership.

All week, delegates chatting into cellular phones strolled the sunny plaza outside the meeting hall and were provided temporary Internet access in a nearby hotel.

Reliable telecommunications are considered critical to knitting back together a nation long divided by a bitter civil war.

"We expect there will be a lot of interest for the Internet here, especially among the people who know what Internet is -- those Afghans who have lived in exile and are now returning home," Grinling said.

He conceded that there may be some practical problems at the outset.

Few locals in the city of 2 million people know what the Internet is.

"Internet? What is that?" asked Mustafa Brahimi, 49, as he pushed through a crowd in Kabul's dusty open-air Mandawy market.

When told about the network, his questions reflected other complications.

"It sounds great," he said. "But what about electricity? How will it work without it?"

Kabul's infrastructure is in shambles after two decades of neglect and warfare. Power cuts are frequent, and most of the city's telephone lines were destroyed by fighters digging trenches and eventually stripped for copper by scavengers.

The capital's 7,000 working analog telephones can't connect with 5,000 telephones on the two-year-old digital system installed under the Taliban. There are just 12,000 functioning telephones in the city.

"Thus the Internet cafes," says Grinling, who heads operations in the Western-run Afghan Wireless. "We'll install a wireless communication system into the cafes for an easy link with the Internet. I'm sure it will become a major hit among the Afghans."

Among those looking forward to the Internet cafes is Arif Amonullah, a 28-year-old engineer who returned to Kabul last month after eight years in exile in Russia.

"I never dreamed that Afghanistan will ever have mobile phones, not to speak about Internet," Amonullah said. "I have relatives in England and can't wait to exchange a few e-mails with them. They won't believe that I'm sending them from, imagine, a Kabul Internet cafe!"