It’s time for Elon Musk’s Starlink to save the women of Afghanistan
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Starlink, the constellation of satellites that provide internet, voice and text communications directly from space, has upended the way people connect with one another. The system is also having an effect in countries consumed with conflict. Starlink is providing Ukraine with a crucial weapon in its war against Russian invaders. The space-based communications system is also helping the Iranian resistance in its opposition to the authoritarian regime, with one official claiming that 800 ground terminals have been smuggled into Iran.
Now, a situation has arisen in Afghanistan that cries out for Starlink to be extended to that country, run currently by the fanatical, theocratic Taliban. One effect of America’s precipitous military withdrawal from Afghanistan has been a sharp repression of that country’s women at the hands of its totalitarian regime. The Taliban has forbidden Afghan women from getting an education, the theory apparently being that educated women are more unruly.
Now, more Afghan women have reportedly started taking classes online in an effort to get around the Taliban edicts against female education. An online university in the United States called the University of the People and another in the UK called Future Learn have seen an uptick in applications by Afghan women seeking an education in defiance of the Taliban regime.
One of the main impediments to creating a system of online education for Afghan women has been a lack of internet access in rural regions of the country. The Starlink system is well-suited to address that lack of access. The system could turn all of Afghanistan into an online school that the Taliban would find difficult, if not impossible, to stop.
The extension of Starlink to Afghanistan can also lend aid to that country’s nascent resistance movement. According to the Observer Research Foundation, a think tank based in Delhi, India, resistance to the Taliban has ranged from women-led street demonstrations to armed attacks conducted by a number of groups, primarily the National Resistance Front. The short-term prospects for success for opponents of the Taliban are dim. However, with time, the potency and legitimacy of the opposition to the Taliban should grow.
Access to Starlink would certainly be of great help to the Afghan people who seek to overthrow the Taliban, just as it has been to the Ukrainian military and the Iranian resistance. The ability to communicate instantly across great distances would aid in coordinating actions designed to defeat the Taliban and restore something resembling freedom in Afghanistan.
Setting up an Afghanistan Starlink network would be a difficult process. Ground stations would have to be smuggled into the country and then concealed in various places against the Taliban. However, the process of setting up the system in Iran seems to have been successful, so doing the same thing in Afghanistan should also be achievable.
The effort to extend the Starlink system to Afghanistan should be undertaken by the United States government as quickly as possible. While the precipitous and shameful retreat from that country has created a moral obligation to the people left behind to the tender mercies of the Taliban, another, strategic motive exists for waging an information war in Afghanistan.
The definition of space power, the use of space assets to impose national will, is still evolving. Part of that definition is to defend American space assets and threaten those of an enemy. However, Starlink provides an opportunity to deliver a commodity that every tyrant fears: free and unbiased information. Tyrannies from time immemorial have relied on control of information to keep their citizens in check. If they lose control of information, they eventually lose control of everything.
The United States, in partnership with SpaceX, should use Starlink to help the women of Afghanistan get an education in defiance of the Taliban. That partnership should also make Starlink available to the emerging Afghan resistance to the theocratic rule that took power in the wake of the American retreat.
The cost of an information war on the Taliban would be insignificant. The potential for eventual overthrow of the theocratic, oppressive regimeand the restoration of American moral authority lost because of the withdrawal from Afghanistan is beyond evaluation.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
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