- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
We’re learning tonight that Michael Hastings — the 33-year-old journalist whose 2010 Rolling Stone profile of a remarkably unguarded Gen. Stanley McChrystal cost the top commander in Afghanistan his job — died in a tragic car crash on Tuesday morning in Los Angeles. Hastings may be best known for exposing McChrystal’s critical views of the Obama administration, but he also painted memorable portraits of Gen. David Petraeus and American prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl (a blunt, aggressive, and controversial reporter, Hastings also got in the occasional sparring match with the State Department).
Earlier in his short but accomplished career, Hastings covered the Iraq war for Newsweek, eventually writing a book about the death of his fiancée, Andi Parhamovich, in a car bombing in Baghdad. A year before Parhamovich was killed, Hastings wrote an article for Foreign Policy on the importance of cell phones in the war-torn country. As we remember Hastings’s work, his dispatch is worth a read:
The single most important tool in Iraq is not a Kalashnikov rifle or an armored Humvee, but a cell phone. U.S. and Iraqi officials usually have at least two on them at all times. Mishaan Jabouri, a Sunni politician, lists seven telephone numbers on his business card, four of them cell phones. Iraq’s landline telephone network was largely destroyed during the 2003 invasion, so officials rely heavily on mobile phones to communicate. "It’s a very dangerous situation, and Iraqis are extremely worried and anxious," says Naguib Sawiris, CEO of Orascom Telecom, which runs Iraq’s largest cell phone provider, Iraqna. "They need to communicate, to know whether their wife or son came home from work safely."
That has made cell phones, along with air conditioners and automobiles, one of the hottest commodities in the country. The three companies that landed exclusive licenses in 2003 are reaping huge profits. Iraqna, for instance, which covers primarily Baghdad, posted $160 million in revenues in the first half of 2005, quadrupling its subscriber base to 1.1 million. "It’s a very lucrative, risky investment," says Wael Ziada, a Cairo-based telecom analyst.
But the success of Iraq’s cell phone network is remarkable not for its huge financial returns, but because cell service in Mesopotamia is so bad. Networks are plagued by outages. Insurgents blow up cell phone towers. And when insurgents aren’t destroying the infrastructure, the U.S. military is jamming Iraq’s networks to stymie fighters who use cell phones to detonate bombs. U.S. convoys are routinely equipped with at least one classified system for jamming cell phones. Before big events, such as an election or referendum, it’s normal for the military to block cell phone signals on a larger scale. (American personnel often have a more reliable back-up phone that runs on a private, secure cell network operated by MCI on a Department of Defense contract worth more than $30 million. The numbers come with the 914 area code from Westchester, New York.)
Still, phone shops are as ubiquitous as kabob stands, and investment keeps pouring into Iraq. One provider, MTC-Atheer, recently announced it was investing an additional $430 million in the country. Further proof that, even in the world’s most dangerous market, the demand for technology can still trump terror.