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Afghans plant flag on the Internet

By CNN's Joe Havely

The government and the UN is looking to the Internet as a way of rebuilding and reuniting Afghanistan.
The government and the UN is looking to the Internet as a way of rebuilding and reuniting Afghanistan.

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KABUL, Afghanistan (CNN) -- After years of isolation Afghanistan has planted its flag in cyberspace, winning legal and technical control over the ".af" Internet suffix.

The domain name will be applied to all private and governmental e-mail addresses and Web sites based in Afghanistan, the government says.

The move is part of efforts by the U.N. and the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai to boost the war-ravaged country's communications network and ultimately wire up the entire country.

Afghanistan is something of a latecomer to the Internet age, but officials say that getting even the remotest parts of the country online will be a key part of the reconstruction process and help bridge the digital divide between Afghanistan and the outside world.

The ".af" suffix had long been assigned to Afghanistan since the early days of the Internet but because of country's unstable political scene it was never placed under the control of the Afghan government.

With Afghanistan under the rule of the hardline Taliban movement access to the Internet was banned, prompting several private groups of Afghan exiles to try to register control of the domain.

Faced with the rival claims by the late 1990s the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority suspended registration of new domains under the .af registry.

When the Taliban were forced from power in late 2001, the transitional government turned to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for help in gaining control of the .af registry as part of a broader upgrade of Afghanistan's failing communications networks.

That change was eventually approved by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- the body that oversees basic technical matters related to the Internet.

The first sites to acquire the .af domain will be the UNDP's office in Kabul and the Ministry of Communications, which will oversee and administer the domain name.

"For Afghanistan, this is like reclaiming part of our sovereignty," Minister of Communications Mohammad Masoom Stanakzai said Monday as his department took control of the domain name.

The .af domain, he said, was Afghanistan's "flag on the Internet."

For the time being however, Afghanistan's presence in cyberspace will be physically located on a server at UNDP headquarters in New York.

UN officials say that although training and network improvements are underway, at present Afghanistan's telecom and power systems -- and the levels of technical expertise -- are not yet able to support a server inside the country.

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