Politics of Cause versus the need of the majority: which should be prioritized?The Taliban's war on mobile phones Civilians angered at insurgent attacks on the phone networks that provide them with a lifeline, writes IWPR.By Matiullah Minapal and Zainullah Stanekzai in Helmand, and Hafizullah Gardesh in Kabul for IWPR (10/03/08)
The Taliban are flexing their muscles again in southern Afghanistan, attacking what is undoubtedly the most dynamic sector of the economy - mobile phone companies.
Over the past week, four transmission masts belonging to different phone companies have been destroyed – two from the country's largest service provider, Roshan, one belonging to its close competitor the Afghan Wireless Communications Company (AWCC) and one owned by the relative newcomer Areeba.
The attacks have taken place in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where the Taliban have their stronghold and hold down large swathes of the countryside.
But in targeting mobile networks, the Taliban may be losing one of their most precious assets – the tacit support of the local population. While villagers in Helmand may turn a blind eye to public executions and grudgingly let their beards grow as the fundamentalists demand, they are extremely unhappy at the prospect of losing their phone service, for many their one link with the outside world.
"This has affected people very badly," said Nazar Gul, a resident of Helmand's Nad Ali district, where phone services were interrupted last week. "Our phones didn't work and we couldn't contact our relatives. This must not be repeated. The Taliban should pursue their aims in some other way. If they continue doing this, people are going to get upset and they will withdraw their support."
Afghanistan leapt headfirst into the mobile phone age after the Taliban were ousted in 2001. After two decades of war, the country had little in the way of infrastructure and almost no land lines.
Two providers, Roshan and AWCC, shared the fledgling market for three years, investing hundreds of millions of US dollars to get the industry up and running.
It was a huge success. Now, after close to one billion dollars in investment, Afghanistan has four major providers with close to five million subscribers. From illiterate farmers to government ministers, everyone seems to rely on the cell phone for almost all communications.
The Taliban themselves are customers. In past years, spokesmen for the insurgents could only be reached via satellite phone. Now they have several mobile phone numbers through which they communicate with media outlets and each other.
In late February, though, the Taliban issued a warning to cellphone companies, demanding that they switch off their services between five in the evening and three in the morning, in order to prevent foreign military forces from tracking their movements through phone signals.
Hours after a deadline set by the Taliban expired, militants took out a phone mast belonging to Areeba in Kandahar. Two days later, a Roshan relay mast was destroyed, also in Kandahar. Over the next few days, Roshan and AWCC masts came under attack in Helmand.
"The companies did not comply with our demands," explained Qari Yusuf, Taliban spokesman in the south. "We ordered them to stop the service at night. If these companies do not observe our rules and principles, we will attack them in all the regions under our control."
He set out the Taliban's reasoning for their night-time ban, "When Coalition forces launch operations against us during the night, they target our hideouts through these antennas and it damages us a lot."
Abdul Hadi Hadi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's telecommunications ministry, rejected any suggestion that the mobile phone network was being used for surveillance.
"The Americans and the Afghan government have other ways of collecting information about the Taliban," he told IWPR. "Telecommunications services are part of the public sector, and those who sabotage these facilities are enemies of the people."
Whatever the reason for the attacks, they have placed central government in an uncomfortable position. While the police claim to be in control of most of the territory in question, they are plainly unable to stop the insurgents destroying telephone antennas and other facilities.
"We can't place police checkpoints beside each mast," complained an employee of the interior ministry, who did not want to give his name. "We don't have the capacity. The antennas are dispersed widely; if we try to cover the whole area we will be stretched too thin and we can easily be attacked."
The official did, however, say that the police would endeavor to work with the provincial authorities and assist the phone companies.
Helmand police chief General Muhammad Hussain Andiwal told IWPR that security in his province was satisfactory.
"We are ready to help the telecommunications companies if they want us to," he added. "We will ensure security in the areas where their antennas are installed."
His remarks came after the destruction of two masts in Helmand.
According to a high-ranking Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity, one of the Taliban's aims was to embarrass the government.
"The Taliban are trying to increase the distance between the people and the government," he told IWPR. "I don't know about this espionage - I think it's just an excuse. They want to show the people of Afghanistan that they are strong and the government is weak. They want people not to trust the government."
The telecommunications ministry speculated that the runaway success of the mobile phone business might have angered the fundamentalists, who could be trying to curb development and scare off investors.
"Six years ago our compatriots could not even call from one province to another, and had to travel to Pakistan to make international calls," said spokesman Hadi. "But now people can solve all of their problems with these mobile phones. And investment worth one billion dollars is a remarkable achievement. Perhaps this has raised certain sensitivities among the Taliban."
He insisted, "The security agencies should take serious measures."
The telephone companies refused to comment.
While many people in Helmand were angry at the Taliban attacks on phone masts, some were still prepared to excuse their tactics.
"It is true that some people really do use mobile phones for espionage," said one resident of the Nawa district. "I don't blame the Taliban. I think they had to do what they did."
Matiullah Minapal and Zainullah Stanekzai are IWPR trainees in Helmand province. Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's local editor in Kabul.
This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).
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