Nothing distinguishes the Afghan Taliban from al-Qaida more than their approach to telecommunications. Back in the distant past (ten years ago -- 1998) Usama Bin Laden apparently stopped using his satellite telephone, then virtually the only form of telecommunications in Afghanistan, when it was leaked to the press that his calls were being used to locate him. This was part of the aftermath of the US missile strikes in Khost after the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August. Those bombs mostly killed Pakistanis being trained by the ISI to fight in Kashmir. (Richard Holbrooke reports on today's Khost.)
Today the Taliban can't seem to get off the mobile phone. In the past six years, Afghanistan has gone from no mobile (and virtually no fixed) telephone service to 10% mobile phone penetration. The Taliban have participated in this technological development. Recently they attracted attention by threatening to blow up mobile phone towers if they were not switched off at night, claiming that NATO was using their signals to track their locations.
As National Assembly member Shukria Barakzai stated, this claim "does not make any sense." They can still be tracked during the day. And if they really wanted to avoid detection, they could turn off their phones or take out the batteries! In any case, a friend of mine who negotiated the release of two of his Afghan staff who had been taken hostage by Taliban in Wardak (just next to Kabul) said that it was always difficult to reach the kidnappers at night, because they moved away from the road up into the mountains where the reception was poor. Finally they had to explain to the Taliban that they needed to stay within the coverage range to reach a deal.
Perhaps the Taliban don't trust their rank and file to turn off their phones.... Or maybe they just want to show how much damage they could do and how present they are in different parts of the country. Mobile telephone operators are among the best informed people about the territorial penetration of the Taliban. Setting up a cell phone tower anywhere in Afghanistan requires the consent of whoever "controls" the territory, or at least has the power to blow up the cell phone tower.
I have not yet been able to conduct a systematic survey of where the four mobile phone companies in Afghanistan (Afghan Wireless, Roshan, Etisalaat, and Areeba) pay the Taliban or other powerholders taxes/extortion/bribes to protect their phone towers, but one friend in the business says that the companies have to pay the Taliban in most of southern Afghanistan, right up to Kabul province. As evidence, I received a copy of this document:
The document in question is an official letter in Pashto from the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" in Saidabad District of Wardak Province, about an hour outside of Kabul (if the traffic is not too heavy). The text in full (translation courtesy of Mohammad Omar Sharifi, an Afghan Fulbright scholar at Columbia University):
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
Taliban military group in Saidabad DistrictNumber: Date: ______________________________________________________________________________ To: Communication Tower authorities in Saidabad District, Rig Rashan area,
Salam Alaikum, May mercy of God be upon you,
As you continue to operate in the area, we are expecting you to provide financial support for the Taliban stationed in Saidabad district. If you cannot, then you should stop your work. Otherwise you have no right to complain in the future (we are warning you of future incidents). You can contact us by this number: 077 581 0513.
From Taliban authorities.
Success of Islamic society is in piety and obedience
The actual recipients of this note appear to have been Chinese. They passed it along to their Afghan colleagues. The number given is from the Areeba company, which Taliban are said to prefer because the top-up cards are less traceable or cheaper. I have been told that Taliban (or people claiming to represent them) sometimes call up mobile phone companies and claim that they are right at a tower with explosives, which they will detonate unless money is immediately transferred to their mobile phone. This is a new technology that enables migrant workers to send cash home without going through either a hawala or Western Union.
What to make of this? It has contradictory implications. My inquiries thus far indicate that Taliban (or people claiming to be Taliban) can launch profitable small military operations (blowing up cell phone towers) or at least make credible threats of doing so in most of the area south of Kabul and as far west as the southern part of Herat province. This does not mean that Taliban "control" these areas. No authority "controls" most of these areas. But Taliban, insurgents, or criminal armed groups can operate there with impunity. They can infiltrate. If these groups can also be coordinated (a big question), they have much greater capacity for disruption than they have shown thus far.
On the other hand, their behavior is nothing like al-Qaida. I have not seen any such documents emanating from Ayman al-Zawahari's office giving his cell phone number. The document shows that some Taliban, at least, are trying to operate within the administrative structure of the Afghan state, even if they are trying to subvert it (or extract money from the private sector operating with its consent). Protection of cell phone towers in Wardak is an eminently negotiable issue, unlike, say, replacing the nation-state system with an Islamic caliphate or ending all US influence in the Muslim world.
In fact, the official police do such a poor job of protecting anything, that the Afghan government is now recruiting former Taliban fighters to provide security in some areas of Helmand province, since they are less corrupt. "Talking to the Taliban" need not mean abolishing Afghanistan's constitution, turning the country over to al-Qaida, seeking "moderates" rather than "extremists," or closing all the country's schools for girls. The Taliban, like every other group that has held power in Afghanistan the last thirty years -- and quite a few of those who had power before that -- committed many atrocities and human rights violations. The legacy of injustice, fear, mistrust, impunity -- infinitely aggravated by the involvement of outside powers including al-Qaida -- cannot be overcome with a few phone calls. But it might help.
On July 14, 1992, I published an article in the Asian Wall Street Journal entitled "Toward Peaceful Afghan Diversity." I observed:
New communications technology can promote national integration without centralization. During the turnover of power in April , when the Soviet-backed government of Gen. Najibullah finally fell to the mujahedeen, commaders of all ethnic groups and regions negotiated directly via satellite telephones given to them by the U.S. These instantaneous communications were key to forestalling more serious conflicts and may yet help Afghanistan build national political networks without bringing all powerholders to Kabul.Of course satellite telephones never approached a 10% penetration rate, so perhaps I was premature. But Roshan defines its mission as helping Afghans "nazdik shodan" -- "to get close" or "stay in touch." Maybe now the telecom advertising geniuses can get to work on public information for national reconciliation.