Afghanistan: Mobile-Phone Towers Are Taliban’s New Target

Local officials in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province said gunmen destroyed a mobile-phone tower in the Sangin district on March 2.
It follows two attacks on telecommunication towers in neighboring Kandahar Province on February 29 and March 1 after a Taliban demand that all telephone signals be turned off during the evening and overnight. 

Taliban militants ordered mobile-phone operators last week to switch off their networks from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day. The insurgents say U.S. and NATO forces track the Taliban through their phone signals and then launch attacks on their hiding places.

Many military operations against Taliban leaders have been conducted by the U.S.-led forces at night.

But many Afghans, including politicians, dismiss the Taliban’s justification for attacking the mobile phone sector as “meaningless.”

Legislator Shurkiya Barekzai says that by attacking the towers the Taliban wants to damage Afghanistan’s economy. She says the Taliban claims that coalition and Afghan forces tracking their forces via mobile signals “does not make any sense.”

“I don’t think [tracking the militants via signals] is the main reason, because if Afghan and international forces want to attack they could attack during the day, too,” Barekzai says. “But we should remember that these mobile networks are crucially important for ordinary Afghans. People need and use them.”

The mobile towers that came under attack belonged to the Roshan and Areeba companies.

The People Need Them

As almost the only means of communications in Afghanistan, cell phones have become increasingly popular all over the country. They were widely introduced in Afghanistan after the Western-backed government took power following the defeating of the Taliban in 2001.

The telecommunications industry is considered one of the fastest-growing and most profitable sectors of the Afghan economy. Four main telecom operators provide coverage to even the most remote corners of Afghanistan.

Destruction of the telecommunication towers will affect thousands of phone users in southern Afghanistan, including the Taliban fighters themselves, who rely on mobile phones for communications.

But communications experts say the demolition of the towers will not have a significant impact on the U.S.-led military forces, since they can use satellites and other means to pick up phone signals without depending on the phone companies.

Mobile users in Kandahar’s many districts have complained that they did not have phone signals over the past two days.

Barekzai tells RFE/RL’s Radio Free Afghanistan that depriving people of their principal means of communication would only further alienate the militants from the general Afghan population.

Many regions in Afghanistan do not even have access to regular mail service, landline phones, or the Internet, and therefore almost entirely depend on cell phones to communicate.

Police sources in Kandahar Province said security was tightened near the mobile towers after the Taliban attacks.

Some influential local tribal leaders have also offered to help protect such areas.

Abdul Ahad-Khan Masum, a tribal leader in Kandahar’s Kajaki district, where a mobile tower was torched by militants, says that his people can protect the towers “if we are given the authority.

But he adds that “during the past 30 years, different powers have only been playing with the tribal leaders — instead of benefiting from our influence. If the government and relevant authorities give us a chance, I think this issue [of protecting the mobile towers] would be solved, too.”

It is not the first time the Taliban has challenged cell-phone companies in Afghanistan. In the past, the militants have accused mobile-phone operators of closely cooperating with U.S. and NATO troops. However, they did not carry out any of their threats until now.

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