Taleban Shut Down Phone Networks

Militants believe mobile systems are used to track them.

Taleban Shut Down Phone Networks

Militants believe mobile systems are used to track them.

Residents of a district in eastern Afghanistan say Taleban threats have effectively shut down mobile phone networks and cut them off from the outside world.

The insurgents issued the ban in the Alingar district of Laghman province after they lost men in drone attacks carried out by NATO forces last month.  A Taleban spokesman claimed that mobile phone signals were used to track insurgent movements.

Network connections work within a 20 kilometre radius of Laghman’s administrative centre Mehtarlam, but beyond that it is unavailable as phone operators observe the ban. None of the privately-owned networks such as Afghan Wireless, Etisalat, MTN and Roshan which serve Alingar is currently functioning.

The Taleban often paralyse phone systems by ordering a night-time ban on mobile services, or a total blackout as in parts of Laghman. They do so to stop security forces tracking their movements and to prevent locals providing tip-offs to the Afghan army.

Sometimes they destroy phone antennas if mobile companies refuse to obey a ban.

Kefayatullah Nabikhel, head of marketing at Etisalat, declined to comment on whether the company’s antennas had been put out of action in Alingar.

Sarhadi Zowak, spokesman for Laghman governor Fazlullah Mujaddedi, said that 15 of the 62 phone antennas in Laghman were no longer working, although he did not say whether this was because the companies had shut down the service or because of actual damage.

Zowak said a security operation was planned to allow the networks to start operating again.

Nasrat Rahimi, spokesman for the communications and information technology, said, “We have written to the three security organisations of Afghanistan [police, army and National Directorate of Security] asking them to guarantee the security of telecommunication companies and their antennas. It is their responsibility to take serious action on this.”

Taleban spokesman Zabihullah Mojahed said the insurgent group was not against phone companies as long as they merely provided a public service. However, if networks were used for intelligence purposes, the Taleban would act to shut them down.

“Before Eid [Eid ul-Adha, early October], drone aircraft targeted our friends in Alingar twice by using the telephone networks,” he said. “They also killed civilians. So we stopped them from operating in the face of these threats.”

Mojahed said bans on phone use were also in place elsewhere in Laghman and in the Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan, Helmand, Paktia, Logar and Kunduz provinces.

“It is the government and the international community who are responsible for this action,” he continued. “It is a massive problem and the threat to our fighters’ lives is more important than people losing phone contact for a period of time.”

Mojahed said the Taleban were aware that people were unhappy, and had spoken to elders in Alingar to convince them that threats to the Taleban outweighed any inconvenience. He said it was impossible to say when telephone services would be restored in Alingar as long as insurgent forces were at risk.

Communications ministry spokesman Rahimi rejected claims that Afghan security forces used phone networks to track insurgent activities. Instead, they employed satellite technology to pinpoint targets on the ground.

Since there are almost no landline connections, mobile phones are an indispensable means of communication in Afghanistan. They are vital for business, local government and public services.

Muallem Gholam Nabi, the headmaster of the  Sheikh Mohammad Hussein school in Alingar, said he had been out of touch with the provincial education department in Mehtarlam for the past  month. 

Ezatullah Alingari, a shopkeeper in Alingar’s market, said the ban had been devastating for businesses that relied on trade with neighbouring Nangarhar province.

“I used to call suppliers in Jalalabad to order goods, but now I have to close up the shop and go myself,” he said. “I went on Friday and the shopkeepers were angry with me, asking why I’d switched my phone off. They refused to give me any more credit, as they accused me of turning off my phone so that no one could ask me for money.

“Retailers in Alingar owe money to merchants in Jalalabad, because they buy goods on credit. Now that the phone network has been banned here, the wholesalers in Jalalabad think the Alingar shopkeepers have done a runner.”

The suspension of phone services has also disrupted family and social ties.

“People used to send invitations to funerals and weddings by phone. They would call friends to ask after them, but that is no longer possible,” said Najibullah Mahbub, a resident of Sheikh Saheb village. “The closure of the telephone networks has created psychological problems for people. Everyone is concerned because they out of contact with family members and people in other areas.”

Abdul Matin, who lives in the village of Miakhel, said many people there had relatives abroad in Iran, the Middle East or Europe. It was worse for those relatives, he said, as they would be afraid the month-long silence meant their families had died in insurgent violence.

“When we call someone, we have to go to the provincial centre or to a high hill or mountain,” he said.

The school head,  Nabi, said climbing up mountains to get a signal carried its own risks.

“It’s very dangerous, because both government forces and the foreigners could kill him in the belief he’s part of the Taleban,” he said.

In 2013, the Afghan telecommunications ministry set up the Salaam Network as an alternative to privately-owned networks. Rahimi said that Salaam refused to be intimidated by the insurgents. But for the moment, the government network only operates in provincial centres and has yet to be extended to outlying districts.

Meanwhile, the ban continues to impact on the lives of local people.

“Alingar is an unsafe district,” said Nader, a student in Jalalabad with family in Alingar. “We are threatened by both sides. My family worries about me and I worry about them every night.”

Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar province.


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