By YAROSLAV TROFIMOV
ZHARI, Afghanistan—Every evening at dusk, cellphones go dead in this district just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. All three mobile-phone companies operating here turn off their antennas, returning to air only when the sun rises above the jagged hills to the east.
The reason for this nightly blackout, implemented across southern and eastern Afghanistan: a Taliban decree that aims to prevent villagers from passing tips to coalition forces.
Marines come under fire in Helmand Province. Video courtesy of Reuters.
The Taliban also are trying to show who’s really in charge in this part of the country by intimidating the cellphone industry, one of the rare Afghan economic success stories. When carriers tried to defy the edict in the past, insurgents destroyed cellphone towers and killed staff in response.
The American surge into southern Afghanistan, including here in Kandahar province, has dealt setbacks to the Taliban. Yet the insurgents are far from defeated. Despite the offensive by tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops in the south, fear of the Taliban still reigns across much of the country. The cellphone shutdown is a sign of how deeply entrenched the insurgency is in the day-to-day functioning of the area, where the Taliban effectively operate a shadow government more powerful than the state.
“Having some soldiers in some places shouldn’t give you the wrong signal that the situation is good,” says Mohammad Naseri, head of legal and government affairs at the MTN Afghanistan cellphone network, a unit of South Africa’s MTN Group, which has more than 3 million Afghan customers.
Carriers can’t afford to be seen as siding with the Afghan government against the Taliban, Mr. Naseri says. “You should not give a justification to the others that you are favoring the government—and you have to prove in words and in deeds that you are neutral.”
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A man sells cellphones in Kabul. Phone use has soared in Afghanistan but the Taliban have curtailed it in many regions of the country, partly for propaganda.
This means that MTN and Afghanistan’s other big cellphone companies, such as Roshan and AWCC, strictly abide by Taliban hours in several provinces, going off air precisely at 5 p.m. and going back on at 6.30 a.m.
Market leader Roshan, part-owned by Britain’s Cable & Wireless and the Swedish-Finnish TeliaSonera group, says it switches off at least 60 of its 800 base towers in Afghanistan every night, including all of the company’s antennas in the Helmand province, the target of a large coalition advance in February. Roshan has 3.5 million Afghan customers.
According to the company’s chief operating officer, Altaf Ladak, all of Afghanistan’s national cellphone carriers have made a joint decision to shut down their networks at night in areas where the insurgents are active. MTN’s Mr. Naseri confirmed this informal agreement. Officials of AWCC and Etisalat Afghanistan, the two other big national carriers, didn’t provide executives for comment.
“We play by their rules—we don’t like to play around when people’s lives are at stake,” Mr. Ladak says about Taliban threats. He adds he realizes the broader implications: “From a political perspective, it’s quite a coup for them.”
The Taliban are using the cellphone system as an instrument of war against the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition. They could easily destroy the network altogether in many districts. But the Taliban, too, depend on cellphones for communication. Plus, they know that shutting down phone service entirely would cause a backlash among ordinary Afghans. Instead, they’re dictating the terms on which phone companies work, for propaganda reasons and sometimes for financial benefits as well.
“Cellphones are a powerful tool for the Taliban: They offer a cheap and effective means to direct insurgent activities or pass intelligence,” says U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Ray Geoffroy, a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. “At the same time, we are seeing Taliban attempts to deny regular Afghans access to this technology as a means of social control and operational protection.”
Militants all over the world use mobile phones to trigger explosions. Insurgents in Iraq have been killing alleged informers who were spotted using cellphones in a suspicious manner. However, the Taliban are unique in seeking to impose their own regulation on a nation’s entire telecommunications industry.
Millions are affected. Sardar Wali, a 19-year-old student from the Khwaja Mulk village north of Kandahar city, said that, when his father became suddenly sick one night last year, the cellphone blackout prevented the family from calling a taxi to ferry the man to the hospital.
“We had to carry my father on the back of a donkey,” a journey that took three and a half hours instead of a short drive, Mr. Wali says. “The doctors told me that it was just appendicitis. But we almost lost him.”
Several cellphone company executives in Afghanistan say operators or their contractors routinely disburse protection money to Taliban commanders in dangerous districts. That’s usually in addition to cash that’s openly passed to local tribal elders to protect a cell-tower site—cash that often also ends up in Taliban pockets. Coalition officers confirm that carriers make payments to the Taliban.
Cellphone executives interviewed for this article insist they don’t pay bribes, but point fingers at rivals.
When the Taliban ruled the country, prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion, its government lacked international recognition and didn’t attract much foreign investment. There there were no mobile phones in Afghanistan.
Afghans wishing to make a call had to queue up in crowded government-run Public Calling Offices. The first cellphones appeared here in 2003, with the industry attracting global telecom giants—such as Cable & Wireless and Etisalat of the U.A.E.
In the following three years, as the Taliban seemed largely defeated, the new mobile-phone operators rolled out their towers across the country, satisfying pent-up demand in a nation of virtually no landlines, rutted roads and isolated valleys. There are now 12.1 million cellphone accounts in Afghanistan, a country of 29 million people.
Afghanistan’s cellphone industry employs more than 100,000 people and generates, by government estimates, as much as $1 billion in annual revenue for the five operators.
[Talcell3] Yaroslav Trofimov/The Wall Street Journal
A new cellphone tower built in the village of Saw, in Afghanistan’s Kunar province.
The resurgent Taliban first turned their attention to the mobile industry around 2006. Leaders of the group were well aware that coalition forces could monitor night-time movements of the insurgents by tracking their cellphones. American troops, meanwhile, had painted phone tip-line signs on walls outside U.S. bases. Informers are usually reluctant to call in tips during daytime, when they can be spotted by Taliban sympathizers, military officers say.
Local insurgent commanders started demanding sporadic cell-tower shutdowns and, in early 2008, the Taliban’s main body, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, demanded a nighttime blackout in parts of the south.
In October that year, the Taliban noted that “the trial implementation of the decision has yielded positive results,” and decreed a sweeping national ban on night-time calls “to protect the Afghan people.”
At first, Afghanistan’s central government—eager to preserve its authority—tried to bar mobile-phone companies from caving in to Taliban demands. “Initially there were very strict instructions from our side” to keep the signal on-air through the night, says Communications Minister Amir Zai Sangin. “We asked them to resist this.”
But, as a result of such attempted defiance, Mr. Sangin adds, some 40 base towers—costing as much as $400,000 each—were destroyed by the insurgents over the past year. Chastened by the experience, the government no longer insists that the networks operate at night in insurgent-dominated regions.
“We understand that in some areas, unfortunately, there is no other way,” Mr. Sangin says. “We don’t have security to protect the towers.”
Phones go dead in Zhari at night even though two U.S. Army battalions deployed here last year; additional reinforcements are on the way. American officials estimate that only about 10% of the district, where Taliban chief Mullah Omar began his preaching career, is under government authority.
Zhari’s governor, Mohammed Niyaz Serhadi, says he has repeatedly implored the mobile operators to restore 24-hour service in his district. He has offered land for a tower inside the district headquarters—a secure location that sits within the perimeter of a large U.S. base on the Helmand-Kandahar highway.
“Once the antennas are shut down at night, our people are like the blind: The businessmen cannot carry on with their businesses, the sick cannot get to a hospital, and people cannot contact their relatives if something happens or if someone dies,” Mr. Serhadi says. Mobile-phone companies, he adds, rejected his offer: “They said that if they erect their antennas in the district center, the Taliban will bomb their antennas outside and kill their staff.”
In Zhari’s neighboring district of Arghandab, where a recent deployment of American forces has pushed back the insurgents, there was no mobile-phone service at all until two months ago. Continuing skirmishes made travel unsafe and prompted the phone companies to shut down the towers that hadn’t been destroyed.
“People had to walk all the way to Kandahar City or climb to the top of a mountain to get reception,” says the Arghandab district governor, Hajji Abdul Jabar. The signal has now reappeared—but, as in Zhari, only during daylight hours.
While the Taliban routinely attack trucks ferrying supplies for foreign or Afghan troops, they tend not to interfere with convoys operated by cellphone carriers. “We are not a target,” says MTN’s Mr. Naseri. Normally, he adds, it’s enough for a driver to show at a Taliban checkpoint a company letter stating that equipment aboard the truck belongs to MTN and not to the U.S. forces.
“We believe that whatever benefits our people is in the interest of the Islamic Emirate,” explains the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid—interviewed via his Afghan cellphone. “We won’t prevent any mobile company from building new towers, because we know that the more the operators expand their networks, the more access our people will have to telecommunications services.”
Such a dynamic is on display in the northeastern province of Kunar, a Taliban stronghold along the mountainous Pakistani frontier. A string of mobile towers, most of them in the final phases of construction, has sprung up in recent months in the northern stretch of the Kunar River Valley—an area that remains so far without any cellphone coverage.
After inspecting one of the new towers, a patrol of U.S. and Afghan troops recently sat down for tea with the elders of Saw, a village of squat mud houses perched above a verdant slope following the river bank. Suspected Taliban spotters were seen observing the village from the mountains as the coalition patrol moved through.
“If the Taliban had been opposed to cellphones, we wouldn’t have been able to build so much of the tower by now,” said one elder, Ghulam Ghoss, a principal of the local school.
Chiming in a few minutes later, the Afghan National Army patrol commander, First Sgt. Zuhur Noori, expounded on the benefits of the mobile service, asking for intelligence tips. “We are here during the daytime, and the enemies bother you at night,” Sgt. Noori said. “With the mobile antenna, you could let us know when the enemies are in here.”
Mr. Ghoss listened with a polite smile. The Taliban “maybe will also use the antenna” he pointed out, “to relay messages of their own.”
—Habib Zahori contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com