One mobile provider can broadcast a signal three hours a day while another has had its offices, lines and cellular towers attacked. Is the Taliban waging a war against the government-owned Salaam operator,
The Taliban have practically shut down mobile phone coverage in Wardak near Kabul, despite a plethora of cellular towers on site. (Photo: Qarib Shahab. Main photo: Rahmat Aliuada)
More than twenty competing cellular towers perched on hilltops dot the skyline near Sayd Abad district in Maidan Wardak yet mobile phone users in the surrounding area cannot get a signal. Local residents and authorities say the Taliban have cut lines, burnt towers and told network users and retailers to boycott providers because their fighters are being tracked through GPS signals.
War on Salaam
The anti-government groups have targeted one company in particular, Salaam, because it is government-owned and financed by the US. Authorities, mobile phone retailers and local residents were told to boycott Salaam in an open letter from the Taliban in neighbouring Ghazni Province. “Through a letter, the Taliban ordered that nobody in Khogiani should use the services of Salaam Network, since the government supports this company and its profits goes to the pocket of the government,” says Rafi Ahmadi, a 24-year-old resident in Ghazni's Khogiani district. Ahmadi says the letter added that anybody who disobeyed the communication “would be killed”.
The sabotage of Salaam's infrastructure is constant, says a spokesman for the company. “The Taliban cut our lines everyday,” Shaheen Katawazi, who works for Salaam on the Kabul-Kandahar highway stretch, told Afghanistan Today. Hussein Reza Yousufi, a member of the Provincial Council in Ghazni, says the Taliban have even taken several mobile phone users hostage in the districts of Jaghoori and Khogiani. Another resident says people in his district were sent an open letter from the Taliban warning not to lease retail space to Salaam. Salaam has 17,000 subscribers in Ghazni Province and seven cellular towers, according to Ainduddin Nazi, the director of the government telecommunications department in the province, yet the company is practically dormant in terms of current network coverage.
The Taliban deny leading a sabotage campaign against Salaam. “We have not warned people not to use Salaam Network,” says Zabiullah Mujahid, a generic name for a Taliban spokes-portal. “In my opinion, it has been orchestrated by other telecommunication companies to undermine Salaam Network.” Mujahid added that “when the need is there, the Taliban shut down cell towers.”
Racketeering behind Taliban favouritism
The offices of Salaam in Ghazni City. (Photo: Rahmat Alizada).
While Salaam remains off network in Ghazni and Wardak, residents in the latter say Taliban racketeering explains why only one mobile provider is still allowed to operate while others have been shutdown. “The Taliban have asked the telecommunication companies several times to give them monthly payments. When the companies refrain from doing so, their local towers are either burnt or shut down,” says an elder resident in the village of Chak, who preferred to remain anonymous.
In nearby Tangi district where the Taliban often convene sheria courts, Roshan, the country's market leader, provides the only signal between 6am and 9am. Competitors AWCC, MTN, SALAAM and Etisalat – who up until three years ago offered broad and largely uninterrupted network – remain shutdown 24 hours a day. Internet connection is only available within the city centre in the provincial capital Midanshar. The signal collapses half a mile outside the city.
“The Taliban consider mobiles as devices for spying,” says Mubihullah, who lives in Tangi, adding that the insurgents often disrupt cellular towers at night fearing drone attacks. “They have only allowed Roshan Telecommunication Company to operate for three hours a day.” Attaullah Khogiani, a spokesman for the Wardak governor, also told Afghanistan Today that his office believes the Taliban have asked mobile phone providers for monthly payments to be allowed to operate.
The isolation is driving residents to relocate to Kabul. “People cannot keep in touch with loved ones, when there is a patient, transport cannot be arranged,” says Azizullah, a 25-year-old Chak resident. “Some families have been compelled to pack up and leave for Kabul,” he says despondently.
Ghazni in the line of fire
A building destroyed in a Taliban attack on Ghazni in September this year. (Photo: Rahmat Alizada)
In Ghazni it is the districts of Moqor, Andar, Khogiani, Zankhan, Waghez, Geero and Qara Bagh that are mainly affected by the Taliban's campaign against Salaam. Authorities say they are working to strengthen the frailing communications network, while local observers say the Taliban's firm grip on telcom companies is indicative of the group's wider resurgence in the region since the withdrawal of Polish troops this year. After a devastating series of attacks in Ghazni that destroyed a TV station, government offices, a library and several other buildings in September this year, experts say the Taliban's opposition to Salam is a calculated long term strategy to cripple the nascent government.
“The Taliban's opposition to the Salaam network is to undermine the government’s sources of income to pave the way for its collapse once foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan and foreign aid declines,” says Abdul Qader Rahimi, a Ghazni-based analyst. Taliban spokesman Mujahid says the Taliban would never sabotage an industry that helps Afghan people.