KABUL: Taliban insurgents and criminal groups are targeting Afghanistan’s telecommunications network, raising the security threat in the country and putting an industry with an estimated $3 billion value under growing strain.
Attacks by insurgents and criminals extorting money from private telecommunications firms have increased throughout the country. Raids have taken place in previously secure areas in northern and northeastern provinces that are outside the traditional power base of the Taliban, officials and phone operators said.
In southern Helmand and neighboring Uruzgan provinces, the Taliban who lead the insurgency against the government and US-led troops have broadened their ban on mobile phone firms following offensives by Afghan and foreign troops.
Insurgents also want to show that the government is unable to safeguard mobile phone operations.
“Telecommunication was one of the success stories in the new Afghanistan from the viewpoint of generating investment and revenues for the government,” a senior official for a major mobile company told Arab News on Friday.
“Foreign investors and ordinary Afghans have become reliant on the industry in recent years.”
The official, who declined to be named, said: “We are talking about the country’s biggest private investment suffering, an investment that provides several hundred million dollars as tax revenue to the government annually and offers jobs to tens of thousands of Afghans.”
Scores of mobile phone towers have been destroyed by Taliban insurgents after firms ignored their demands to shut down operations during military offensives. Militants believe locals or government agents use the networks to relay information on the location of their fighters.
Each tower costs at least $400,000 to replace. In some insecure areas, firms have been unable to deliver fuel to keep the towers’ generators running, or have been barred by the government, which fears insurgents will steal the fuel, an official with another mobile firm said.
In recent years, engineers and employees of firms have been targeted and killed when the companies failed to follow insurgents’ orders. Now when the Taliban tell operators to shut down operations, there is rarely any delay in doing so.
“This is a major economic, political blow to the government,” Obaidullah Barekzai, a lawmaker from Uruzgan province, told Arab News.
“Mobile phones have been banned in the entire Uruzgan, except for an hour every day in its provincial capital.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed the restrictions on mobile operators, particularly in Helmand.
“According to our intelligence in Helmand and in some other parts of the country, American troops have been misusing the telephone companies and are bombing people’s houses and conducting raids on them,” he said.
“As long as security threats exist and danger is posed to the lives of people, we are forced to shut down telephone networks and will allow resumption of their activities only when security allows.”
Until a few years ago, it was the country’s younger generation that relied on mobile phones and Internet, but now older people go online to contact relatives and family members who have been living abroad as war refugees or migrants, another official said. Mobile Money has been used by some firms to pay the salaries of government troops and civil servants in remote and volatile areas in recent years.