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Afghan networks start nightly shutdown

Taliban threats turn into action

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Mobile phone companies in Afghanistan have started shutting down their networks at night in response to attacks from the Taliban, who believe the masts are being used to locate their bases and guide night-time attacks.

The BBC reports that ten mobile-phone masts have been attacked in the last few weeks - other reports vary, but it does seem that all four operators in the country have suffered damage to their networks.

Mobile telephony has grown spectacularly in Afghanistan since the first GSM licence was awarded in 2002. The two largest operators (Roshan and AWCC - The Afghan Wireless Communication Company) have around three million subscribers between them, and the market is growing rapidly as for much of the population mobile telephony is the only available telephony.

The Taliban had threatened to disrupt the network infrastructure if the operators didn't agree to shut down during the night, as they believe that coalition forces are using the networks to coordinate night-time attacks. But given that turning off the handset* would prevent such tracking, it seems likely they have an alternative motivation.

It has been suggested that this is a show of power, demonstrating to the people that the government (or even the coalition) is not in control and that the Taliban still wield the real power. If that is the intention then it seems to have backfired; the local population have been quick to embrace the convenience of mobile telecommunications and anyone interfering with that is unlikely to endear themselves.

The other possibility is that the Taliban believes the network towers are being used in some more nefarious fashion, in addition to their usual function as mobile phone masts - though in that case it's hard to understand why they would want the mobile phone network shut down.

The Afghan government has been trying to get mobile operators to stand up to the Taliban, and a spokesman for the telecommunications ministry told the BBC "We will persuade the companies to turn the signals back on again," he said", though he also admitted that "the mobile phone companies had promised us that they would not bow before the Taliban demand".

Mobile phone antennae are very soft targets for terrorists - easy to attack, impossible to conceal. In most developing markets antennae are clearly marked as they lend value to local properties, and the most serious problems are theft of copper and generator fuel, so protecting the network against attack may not be practical.

Preventing people making phone calls at night might annoy the soldiers in the area, but is unlikely to seriously disrupt military communications, and it could really piss off a local population on whose good favour the Taliban survives. ®

* Or removing the battery, if one prefers, or wrapping it in tinfoil.

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