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Afghan cellco accuses rivals of funding Taliban

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Roshan, the largest mobile provider in Afghanistan, has accused competitors of paying off criminals to protect their infrastructure, pointing out that it owned eight out of the ten masts destroyed this year.

The claim has been denied by competitors Afghan Wireless, Etisalat and Afghan Telecom, who say the lack of damage to their own infrastructure is thanks to the way they work with the local community, fund local projects, and employ local guards.

Karim Khoja, head of Roshan, was quoted by the Financial Times as saying: "Two years ago our people in the south rarely got threatened because we were really the only service provider ... But once our competitors came to the south the number of attacks on Roshan, in terms of being threatened and asked for money, went up."

Earlier in the year Taliban commanders sent letters to the mobile phone companies demanding they pay taxes in areas controlled by the organisation. The FT called the phone number on the letter and spoke to a Taliban representative who told them that two companies had responded to the demands, adding "When a company sets up they have to pay tax to the government of Afghanistan ... We are the government here and they must pay tax to us."

Mobile phone cells and relay stations are difficult to protect as they are generally unmanned and often in remote places. In the UK they often play unwitting host to pirate radio transmitters, and in many countries sites are powered by local generators and their accompanying tanks of stealable diesel, and even in apparently civilised places the white disc of a microwave antenna can prove irresistible for target practice, as US operators know well.

Paying protection money might prove cheaper than hiring local guards, though the latter option will probably work out better in the long run. Mobile phones are particularly useful in a country where the infrastructure is unreliable and five million of them are being used in Afghanistan, but keeping the networks operational isn't as easy as one might first think. ®

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