Dial Zero
A look at what's surprising, silly, scary or stupid in telecommunications and data

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taliban intimidate cellphone carriers

Every evening at dusk, cellphones go dead in Zhari, a district just outside Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city. All three cellphone service companies operating there turn off their antennas until dawn. The reason for this nightly blackout, implemented across southern and eastern Afghanistan is a Taliban decree that aims to prevent villagers from passing tips to coalition forces.

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.

About 40 cellphone 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 because there is insufficient securioty to protect equipment and employees.  American officials estimate that only about 10% of the district 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," 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.  (info from The Wall Street Journal)