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Taliban's new strategy is pushing the wrong buttons

Bombing of telecom towers angers Afghans, who take pride in their rapidly expanding cellphone network.

April 23, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Afghans tend to be stoic in the face of poverty, hardship and seemingly endless warfare. But mess with their cellphones, and the response is one of undiluted outrage.

For the last two months, Taliban fighters have been blowing up telecommunications towers, with the aim of preventing NATO-led forces from hunting them down via cellphone signals. It could hardly have been a worse public-relations move for the insurgency.

Fuming Afghans call the tactic nonsensical.

"I'm so, so furious about this," sputtered businessman Rahim Agha. "Why do they have to do this to us? Why can't they just turn off their phones?"

To Afghans, the country's rapidly expanding cellphone network is a symbol of pride and hoped-for prosperity. Cellphones are a lifeline to Afghanistan's vast rural hinterlands, an engine of commerce, and a vital link with millions of Afghan refugees around the world.

There is intense competition among the country's cellphone providers -- four private companies and a state-run one. Spurred by the scramble for revenue, they provide service in 70% of Afghanistan's territory, from trackless deserts to jagged mountains.

The customer base has essentially doubled every year for three years. About 5.4 million people, about one in six Afghans, have a cellphone, an extraordinary rate of market penetration in a country so poor.

"Just look around in any bazaar," said Amirzai Sangin, the minister of communications. "Everyone in sight has a cellphone."

That includes Taliban fighters -- and therein lies the problem.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces recently have had unusual success in tracking and targeting mid-level Taliban field commanders, killing scores of them in pinpoint airstrikes. Military officials, without giving details, say they have a variety of means of conducting such manhunts, but the fighters blame cellphone signals for giving away their location.

The reach and availability of cellphones apparently have been seductive even to some fugitive commanders, who use numbers only for a short time before discarding them.

In addition to attacking about a dozen towers, the insurgents have threatened the telecom companies, forcing them to cut off service at night in southern Afghanistan. More than a quarter of a million people have been affected by disrupted service across the south, where fighting between insurgents and coalition troops is the most intense.

A few weeks ago, insurgents killed two police officers escorting engineers who had been sent to repair a disabled tower.

Medical professionals are particularly alarmed by the curtailed service. In remote villages, when someone falls ill or a childbirth takes a perilous turn, families are unable to call for help or get advice on how to provide emergency treatment, said Merza Khan, who runs a health clinic in the southern province of Helmand.

"People are dying from the lack of communication," he said.

Because travel in the south is so dangerous, and land-line phone service is rare outside cities, cellphone conversations often replace face-to-face encounters.

"I can't always travel to where my constituents are," said Anwar Khan, a member of parliament from Helmand province. "But they would use their cellphones to talk to me, to tell me what was happening. Now they can't."

The Taliban, though, may be reconsidering its highly unpopular campaign. Commanders have been quoted as saying they are aware of the angry public backlash and may allow the resumption of normal service.

Sangin, the Afghan communications minister, said he had heard reports that fighters themselves were grumbling about the restrictions, suggesting that the entire contretemps might have been caused by a lack of discipline in the militants' ranks when it comes to cellphone usage.

"This is not an attack on the coalition or the government, but on the people," Sangin said. "Cellphones are a huge part of everyday life, and no one is willing to go back in time."

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laura.king@latimes.com

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