By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) – The Taliban have ordered mobile phone operators to shut down their networks during the night in a northern Afghan province, officials said on Thursday, a sign of the militants’ increasing influence in a once peaceful area.
The Islamist group’s order in Kunduz province follows similar edicts in recent years in the south and the east, where the Taliban-led insurgency is strongest.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahid, said they were imposing the order because U.S. and NATO military forces were using the networks to locate their fighters.
Mobile phone operators said they have been forced to comply with the Taliban edict after the militants drove home their threat by destroying several phone towers in Kunduz over the past few weeks.
“We had no other option but to turn them off,” said Engineer Omar, who heads operations in the north of the country for Afghan Wireless Communications Company, one of Afghanistan’s largest mobile phone companies.
Other officials and residents in Kunduz also say mobile phone companies have to turn off their networks at night, when militants usually move around.
“For a week now, the networks … due to the threats from the armed opposition of the government, are shutting down from six in the evening until five in the morning,” said Abdul Razaaq Yaqoubi, the police chief in Kunduz.
Kunduz, once regarded as largely peaceful, has seen a surge in Taliban attacks and is expected to become a main battle front in coming months.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, is expected to send 2,500 U.S. troops in coming months to beat back Taliban fighters who have seized much of Kunduz despite the presence of more than 4,000 German troops.
The Germans operate under post-World War Two restrictions on their combat role, rules which critics say have allowed the Taliban to advance.
Most of Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been either damaged or destroyed during 30 years of war. There is virtually no working landline telephone system in the country.
The success of the mobile phone industry has been one of the few bright spots in a country that has attracted little foreign investment. Cutting night-time signals in some areas has caused great resentment among residents for whom mobile phones are a vital source of communication.
Five mobile operators, three of them foreign firms, with an estimated investment of several hundred million dollars have set up business in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan largely rely on mobile and satellite phones to allow fighters to communicate with field commanders and to relay media statements.
(Editing by Jonathon Burch and Paul Tait)