Taliban resume telecom restrictions in Takhar, hindering coronavirus response

By Hedayatullah


A telecom tower is shown in Taloqan, Takhar Province, on April 19. A majority of telecom services have shut down their towers between 6pm and 6am nightly after receiving threats from the Taliban. [Zalmai Aziz]

KUNDUZ -- Following a brief reduction of violence, the Taliban have returned to threatening telecom carriers in Takhar Province, say officials and residents.

Telecom services remain disconnected from 6pm to 6am nightly because of the Taliban's intimidation of telecom firms.

"The Taliban have warned telecom companies they will destroy ... their towers if their services don't remain shut down overnight," said Abdul Ghafoor Talash, director of Communications and IT in Takhar Province.

"Roshan, Afghan Wireless and Etisalat -- all carriers except the state-run Salaam Telecom -- have no choice but to shut down their services from 6pm to 6am in Takhar Province," said Talash.

The carriers curtailed their services under fear of Taliban sabotage from last May until the Taliban observed a reduction in violence prior to the February 29 signing of an agreement between the Taliban and the United States, according to Talash.

After the signing, the Taliban returned to their usual ways.

"In the past 11 months, the Taliban have set fire to 10 telecom towers of Roshan, Afghan Wireless and Etisalat in Bangi, Khwaja Ghar, Ishkamish and Hazar Sumuch districts of Takhar Province," he added.

If the situation persists as the coronavirus continues to spread, the public will face serious problems, he warned.

"Unfortunately, the Taliban always try to harm civilians," said Abdul Khalil Aseer, a spokesman for the Takhar Police Department. "At a time when the public desperately needs telecom and internet services, [the Taliban] have threatened telecom carriers."

"The security institutions have plans in place to clear areas that are vulnerable and under the Taliban's control," he said. "When security returns to insecure areas, telecom services will resume."

Disrupting distance learning

The Taliban's restrictions are disrupting online education launched by the ministries of Education and of Higher Education in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The only carrier that now provides phone and internet services overnight is the state-run Salaam Telecom, which has a weak signal, say students.

"The disruption of telecom services, especially at night when it is a better time to study, has created problems for us," said Haseebullah Hasas, who is studying Dari language and literature at Takhar University in Taloqan.

"Disconnecting telecom and internet services means the Taliban wish to keep this country's youth in the dark," said Hasas.

"The Taliban have been the enemy of education for years, and they don't want youth to get an education," he added.

"Now that all the students have been quarantined in their homes, the only option to attend our lessons is through television and the internet," said Muhammad Musa Frotan, a 12th-grade student at Abo Usman Taloqani High School in Takhar Province.

"In some provinces, distance learning has begun, but students in Takhar will remain deprived of learning if the Taliban continue to restrict telecom services in the province," he added.

"The terrorists are afraid of young Afghan talent growing, and therefore they have always tried to set fire to schools, target teachers and students and prevent girls from going to school," he added.

Coronavirus threat looms

The disruption of telecom services has created other challenges for the residents of Takhar Province, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

"If suspected cases are found in an area, residents can immediately report them to the hospital on their mobile phone, regardless of whether it is day or night," said Bashir Ahmad Bashar, a resident of Takhar Province.

"Now that telecom services are shut down at this critical time, it is expected that the number of residents contracting the virus will surge," he said.

"Instead of combating this deadly virus, insurgents are creating even more challenges for the public," said Bashar.

"The Department of Public Health has distributed an emergency contact number for coronavirus patients on public awareness leaflets, but the restriction placed on telecom services makes things challenging [for civilians to establish contact]," said Naweed Muhammadi, a doctor in Takhar Province.

"Seven positive cases have been recorded in Takhar, but the awareness campaign on preventing the coronavirus outbreak allows residents to contact the hospital," said Muhammadi.

"If the Taliban disconnect telecom services in this province for a long time, civilians suspected of contracting the coronavirus will find it hard to gain access to health facilities," he added.

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This time, Taliban have decided to capture four Northeastern provinces of Afghanistan: Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz and Baghlan; therefore, over the past one month, the group has intensified its attacks in Badakhshan and Takhar provinces. Now situation of Takhar is worse than that of Kunduz. Taliban target Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and Afghan Local Police every day. People strictly ask the government to tighten security in this province. The government should try to make the telecommunication networks operational again in this province. People of Takhar have faced a lot of problems since Taliban started cutting off telecommunication networks in this province during the night.