March 14, 2008

The Falling Towers of Babble

Since Kip's post regarding the Taliban's threat to begin attacking cell phone companies unless they shut their networks down during the night, the Taliban have begun to act on their threat.

Taliban have attacked 10 cell phone powers, destroying 6 of them. In response, in parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and other Southern provinces as well as parts of more central Ghazni, cell phone companies have reportedly begun to shut off service at night.

(Now one caveat to this analysis. Reuters is spectacularly bad at reporting from Afghanistan, and the news report makes clear that the reporter received much of his information second-hand without ever checking physically whether a cell phone works at evening in the provinces mentioned. The linked article sites one anonymous cell phone worker as its only other source. Kip can confirm the attacks on towers, just not all of the shutdowns in service reported in the provinces where they have been reported. That said, Kip has seen a lot of reporting in Afghanistan news networks and papers that he considers slightly more reliable than Reuters and will post if he discovers faults in the Reuters report. The German press has reported similarly, as has al-Jazeera.)

This is a new and effective tactic by the Taliban. The Taliban need cell phones just like anyone else. However, because the Taliban lack the requisite training and equipment, operations at night are very difficult for them. Therefore, a shut down in service at night is not going to impede operations drastically. Also, if the Taliban are selective about the towers they attack, they can ensure that they don't so drastically disrupt the infrastructure as to truly make things difficult for them. Moreover, the Taliban do have some replacement technology that they can use for communications if they really need it.

The threat and subsequent attacks against cell phone infrastructure demonstrate the Taliban's domination of the information operations sphere. They have identified an infrastructure vulnerability in basically unprotected cell phone towers, dictated that cell phone operators ought to shut their networks down at prescribed times, carried out their threats on time and as promised, and apparently have gotten the phone companies to comply. Moreover, they seem to have done this in a district like Zaire, which is a focal point of Canadian efforts to defeat the Taliban in Kandahar.

The cell phone companies have apparently made the calculation that the potential threat of an attack on their infrastructure and cost of such an attack are too high to continue service in the evening. They have made this decision despite government pleas to keep the networks up. If I were an insurgent seeking to demonstrate the bankruptcy of the government and its inability to provide security, I could think of few better low-cost, low-risk ways to do it. This is a pretty good indicator of where our efforts stand in Afghanistan today.

The government should now make every effort to locate cell phone towers within already protected security infrastructure before the Taliban look to make headway with a couple of spectacular attacks outside of the South.

(Also, you can see an LA Times analysis from last week here, although it reveals a rather simplistic view of the aims of the insurgency and how insurgencies gain support from the people)