The Taliban has forced offline telecommunications networks in the areas of Helmand province it currently controls, according to reports from the Pajhwok and Voice of America news agencies. The insurgent group has forcibly shut down at least 120 mobile towers in the province in an attempt to disrupt the communications of the Afghan military and intelligence agencies, following the recent launch of a new anti-Taliban offensive (dubbed ‘Operation Nusrat’). A spokesperson for the defence ministry clarified that the army uses its own systems and, as such, would be unaffected by the blackout, adding that the shutdown ‘would only create problems for local residents.’ The Taliban had reportedly issued a notice to all operators in the area, warning them to cease operations. This could not be confirmed though as, due to the associated security risks, telcos do not comment on such matters. The head of Helmand’s Provincial Council, Attaullah Afghan, called for providers not to bow to pressure from the insurgents saying: ‘Businesses and common people are customers of the private telecom companies but these firms always accept the Taliban’s demands.’ The politician added that providers that comply with the rebel group’s orders should face punishment from the government ‘in line with the law’.
Outside of Helmand, networks in parts of Uruzgan and Zabul provinces have cut operations to just a few hours a day following similar threats from the insurgents. A defence official suggested the Taliban were pressuring cellcos to prevent residents from tipping off the police about the group’s presence in poppy fields during the current harvesting season.