The battle for control of Afghanistan’s internet

When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, between 1996 and 2001, the nation remained resolutely analogue. The internet was effectively banned alongside music and other ‘modern concepts’ such as women having a role in society. The result was that most Afghans were cut off from the emerging online world.

Yet despite its hostile approach to digital life within its borders, the Taliban held a more nuanced view when it came to spreading the word outside Afghanistan. The terror group has been on Twitter for a decade, and has maintained an official website since 1998, even while Afghan civilians were barred from going online.

Twenty years on, the situation is even more complicated. Our reliance on digital connections has grown exponentially since the Taliban were last in power, and even the militia themselves use social media as part of a vast propaganda machine. Afghanistan’s new leader – expected to be Mullah Baradar, head of the Taliban’s political arm – has a full in-tray of issues. Policing, the economy and Afghanistan’s place in the international community are all priorities. But equally challenging is what the Taliban does with the internet.

“The internet is a microcosm of all these questions about what is the future of Afghanistan,” says Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik, a network observability company. Even in a country with low internet penetration, around 11.5 per cent, Afghanistan’s online presence and infrastructure is key to its future. It’s also vital for its people as they try to stay connected to the outside world. And while the Taliban has to decide what to do with the internet in Afghanistan, the global companies that underpin its infrastructure have to decide what to do with the Taliban.

Currently, five telecoms companies operate in Afghanistan, according to Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now, a non-profit defending and extending digital civil rights worldwide. Three of them are primarily owned or invested in by foreign countries. One of them, South African company MTN, announced last year it was leaving the country but has yet to do so. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they decide: ‘We already said we’re leaving, and this is getting too crazy’ and expedite the process,” Madory says.

Key services could also disappear from Afghanistan because of international sanctions, Madory warns. The centralisation of the internet into the hands of a small number of service providers – most of whom are based in the United States – means that everything from cloud servers to social media could go silent if America decided to act on the threat of sanctions to Afghanistan. (It already has frozen $9.5 billion (£6.4bn) of assets held by the Afghanistan Central Bank.)

Madory was involved in developing a list of IP addresses from Syria, North Korea and Sudan, from which incoming traffic to Oracle’s cloud services was blocked when he worked at the company. But whether that would happen to Afghanistan’s 327,000 IP addresses is up for debate. “In this whole area of sanctions there has been a movement to exclude telecommunications because it doesn’t really affect the right people,” he says. It punishes the everyday users while hardly affecting those in charge.

Not that it may take international action to severely limit internet access to Afghans. “Poor connectivity may be further attacked in case of an emergency situation, [such as] unrests, protests and any future elections,” says Pavlina Pavlova, consultant to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors human rights and cybersecurity.

“The Taliban has a history of targeting telecommunications infrastructure and later mobile-phone towers which forced mobile companies to shut or limit their coverage,” Pavlova adds. “Now when in power, it can control internet providers and force them to shut down the connection.” The Taliban has already reportedly shut down internet and phone services in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul, the last place in the country it has not taken over. (The Taliban claims to have gained control of the area as of September 6, though the rebel leader with oversight of the area disagrees.)

Such internet shutdowns would be deleterious to Afghans, limiting their ability to access and share reliable information, and putting them at higher risk of misinformation – which could lead to them taking what Pavlova calls “badly-informed actions”. That has been seen in reporting of the Afghanistan evacuation, where reporters encountered Afghans congregating around the airport after hearing rumours circulating online that they would be allowed out of the country.

“There are a whole bunch of different issues here,” says Andrew Sullivan of the Internet Society, an advocacy group promoting good maintenance of internet infrastructure. The first issue is that Afghanistan’s internet isn’t up to scratch in comparison to most other countries worldwide. “Although it’s not terrible, it’s not highly interconnected and doesn’t have the different constituent networks that make the internet robust in the face of failures,” he says.