Monday, June 30, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan | Taliban forces have discovered a novel tactic to move undetected through strongholds at night - blow up cellular telephone towers unless local officials turn off the networks from dusk to dawn.

The strategy has been used widely in rural areas of Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan midwinter, said U.S. officials, who estimate that at least 50 towers have been attacked in Helmand province alone.

U.S. officials, however, said the tactic is just as likely to alienate locals, who have grown accustomed to keeping in touch with family and friends and view the spread of cellular networks to rural areas as a sign of progress.

Mark Laity, the senior NATO spokesman in Kabul, said it is common for towers to be turned off for at least part of the night in areas where insurgent presence is strong.

“The perception is that the Taliban believes it gives them extra security against ISAF forces,” Mr. Laity said, referring to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which includes about 33,000 U.S. troops.

“The Taliban, on the one hand, believes they can exert some control against the government. On the other hand, it’s an extremely unpopular move amongst the public, who not only value the mobile phones but need them,” he said. They view their ability to communicate by cell phone as a sign of progress, and “resent what’s happening to them.”

In the Arghandab valley about 10 miles northwest of Kandahar city, the network was down at night when Taliban fighters began arriving earlier this month in fully armed groups of 30 to 50, declaring that they were in charge.

Hundreds of families fled the area, many to stay in relatively secure Kandahar city in anticipation of a coming battle with NATO and Afghan forces.

Reports from Afghan forces at the time said the Taliban had blown up bridges and taken control of about 10 villages in the valley, known for its lush grape and pomegranate orchards.

Accounts of the 24-hour battle that followed, involving NATO and Afghan troops, varied by degree, depending on whether Afghan or U.S. officials were speaking.

Afghan forces were eager to demonstrate their effectiveness just days after a June 13 attack on Kandahar prison that included two suicide bombers to burst inside and cars waiting outside to whisk away escapees.

Up to 400 Taliban prisoners have been freed, by some accounts.

Afghan forces said nearly 100 insurgents were killed in the battle to regain control of the Arghandab valley.

U.S. officials were more cautious, saying NATO patrols had encountered only light resistance.

Nevertheless, both Afghan and U.S. officials agreed that the Taliban fighters were gone.

“[NATO and Afghan forces] did their job … which is good for now, until the Taliban decides to continue to destabilize the region,” said a source who asked to be described as a retired official based in the area.

In areas outside of Kandahar, several residents contacted by telephone described the Taliban as a “shadow government,” in which some of the insurgents work during the day as farmers and at night as Taliban fighters.

The on-and-off telephone network serves as a constant reminder of their presence.

Taliban fighters have been targeting telephone networks for at least six months, according locals in the Arghandab area, and have blown up at least a half dozen telephone towers.

They “threaten to blow up the towers” and “personally this is their way of showing power and no one, not even the central government, has been able to really stop them,” said the retired official, who asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

A U.S. official in Washington who is familiar with counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan said the Taliban have targeted Afghanistan’s cellular telephone networks, using a combination of attacks on phone towers and threats against the three private cell phone companies operating in the country.

The effort began in late January or early February when the Taliban put out word that “there would be consequences” unless the cell phone companies restricted the time the networks were operating, said the official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution.

That led the companies to cease cell phone coverage between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. each day. In April, the Taliban announced that the cell phones network could be activated at 6:30 a.m.

“In Helmand province alone we’ve seen more than 50 attacks,” the U.S. official said.

cBill Gertz contributed to this report from Washington.

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