Murphy's Law: The Taliban Want To Get Paid

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June 15,2008: The Taliban are expanding their extortion campaign, demanding that businesses pay "protection money" to avoid being attacked. Well, that's nothing new with terrorists and rebels. But what is new is how an effort to control cell phone use has quickly evolved into just another extortion campaign. Naturally, the Taliban call it a "tax", as the Islamic radicals consider themselves the rightful (if unelected) government of Afghanistan.

It all began earlier this year, when some Taliban groups in southern Afghanistan launched a campaign to shut down cell phone service at night. This turned into a public relations nightmare. The Taliban damaged or destroyed ten cell phone towers outside the southern city of Kandahar, and forced the cell phone companies to shut down service at night for about 300,000 rural customers in areas where the Taliban gunmen were active. The Taliban believed NATO was using cell phone signals to track Taliban movements at night. Actually, NATO has several ways to track the Taliban at night. Few in the Taliban seem to understand how ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) works, so this campaign against cell phones was simply a desperate reaction to many smart bomb attacks, or police raids, on houses where Taliban were spending the night.

The Taliban themselves make heavy use of cell phones, especially since service has been installed in many rural areas. To make this happen, the cell phone companies make deals with the local tribal leaders, who want cell phone service and are willing to protect, or at least not attack the cell phone towers (which cost up to $250,000 each.)

The tribesmen are often pro-Taliban, but want the cell phone service in order to stay in touch with friends, family and the few government services that are available. Thus the Taliban attack on the cell phone companies even angered people who were pro-Taliban. The tribesmen demanded that night service be restored. It was, But then, noting that there were several cell phone companies operating in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban went to the different companies and offered not only "protection", but damage to a competitor, for a price. The Cell Phone companies are demanding some protection.

There are now over five million cell phone users in Iraq, and many rural areas are getting access to phone service for the first time ever. The cell phone companies have invested over a billion dollars so far, giving many Afghans access to world class telephone service for the first time. This is a common pattern in poor countries, where government monopolies and high costs prevented the establishment of conventional landline phone systems anywhere but in a cities and some large towns. Cell phones are cheaper, and can more quickly be installed. People much prefer cell phones to conventional land-line phones.

The government is publicizing all this as another example of Taliban efforts to prevent reconstruction efforts, while the government struggles to improve infrastructure and the economy. The story is getting a lot of play throughout the country, depleting what little good-will the Taliban had left.

 


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