Taliban’s cellphone terror

The Taliban made good on its outlandish threat to blow up Afghan cellphone towers it (correctly) believes are being used by Western intelligence to target insurgents. Its success Friday in blowing up a telecommunications tower in Kandahar province, the traditional Taliban stronghold, raises the question: Who will this hurt more, the Afghan people or the Taliban itself?

In Afghanistan, as in much of the Third World, cellphones are far more crucial than in the U.S. Where land lines and banking are rudimentary, cellphones permit communication and commerce and are used to transfer money. Afghanistan has 3.8 million subscribers -- about 12% of the population. When the Taliban issued its ultimatum this week, giving the country’s four cellphone providers three days to shut down their towers every night or see them destroyed, some Westerners wondered whether the insurgents were technologically impaired by their madrasa educations. Were they so ignorant not to know to pull the batteries out of their phones to thwart tracing, or so cash-strapped they can’t afford to change phone numbers every 48 hours, as the more competent of their terrorist brethren are known to do? Militarily, wouldn’t the loss of cellphone service hurt their own ability to communicate? After all, the insurgents have used cellphones to extort ransoms, receive payoffs and demand better media coverage, as well as to coordinate attacks.

But, as usual, the Taliban had its own political calculus. That it was able to implement its threats precisely on schedule sends the message that the weak government of President Hamid Karzai and his overstretched Western military allies cannot protect what Afghans value most or protect development projects from sabotage. That’s the message the Taliban is sending in threatening letters that warn villagers against cooperating with the government, reminding them that when the Westerners inevitably leave, the Taliban will still be there to wreak revenge on collaborators. It’s the same scorched-earth tactics it has used in killing and kidnapping aid workers and development officials, thus preventing the government from improving standards of living.

The question is, does the Taliban have to win hearts and minds to prevail in Afghanistan, or can it succeed simply by driving the foreigners out? If it cares about cultivating public support, then messing with people’s beloved cellphones is a strategic mistake. But what if its strategy is to terrorize and intimidate the Afghan people, make Karzai and the West look impotent, sabotage progress and wear out Western patience? Will the Afghan people submit? Are their cellphones worth fighting for?