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PublishDate: Tuesday, September 7, 2021 11:10

The battle for control of Afghanistan’s internet

The Taliban has yet to decide what to do with the internet in Afghanistan. The same is true for the global companies that underpin it

Afghan Voice Agency (AVA)_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 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 , 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 (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 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.
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With highly-skilled workers who would be able to maintain the internet infrastructure in Afghanistan among those most likely to be fleeing the country under Taliban rule, there’s a risk that brain drain could put paid to the internet. “Not all 39 million people can get on a C-17 and leave Afghanistan,” says Madory. “But it does seem like it’s hard to get highly-skilled technical talent.” Madory has seen similar issues in Syria, where those who are talented enough to maintain such a network try to get out of the country. The result is that while the systems don’t immediately go offline, they’re held in a holding pattern, not improving and gradually falling behind international standards and into disrepair.

International support to keep Afghanistan online also seems unlikely. The Taliban is still a proscribed terrorist organisation among much of the world’s leadership, and although some countries such as Pakistan, Qatar, China and Russia have made overtures to the Taliban government, most of the network operators and companies that deal with the technology underpinning the smooth running of Afghanistan’s digital presence are based in countries that still see the group as people not to be dealt with. “If you decide nobody is allowed to have any communication with network operators because of the countries they’re in, that’s pretty much fatal for the internet,” says Sullivan.

Currently, Afghanistan’s 6,000 or so .af domains are given DNS services by US not-for-profit Packet Clearing House and Czech registrar Gransy – the latter of which also provides DNS services for South Sudan’s .ss top-level domain name. “Who is the ccTLD operator for .af is not a matter for us to interpret,” Gransy has said, adding: “politics has nothing to do with our daily work, and we are a 100 per cent apolitical organisation.” The company says it follows procedures laid out by ICANN, the American non-profit that helps keep the internet online. ICANN has said it “defers decision making to within the country” in question – here, Afghanistan and its Taliban rulers.

However, keeping those services online allows the Taliban to utilise the internet as a method of communication to the masses. The group has used social media and the internet to surprising ends given its highly theocratic stance on modern technology. But the Taliban has been compelled to do so because of the realities of the situation, says Emerson T Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “If you're trying to survive, and even win a political contest against a much more powerful entity like the US-backed Afghan government, you have to use every tool at your disposal,” he explains. “That's why the Taliban were pretty early to embrace social media communications.”

That Taliban spokesmen are regularly posting on Twitter is something that might have seemed implausible even a few years ago. Yet it seems likely to continue as the Taliban continue to try and shape public opinion, within and outside its own borders. Big Tech has taken a mixed approach to the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan.

Brooking believes the future is a two-track system similar to Mosul under the control of the Islamic State, where internet access for Afghan civilians will be highly restricted and monitored, while at the same time the Taliban will freely use it for their propaganda purposes.

“The Taliban have every incentive to remain on these platforms to try to legitimise their own role, because their first priority right now is the fact that Afghanistan is not a self-sustaining country,” Brooking says. “It's entirely reliant on international aid.” All of which means that some of the trickiest, most momentous decisions that could shape the future of Afghanistan won’t be made by international governments or supra-governmental organisations. They’ll be made by the likes of , Google and Twitter.

“Because of the way the modern world works,” says Brooking, “many extremely consequential foreign policy decisions are going to be made first by the social media platforms.” Whether Facebook decides to totally deplatform the Taliban could end up affecting not just those at the head of the government, but the millions living under its iron fist, too.

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