On August 15, the militant group Taliban reseized power in Afghanistan after two decades of US presence in the country. The next two weeks were followed by a rush for Western nations to transport to safety both their nationals and Afghan citizens afraid of what the Taliban resurgence could mean for them.
Aside from the humanitarian and economic questions arising now that Taliban supporters celebrate the Western exit on the streets, another key area for Afghanistan is under scrutiny: the telecommunications sector.
In 2021, the Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA) reported that the Taliban destroyed 28 telecommunications towers across the country in the months prior to taking over the government. In 2019, ATRA said that 220 towers had been destroyed by “the Taliban and other groups.”
While the current regime tries to show it will be a moderate administration, the Taliban’s actions in the past do not sit well with their discourse today. One more reason why questions continue to be asked around how the telecom sector will – or will not – be impacted by the new political situation.
Back to the Roots
The Taliban – “students” or “seekers” in Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan – first ran the country between 1996 and 2001.
Before 2001, according to the Afghan Ministry of Communications and IT, there were fewer than 15,000 local landlines in the country, no internet connectivity and no ICT institutions or companies. International calls were almost impossible – the Pakistan country code was used in many border areas in 2000. Afghans had to travel to neighbouring countries to make or receive international phone calls.
In 2001, the Taliban government even banned the Internet, saying it was used to broadcast immoral and anti-Islamic material.
Yet, in the last days of the first Taliban regime, a new initiative was launched in partnership with Pakistan and China to install satellite telephones. People would queue for days in order to make phone calls. American investors were also engaged in talks with the Taliban to establish digital telephony services.
Things started to drastically change in this sector from 2001, after the US invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power following the 9/11 attacks.
“Back in 2002, with the support of the international community – in particular with the technical support from the World Bank – we started to realise how we could establish a vibrant telecommunication sector,” recalled Mohammad Najeeb Azizi, scholar in exile and Chairman of ATRA between 2015 and 2019, in an interview with 6GWorld. Azizi started to work with the telecommunications sector in 2002, when he acted as the Director-General of Budget at the Afghan Ministry of Finance.
“The challenge was, in order to attract the foreign investment, we had to have at least some sort of regulatory framework in place, which was not an easy thing to do [back then],” he added.
Part of this challenge was due to the lack of developed institutions and regulations, which made it difficult to establish the basic rules for the telecoms sector.
High Demand, Further Development
Still, the government managed to deploy the first mobile services in the country. In April 2002, the Afghan Wireless Communications Company became the first private telecom enterprise to receive an interim service authorisation to provide GSM in Afghanistan. The official license was confirmed in 2003 under a $5 million license fee.
Also in 2003, the Telecommunication Development Company of Afghanistan (TDCA), operating under the brand name of “Roshan,” was awarded the second GSM license. MTN and Etisalat followed in 2006.
Azizi says that official projections in the 2000s indicated that the maximum demand for telephony would sit around 30,000 to 50,000 lines in Afghanistan, which is why the government issued the first license establishing a capacity cap of 10,000 lines.
“But the demand was very high, between hundreds of thousands of users only in the first month,” Azizi explained. “So that’s why we had to issue the second license. And then, even with the second license we felt that probably the market was not competitive enough.”
Azizi says that international players like Nokia, Huawei, ZTE, and Alcatel also were service providers in the roll-out of the 2G technology. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) database, which encompasses data from official Afghan sources, mobile subscriptions jumped 700%, from 25,000 in 2002 to 200,000 in 2003. In 2020, over 22.6 million mobile subscriptions were active in the country.
“There are specific reasons [for the success of telecommunications in Afghanistan]. Number one, the private sector played a major role in the development of the field. Number two, the rules of the game were very clear. And the last thing is that the way the telecom field was regulated by the government was much better than [the regulation for] other sectors,” Azizi summarised.
A Connected Afghanistan
It was in 2012 that Etisalat launched the first 3G network in Afghanistan after paying a $25 million license fee.
According to the ITU database, 28% of the country’s population were covered by 3G in 2013. However, it was only from 2017 that mobile internet experienced a rapid growth: 46% in 2017, 55% in 2018, and 60% in 2019, the latest year available.
“The issuance of the 3G license brought close to a hundred million dollars of revenue to the government. And then, of course, the data services were revolutionary because they enabled the Afghan population [to get access to better internet connectivity],” Azizi explained.
The accelerated increase in 3G coverage happened at the same time that 4G was introduced in the country, in 2017. Compared to other nations in the region, however, Afghanistan’s 4G coverage has achieved modest results, among other reasons because the infrastructure for the 4G network was deployed at least two years after its neighbours.
But it is important to note that Afghanistan has been facing armed conflicts that would regularly destroy part of its telecommunications infrastructure. Also, in 2018, an unsuccessful 4G auction led to no commitments from the operators, according to the former chairman of ATRA.
Still, the challenging conditions under which the sector has been able to improve is one of the reasons why Azizi is adamant about the evolution Afghanistan has witnessed. “We have to be proud of ourselves,” he said.
What’s Next Now That the Taliban Rules the Country?
While it’s difficult to predict what the Taliban’s approach to the telecommunications sector will be, some considerations can be made.
First, social media has proved a fundamental tool for the resurgence of the group. “Their smartphones proved just as handy as their rifles when they entered Kabul on August 15, enabling them to film the first propaganda footage of their occupation,” wrote Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab in an article for the Atlantic Council.
Whether the new regime will allow opposition discourse is still to be seen. “[The] information conflict will not end with the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan. Already, anti-Taliban fighters are appealing to the West for military aid. Using pseudonyms, Afghan citizens have begun the first rumblings of an online resistance movement, intent on puncturing the Taliban’s claims of moderation and clemency and revealing the increasingly savage reality of its rule. The months ahead will bring a flurry of competing online narratives around Afghanistan, spanning numerous social media platforms and drawing in actors from around the world. In 2021, this is a war that the Taliban is prepared to fight,” Brooking wrote.
The second thing is that nations and international bodies are putting pressure to at least guarantee some basic rights in the country. The Human Rights Watch, for instance, issued a document analysing the situation in Afghanistan and asking the Taliban to “abolish restrictions on smartphone use and access to the internet and television.”
However, the defining movements will come from the political arena, according to Azizi. With international sanctions in place because of the Taliban, there could be a reconsideration of the investment in Afghanistan.
“Any new dollar that an investor would like to invest in Afghanistan would be under serious scrutiny, and they may not even be allowed to invest in the country,” he observed. “If the government is not inclusive, if it does not respect the basic human values and the rights of the people, then Afghanistan will be in a huge disaster. The telecom sector would not be able to even get the technical support required to maintain all this massive infrastructure.”
Yet Azizi sees a way for Afghanistan to keep investments and the telecommunications sector alive. “If things go well politically, then the telecom sector will also improve. Hopefully, by 2023 we could start 5G services in Afghanistan. Let’s see if that becomes a reality,” Azizi said.
Until then, Afghanistan’s telecoms sector will remain a big question mark.