LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan » Punctually, at 8 every night, the cellphone signals disappear in this provincial capital. Under pressure from the Taliban, the major carriers turn off their signal towers, effectively severing most of the connections to the rest of the world.
This now occurs in some portion of more than half the provinces in Afghanistan and exemplifies the Taliban’s new and more subtle ways of asserting themselves, even as NATO generals portray the insurgents as a diminished force less able to hold ground. The question is whether the Taliban need to hold territory as they once did in order to influence the population. Increasingly, it seems, the answer is no.
Tactics like the cellphone offensive have allowed the Taliban to project their presence in far more insidious and sophisticated ways, using the instruments of modernity that they once shunned. The shutoff sends a daily reminder to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Afghans that the Taliban still hold substantial sway over their future.
It is just one part of a broader shift in Taliban strategy that has focused on intimidation, carefully chosen assassinations and limited but spectacular assaults. While often avoiding large-scale combat with NATO forces, the Taliban and their allies in the Haqqani network have effectively undermined peace talks with the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai and sought to pave the way for a gradual return to power as the U.S.-led forces begin scaling back military operations in the country.
Attacks like the rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sept. 13, for which U.S. officials blamed the Haqqanis, effectively shift the fight to cities, where it is harder for NATO to respond with air power for fear of harming civilians. They also allow the Taliban to capture the airwaves for hours, especially in media-saturated urban areas, and fuel an aura of crisis.
Likewise, the assassination Sept. 20 in Kabul of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghanistan’s peace council, dominated the news and reopened dangerous fissures between the country’s Dari-speaking north and the Pashtun south, in a single calculated blow. The new Taliban does not aspire to kill a lot of people, it seems; just a select few in the right places and in positions of power.
The Rabbani assassination not only demonstrated the insurgents’ rejection of the peace process but also reminded people of their ability to shape the next chapter in the country’s history as the Americans prepare to leave. Similarly, the Taliban have sought to remake their image this year as a way of positioning themselves to play a prominent role in Afghanistan’s future. It is a two-track strategy.
Interviews with dozens of Afghans suggest that throughout the country the Taliban have married locally tailored terrorist campaigns with new flexibility on issues such as education and business development.
The combination plays on the uncertainty gnawing at Afghans about the looming U.S. withdrawal, while making the most of the insurgency’s limited resources. The aim is to undermine the Afghan government by making people question whether it can protect them, while trying to project the image of a group that is more open to the world than when the Taliban ruled the country in the 1990s.
For now, especially in ethnic Pashtun areas of the country, the Taliban, who are also ethnic Pashtuns, appear to be achieving their goal of making the future seems up for grabs.
"The morale in Kandahar, in Oruzgan, in Helmand and in Kabul of the ordinary civilian was at the lowest level we’ve seen throughout July," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the deputy director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "People say, first, the ability of the Afghan government to reach out and to build on the already existing security arrangements is minimal, and they point to the bigger crisis the government is in, and in addition they see that the international community withdrawal has started."
Certainly, while NATO troops are in Afghanistan the Taliban cannot enforce their ideas — but with the transition under way, no one doubts that the Western soldiers are leaving. So while NATO insists that the Taliban are losing physical ground, the insurgents may be gaining psychological space.
"Their 2011 spring-summer military campaign has not materialized the way they predicted, because they are under unprecedented pressure," said Lt. Col. Jimmie E. Cummings Jr., a spokesman for the NATO headquarters. The Taliban have been "prevented from regaining the momentum" they had before the troop increase, he said.
NATO also sees less support from the civilian population for the Taliban.
"We saw that after the fighters had left for their sanctuaries in the winter, they returned back to communities who no longer supported them," Cummings said. "They lost their safe houses, IED factories, weapons caches and freedom of movement."
IED stands for improvised explosive device, usually a roadside bomb.
NATO commanders concede that spectacular attacks, such as the one on the U.S. Embassy, are "IO victories" — meaning information operation — said Gen. John R. Allen, commanding general for NATO forces in Afghanistan. They resist equating that with any larger gains, although privately some officers concede that the Taliban’s ability to switch cellphones off and on is another such victory.
Diplomats are hoping that the Taliban’s turn to more psychological methods could be a precursor to peace talks, but they also admit it could be a clever strategy to conserve their forces until the West withdraws more troops.
"We have hurt them, but I am not sure how much we’ve hurt them," Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said in an interview in August. "And I’m not sure we’re going to know for a while how much we’ve hurt them."
This could "ultimately be positive," Crocker said, citing the reasoning of Karzai. "This is what Karzai would describe as the Afghan Taliban: recognizing that their previous form of government did not win hearts and minds and they are shifting to deal with the population again, and actually that would bring them closer to a dialogue with the government."
Others view it more as the Taliban’s positioning themselves to become the chief power in a number of areas of the country, once the bulk of NATO forces leave. A longtime Western observer of Taliban tactics said that the insurgents "are moving into their own hold and build phase; they are prepositioning for 2014."
Just about all NATO combat forces are scheduled for withdrawal by the end of 2014, leaving Afghan security forces in control. So far, the Afghans have demonstrated a limited ability to fight on their own. With that in mind, many Afghans are hedging their bets and keeping avenues open to the Taliban, because they believe the government may not protect them once NATO leaves.
Wardak province, which borders Kabul, is one place that seems up for grabs. It is also where in much of the province the cellphones go down for 13 hours daily. The Taliban view the cutoffs as a line of defense, according to Taliban commanders and spokesmen. When the phones are off, informants cannot call in Taliban locations to U.S. forces that might carry out raids, and the Americans cannot use listening devices to track the location of insurgents.
"Our main goal is to degrade the enemy’s capability in tracking down our mujahedeen," said Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman for eastern and northern Afghanistan.
But a broader effect is to remind the population that it is the Taliban, not the government, who are in control.
Hajji Mohammad Hazrat Janan, head of the provincial council in Wardak, summed up the situation: "In those areas where Taliban have their direct or indirect control, they demand that the telephone towers be turned off at night from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. So we know they are here.
"There are several reason for attacking the cellphone towers, but here the locals are hopeless," he said. "Where should they go and complain? Who should they go to and complain? The government? Innocent people get arrested and get killed by the government and no one cares about them, so the cellphone towers are very small problems here."
The Taliban turn off the phones by threatening to bomb or burn down the towers. It costs the phone companies $200,000 to $250,000 to repair a tower, and the Taliban often will threaten any workman who comes to restore one.
In some cases, most of a province’s phones might be turned off from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.; in others, the signal might be off 20 hours a day. In some provinces, such as Zabul, there is no phone service outside the provincial capital, Qalat, and there it is limited to five hours a day. A handful of provinces, generally those that are more stable, might have only one or two districts where the phones are off in the evening, and the rest have 24-hour service.
NATO has been helping in the construction of cell towers by the Afghan wireless network, on military bases where they would be protected ultimately by the Afghan security forces. So far the number of these towers that are working is relatively small.
"In the last 12 months we had some incidents such as destruction of telephone towers by bombing them," said Asadullah Hamidi, the governor’s spokesman in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul, where he said three cell towers were destroyed in the two districts where the Taliban were active. "The government is trying to resolve this issue, but still we have many problems that we cannot overcome very quickly."
Another benefit of the cellphone campaign for the Taliban is that it does not risk civilians’ lives, which fits with Taliban’s new push to recast their image.
Apparently in an effort to appear more open, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, promised in a message in August, at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, that when the Taliban regained power they would be inclusive to Afghans of all ethnicities, friendly to all countries and eager to develop the economy.
Afghanistan has "rich mines and high potential for energy resources," he said. Then he added in a faintly utopian vein, "We can make investments in these sectors in conditions of peace and stability and wrangle ourselves from the tentacles of poverty, unemployment and ignorance."
Professionals and businessmen will be "encouraged," Omar said. There was no mention of women in the lengthy message, which was translated by the Maryland-based SITE monitoring service, which tracks jihadist communications.
Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said that education should be opened up to both boys and girls, as long as it is imbued with Islamic values, reversing the Taliban’s pre-2001 policies when girls were barred from school and boys were encouraged to study only the Quran.
The newfound support for education is hardly uniform. In a number of areas the Taliban still intimidate teachers and even execute them, but elsewhere they seem to be trying to find a curriculum they can support.
A prominent former Taliban leader who lives in Kabul, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, who has maintained contact with the Taliban, has, along with several other former Taliban members and others, started a school in Kabul for boys and girls — in separate buildings — that teaches the basics: reading, math, English, computer science and religion.
Mullah Zaeef describes it as an "Islamic Education" with Islamic values and modern knowledge.
"The Taliban now are more interested in Islamic education; they are using technology," he said, alluding to the movement’s adept use of the Internet, including websites, Twitter accounts and Facebook.
"We want to provide a symbol of Islamic education," he said. "But modern — but totally, 100 percent Islamic."