„We are not against the Internet, but it is being used to spread obscenities, immorality and propaganda against Islam“ – this is how the Taliban regime’s foreign minister, Wakil Akhmed Mutawakil, was quoted in 2001. At that time, the Taliban still controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan.
Afghans had hardly any telephone connections. There were an estimated only 50,000 telephone connections in the entire country. Television, videos, music and cinema were not allowed. And then the Taliban banned the Internet – even to their own authorities. At that time, however, access was only possible via cell phones and satellite connections (Heise Online 2001 and Rötzer 2002).
History of the Internet in Afghanistan
About a year later – after the Western invasion of Afghanistan – the situation with regard to digital access in Afghanistan had improved immensely. In January 2002, the mobile communications provider Ericsson, together with the UN’s World Food Program, set up a mobile communications network for Kabul. Internet cafés were also planned in several cities. Initially, this was the only access for most Afghans, as Internet at home was prohibitively expensive for them. In addition to Internet cafes, offices and universities received computers. In 2003, Afghanistan was granted legal control over the „.af“ domain (OpenNet Initiative 2007, Rötzer 2002 and Quarizada 2016).
Almost twenty years later – in 2021 – there are 8.64 million Internet users in Afghanistan. That is around 22 percent of the population. Most users access the Internet using their cell phones. In 2012, there had also been an increase in the number of users in Afghanistan with the breakthrough of smartphones. It is mainly young people from the middle and upper classes who use their cell phones to access the Internet. Only around 27.7% use laptops or desktop computers. Few people currently have Internet via cable at home either (Datareportal 2021 and Quarizada 2016).
The still low number of users can be explained primarily by the low literacy rate and the high costs. Only 43 percent of Afghans over the age of 15 can read and write; among women, the figure is less than a third. The cost of having their own Internet access at home is still prohibitive for most residents of relatively poor Afghanistan (Datareportal 2021 and OpenNet Initiative 2007).
Social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatApp and YouTube are very popular. Some Afghans also read online news. But printed news is still more popular. Above all, however, radio broadcasts are listened to a lot. They are easy to understand – even for the less educated audience (Quarizada 2016).
The Taliban and the Internet after the Loss of Power
It is not only average Afghans who have become closer to the Internet in recent decades. The Taliban underwent a change in strategy. They began to use the Internet for their own purposes.
They already owned various Internet domains about ten years ago. Taliban members use e-mail to communicate with journalists. „Today, wars cannot be won without media. Media targets the heart instead of the body and when the heart is beaten, the battle is won,“ Abdul Sattar Maiwandi, a web editor of a Taliban website was quoted as saying in 2011 (Gwakh 2011).
By this time, the Taliban had already created an official „media committee“ and a professional production studio was producing videos for them. These were then distributed through the websites and social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Ten years ago, the Taliban already maintained various Twitter accounts (Gwakh 2011).
In 2016, they even launched their own news app called Alemarah on the Google Playstore. It contained news in Pashto – a language spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The app was only available for download for a few hours. Then it was removed for violating Google’s guidelines (Purtill 2016).
Today, the Taliban openly uses all available social media channels to spread its messages and narratives. The three main players have a total of nearly 800,000 followers on Twitter. Since the Taliban is not officially considered a terrorist organization in the U.S., they can use media operated by U.S.-based companies without restriction. The official Taliban website Alemarah is therefore also easily hosted via Cloudflare – a company based in San Francisco (Taneja 2021).
The Taliban’s social media channels target young Afghans in particular. A few years ago, the Taliban were mainly active in jihad forums and blogs. These have been replaced by social media. Facebook is one of the increasingly used platforms. In 2017, more than 2,000 Facebook users had already liked the Islamic State of Afghanistan page – apparently the Taliban’s official Facebook presence. Individual members of the Taliban also operate Facebook pages. They have a total of several hundred Facebook friends (Johnson 2017, 89).
Currently – in the year 2021 – a renewed discussion has flared up about whether the Facebook group should not delete all content created by the Taliban on the corresponding platforms due to US sanctions. This was already done by Facebook in 2017. Currently, the services WhatsApp and Instagram in particular are under discussion (Heise Online 2021).
Taliban target groups and offline communication
In addition to social media activities, the Taliban also operates simple web presences. Al-Emarat is a simple website with religious, cultural, historical and political content. It contains detailed and daily updated situation reports on the Taliban’s activities in Afghanistan. Content is provided in five different languages: Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic and English (Johnson 2017, 85ff.).
Since few Afghans have Internet access, the target of these propaganda activities is primarily foreigners. The Pashto and Dari segments of the Al-Emarat website also target local audiences, but they also focus primarily on the neighboring countries of Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan. Local target audiences are journalists, the educated and urban classes. In the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan, there is better Internet access, so that the Taliban could spread anti-Western propaganda and news against the Afghan government with their content here (ibid.).
The website’s sections in Urdu, Arabic and English also target a foreign audience. Urdu is spoken primarily in Pakistan and South Asian countries. The Taliban thus gain attention from potential supporters. This is how they acquire funds – among others, the Taliban are co-financed by the Pakistani state and the Pakistani intelligence services. For them, the website is an information medium for fighting success. The same goal applies to the Arabic version of the Al-Emarat website. This is also intended to find financially strong supporters in the Muslim community (ibid.).
The English version of Al-Emarat serves as a means of communication with the West. Mostly, the news here revolves around the power of the Taliban and the repulsion of international forces in Afghanistan. It is about spreading fear and manipulating Western perceptions regarding the war in Afghanistan (ibid.).
Afghans themselves are reached by the Taliban through pamphlets, brochures, radio, audio and video CDs, magazines, and religious sympathizers (Gwakh 2011). One effective means is the so-called „night letters“ or shabnamah. These are written proclamations that are basically delivered overnight to villages, groups or individuals or posted on the walls of local mosques. They usually threaten consequences if those affected do not abide by the rules enunciated in them. Especially in rural Afghanistan, this means of communication is still effective in exercising power (Taneja 2021).
Destruction of power and IT infrastructure by the Taliban
Even if the number of Internet users in Afghanistan is still comparatively low, the telecommunications sector has emerged as one of the country’s most important in recent years. Average annual revenue is nearly $140 million, which accounts for more than 12 percent of total government revenue. The sector consists of cooperations between the private sector and the government (Kumar 2021).
In recent months, however, critical infrastructure in this area has come under increasing attack from the Taliban. In July, the group blew up fiber optic cables and system equipment in Islam Qala – a border town with Iran. After the attack, residents of the town were left without Internet access (ibid.).
Furthermore, 28 telecommunications antennas were destroyed and 23 partially damaged throughout the country. An event that critically limits digital and mobile communications in Afghanistan (ibid.).
The electrical infrastructure was also attacked by the Taliban. Millions of Afghans are subjected to daily power outages and in some cases have to cope with only a few hours of electricity per day. This is also extremely damaging to the country’s IT sector. Some companies have invested in power generators and backups. However, they do not necessarily recoup these expenses through revenue. Especially smaller businesses and self-employed people suffer from the situation (ibid.).
What’s next for the Internet in Afghanistan under the Taliban?
The Taliban’s renewed seizure of power thus raises the question of what their future media and Internet strategy will look like. Will there be another complete ban on the Internet in Afghanistan? Is this even possible at this point in time? Will the Taliban continue to destroy the infrastructure of the IT sector and render it unusable?
So far, it looks as if the Taliban have become too accustomed to the new medium of the Internet to do away with it completely. However, strict censorship measures, similar to those in neighboring Iran, and increasing restrictions on freedom of expression are conceivable. However, this too will take some time due to a lack of resources. Propaganda via online and offline channels will also continue to increase, and the Taliban will try to appeal to an audience in and around Afghanistan with their lurid content.
Many Western media reporters already rely heavily on information presented in Taliban channels, while the Afghan government continues to have little to no presence in social media. What this means for balanced reporting – especially now in times of upheaval – is questionable.
Among many other achievements in Afghanistan in recent years, the growth of the IT sector is one of the flagship projects. It remains to be seen whether digitization is in the Taliban’s interests.
Datareportal. „Digital 2021: Afghanistan.“ < https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-afghanistan > 2021 (17.08.2021)
Gwakh, Bashir Ahmad. „The Taliban’s Internet Strategy.“ < https://www.heise.de/news/Taliban-in-Afghanistan-nutzen-WhatsApp-Facebook-muss-reagieren-6167471.html > 2021 (18.08.2021)
Heise Online. „Taliban verbieten Internet in Afghanistan.“ < https://www.heise.de/newsticker/meldung/Taliban-verbieten-Internet-in-Afghanistan-38733.html > 2001 (17.08.2021)
Johnson, Thomas H. Taliban Narratives – The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Oxford u.a.: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Kumar, Ruchi. „Taliban targeting Afghanistan’s crucial power, IT infrastructure.“ < https://opennet.net/research/profiles/afghanistan > 2007 (17.08.2021)
Purtill, James. „Why the Taliban news app could be reshaping your internet use.“ < https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/why-the-taliban-news-app-could-be-reshaping-your-internet-use/7302068 > 2016 (17.08.2021)
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Rötzer, Florian. „Das Internet kommt in Afghanistan an.“ < https://www.heise.de/tp/features/Das-Internet-kommt-in-Afghanistan-an-3425885.html > 2002 (17.08.2021)
Taneja, Kabir. „From ‚Night Letters‘ to the Internet: Propaganda, the Taliban and the Afghanistan Crisis.“ < https://gnet-research.org/2021/08/16/from-night-letters-to-the-internet-propaganda-the-taliban-and-the-afghanistan-crisis/ > 2021 (17.08.2021)