HERAT, AFGHANISTAN // The Taliban have ordered harsh limits on the use of mobile phones in a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan, residents and officials said, a sign of the militants' increasing influence in a once peaceful area.
The Islamist group's order in Bala Morghab, a remote district of Badghis province bordering Turkmenistan, follows similar edicts in recent years in the south and east, where the insurgency is strongest, but also more recently in the north.
Residents said the Taliban had ordered mobile phone operators to only turn their networks on for two hours per day, at 9am and 3pm, in the most draconian restrictions imposed by the militants on mobile phone use anywhere in the country.
Insurgents say Afghan and foreign troops use the mobile networks to track their fighters and accuse ordinary Afghans of using the devices to spy on the militants.
For years, mobile phone restrictions have been a fact of life for Afghans in more insecure areas in the south and east where phones are usually cut off at night.
In May, the Taliban imposed restrictions in northern Kunduz province, which has seen a spike in violence over the last year.
"With the help of mobile phones, the traitors pass on our whereabouts to the government and foreigners," Bari, a shopkeeper in Bala Morghab, quoted a Taliban commander saying at a meeting with residents who pleaded to be allowed more use of the phones.
"Ever since the restriction, there have been fewer attacks on us," the shopkeeper quoted the commander as saying.
The restrictions were imposed on the area nearly three weeks ago and residents say they are not only a nuisance for the population of around 200,000, but could be potentially dangerous in times of emergency.
"We went and appealed to the Taliban to have mercy on us but they said their fighters were more important," shopkeeper Bari told Reuters in a phone interview during one of the brief periods when calls are possible.
The provincial governor's spokesman, Sayed Sharafuddin Majeedi, confirmed the Taliban's decree and said the government was unable to do anything to keep the phones on.
"We know about the recent restriction but the private companies don't listen to us," Majeedi told Reuters from Badghis.
Mobile phone operators in the past have said they are forced to comply with the Taliban edicts, or risk having their network masts destroyed by the militants. Insurgents have blown up masts in several parts of the country when operators have not complied.
Violence in Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 with casualties on all sides at record levels and militants spreading out of their southern and eastern strongholds into once-peaceful areas in the north and west.
The Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan largely rely on mobile and satellite phones to allow fighters to communicate with field commanders and to relay media statements.
Most of Afghanistan's infrastructure has been either damaged or destroyed during 30 years of war. There is virtually no working landline telephone system in the country and the success of the mobile phone industry has been one of the few bright spots in a country that has attracted little foreign investment.
Five mobile operators, three of them foreign firms, with an estimated investment of several hundred million dollars have set up business in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban.