Over the last two weeks, protests against Taliban rule have broken out across major cities in Afghanistan, from Herat to Kabul, over women’s rights to work, treatment of minorities, and the formation of a non-inclusive, Taliban dominated government,.
Thus far, the Taliban have responded to these protests with a show of force, firing live ammunition, and whipping women protesters in public— actions that have caused concerns in the UN. However, there are troubling signs that the Taliban sought to extend their repression digitally as well. During the protests, parts of Kabul were reportedly disconnected from the internet, and there are disconcerting rumors of additional shutdowns across major cities in October.
Weaponizing internet shutdowns is not new to the Taliban, who banned the Internet in 2001 whilst in power. During the clashes between Taliban and the National Resistance Front in Panjshir valley, one of the first actions taken by the group was to shut down all telecommunications services in the region, leading to an information blackout, and shielding the world from the humanitarian crisis caused by the Taliban blockade of the valley. Prior to returning to power, the group was also notorious for attacking telecommunications infrastructure as well. In 2011, for example, Taliban forced a mobile service shutdown in Helmand province, and routinely destroyed cellular towers across the country as part of its insurgency.
Although the Taliban claim to have learned from their past mistakes, it is clear from their recent actions that not much about the group has changed. For many Afghan activists, it seems that free internet access under a resurgent Taliban rule seems more and more unlikely with each passing day. Without a concerted effort and plan to support information access in Afghanistan, the collapse of Afghan civil society seems all but inevitable.