Neo-Taliban Turns Digital: A Reconquest Strategy

Taliban Fighters with guns
Image by ResoluteSupportMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Taliban accomplished its brisk encirclement of Kabul and the accompanying phases of conflict with unexpected smoothness. There has been a lot of investigation on the Taliban’s “operational art”, conquest strategy, and it’s time we ferret out neo-Taliban’s tactics from one of the 1990s. Clearly, the new Taliban is unafraid to integrate military and non-military faculties of power to pursue political ambitions.

The “Neo-Taliban” have devised a strikingly modish strategy to recapture their lost territory. For an organization that espouses orthodox moral codes, the heavy use of technology to regain dominance was not an apparent plan of action. But, unfortunately, the vicious and foreseeable pull-out of U.S. forces from Afghanistan has unobstructed fresh debates on the latter’s conquering strategies through citizen data hijacking. With their skilful incorporation of the U.S.’s advanced technology,  the Taliban captured over forty pieces of data per person — from family links, iris scans, social media accounts to their shopping lists, all of which lay bare open for former’s misuse. The noble American goal was to spend millions of dollars registering databases for the Afghans to modernize law and order in a war-torn land. But, not only did the Taliban outfox the U.S. in the physical theatre of transfer of power, but it also overtook them on the technological stage.

Taliban’s Technological Rampage: The HIIDE Conundrum

The U.S. military has often resorted to tracking insurgents and terrorists through their self-designed devices known as Handheld Interagency Identity Detection Equipment (HIIDE). Elaborately, this device contains sensitive biometric data such as citizens’ biographical information, iris scans, fingerprints which then, aid in providing access to more extensive centralized databases. In the early weeks of October 2021, it was reported that the Taliban seize HIIDE effortlessly and may begin, instead continue, hunting down Afghan citizens who passively or actively supported the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While there are speculations over whether or not the Taliban have cracked HIIDE’s security layers, a U.S. Army Special Operations veteran fears Pakistan would help the Taliban identify various gears to use personal data irresponsibly. This undoubtedly is not the first time the U.S. has operated HIIDE. Its widely known global war on terror popularized the effective functioning of HIIDE, as locating Osama bin Laden during the 2011 raid in Pakistan. According to Annie Jacobsen, an investigative reporter,  the Pentagon aimed at gathering about 80% of the local Afghan population’s biometric data to pick out criminals and terrorists. American counterterrorism pegs the pressing question — Why did the U.S. never envision threats to privacy in the event of HIIDE falling into unlawful hands? The question is but noticeable, especially in conflict-ridden lands as tenuous as Afghanistan. In 2011, the Government Accountability Office cast aspersions on the Pentagon to exert inadequate efforts into data sharing with other U.S. state agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Homeland Security. The U.S. Federal government has blithely collected data despite knowing the risks involved in collecting data, a high percentage of recent cyberattacks on state agencies and commercial companies, the horrors of which continue to expand today.

Kabul’s Other Databases under Threat

The long-term unfolding of a very challenging and troubling human rights situation in Afghanistan is being widely reported. Door-to-door searches for targets, especially with those associated with the United States, citizens are known for political or human rights activism — are seeing assassination or threats, assaults on journalists and the widespread blanket call for women and children to stay home. These instances provide very little evidence over whether or not this is a different Taliban. Arguably, the Taliban are not intrinsically oriented differently in terms of human rights; however, they may be more sophisticated in terms of knowing what the international community expects to hear from them. In the 1990s Taliban stood against the use of the internet, while today, it stands to benefit from it as it coaxed the world of its “modern” governance capabilities. Potentially the chaos led to the Taliban, high on the offensive, seizing the U.S. collected biometric and identification devices storing citizen data. Reports by Intercept indicate the colossal investment of time and money gone into building a system devoted to storing civilian data. The tricky US-funded database calledb– the Afghan Personnel and Pay System (APPS) was frequently used by the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence to pay the police and National Army. Arguably, it holds sensitive details, including knowledge regarding security personnel and their extended networks.

The APPS was developed in 2016 as an attempt to track down paycheck fraud involving fake identities; the system, as “ghost soldiers”, contain over half a million records about every Afghan National Army and Police member. The system specified that personnel data was collected from the day security officers were enlisted. In no manner did it propound any policy of deletion or data retention, even in exceptional cases of contingency situations, as we know of today. To confirm fears over data hijacking, the Afghan National Police (ANP) released a presentation on the police recruitment procedure, which reveals just one of the application forms contains at least 36 data points. Hence, APPS holds a minimum of 40 data fields for each individual employed — inclusive of name, place of birth, date of birth and the unique ID number that connects each profile to a biometric profile recorded by the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan. Afghan Interior Ministry’s other creation was the Afghan Automatic Biometric Identification System (AABIS), also broached as Biometrics Centre. The creation of AABIS was inspired by the Automatic Biometric Identification System, essential in assisting the  American Department of Defence with highly classified drone attacks. It drew light on systems more diminutive than the AABIS, the “e-tazkira”- Afghanistan’s electronic national ID card. Upon examining the data by Afghanistan’s National Statistics and Information Authority, dangers of which were initially downplayed by the U.S. authorities shows over 6.2 million applications were in the process by the time the Kabul government fell. As for accountability from the U.S. Defence services, they have repeatedly denied the possibility of data maltreatment from the Taliban. Many compelling incidents involving biometrics have proven fears of data breach by the Taliban must not be in vain. In 2016, insurgents in Afghanistan ambushed a bus en route to Kunduz, taking over 200 civilians as hostages, eventually killing 12, including Afghan National Army soldiers returning to their bases. Locals adumbrated, the hostages were identified via “fingerprint” scanners by the Taliban and, based on that, shot on sight. Even though it’s unclear what sort of tracking devices were employed to milk data, the Kunduz incident reinforced how broader data sets can be wielded to establish “identity dominance” by the Taliban. Likewise, an investigation by Amnesty International chronicled that the Taliban persecuted and pillaged ten ethnic Hazara men after seizing Ghazni in July 2021. At the same time, Kabul news reporters heralded how the Taliban marched door-to-door to “register” persons who had worked for the U.S. government or international bodies.

The Taliban’s seizure of control — digital contraption — includes the U.S. introduced biometrics for verifying people. Built initially with minimal data protection and safeguard walls, the compiled database was volatile to begin with. Under the jackboots of high-tech “governors”, Afghanistan is turning into a complete surveillance state. Databases, tracking technologies, amongst several other weapons, may allow the Taliban to control and get back at their enemies from the 90s. Evidently so, technology in its deregulated and unchecked form is the chief principle of the Taliban’s recoup stratagem. Several Policy analysts argue that no administration could have avoided U.S.’s ultimate pull-out war from Kabul. Albeit, Biden is dealing with it imperfectly. Putting aside the political tussle concerning human rights, the Taliban have not portrayed promising signals for human rights in Afghanistan. With their incorporation of recent technological databases, the Taliban’s sudden reappearance is not truly a rude awakening. Zia-Ur-Rehman of The New York Times precisely pens down the Taliban’s capacity to communicate through destructive virtual means has paved their way to victory.

The Future of Unsupervised Social Media & Technology in Kabul

The wired in Taliban have fully immersed itself into the digital age; U.S’s miscarriage in Afghanistan can be corroborated by its laid-back innovations in technological and army strategies. In 2001, post-defeat by the U.S forces, the militant Islamists who had once relinquished technological advancements installed makeshift drones, surveillance schemes and aligned their operations and ministerial memorandums through social media interfaces. Hence, the act of embracing rather than side-lining the trappings of 2001 for the Taliban becomes a vital strategy to survive and retake Afghanistan.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Senior Research Fellow at the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution, argues over the Taliban’s ability to adapt and attack: “One of the things that they learned was to focus on communications, and away from the model of the 1990s, which was to move the country away from any kind of modernity.” MIT Technology Review writer Mike Martin interpose how the Taliban rose to prominence in the 90s through AK-47s. Today, they cause similar destructions through virtual telephony — not only to improve their command and control but, even more critically, to execute their strategic broadcasting. Furthermore, modernized means of connectivity empowered the Taliban to fruitfully recruit across encrypted channels and dissuade citizens against any impactful resistance. Similarly, the group’s active presence on social media perpetuates the authority the Taliban have longed for since 1996.

Although a handful may defend that — as the present governors of Kabul, sadly, the Taliban’s activities online is condoned due to their “government leadership”. Yet, social media interfaces carry the responsibility for the Taliban’s reinstitution. Providentially, Facebook — for a change — had taken stringent action years ago in forbidding the Taliban from using its website. However, its newly absorbed company WhatsApp — harped on its end-to-end encryption — is still being publicized by the Taliban as far-reaching for its governance policy as is evident in the case of the Taliban using WhatsApp as a “complaints hotline” for civilians in Kabul. Meanwhile, Twitter’s policy towards the Taliban, conversely, is frightful and more Delphic. The Taliban’s current spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid congratulated the group on bagging more than 300,000 followers, and Twitter permits their virtual presence as long as they don’t violate the “tweeting” norms.

In the absence of a cohesive policy on acknowledging a tyrannical body like the Taliban, the potential for mass destruction through networking is inevitable. Besides unceasingly reinforcing their authority, the Taliban wants to ignite fear and deafening calm in the citizenry through modern communications — unregulated, raw and unjust — set up by the Silicon Valley’s absent resolution. Sarah Kreps, a law professor at Cornell University, reflects upon this technological seize by the Taliban, as winning the war on social media is as pivotal as winning the one with bullets. There was, and remains, a natural tendency to assay the power of the Taliban from the 90s into the present-day context. However, to reliably assess the future hold of the Taliban over Afghanistan, there is a severe need to acknowledge the devastating effects of the lack of privacy, primarily unleashed by U.S. defence organizations. Experts believe, the rollout of such technologies in Afghanistan have been heavy, even if APPS and other data had not achieved maximum efficacy, they contain, several terabytes of data on Afghan locals which the Taliban will connivingly feed on.

When appropriately applied, technology can be a liberating factor for the masses. Yet, when fragrantly abused by medieval, tyrannous governments, profiting on absent regulations, the freeing technological force is proven maligned to the groups. As the Taliban grows its governing feet, it is evident how its fundamental nature remains unchanged. Although we live in a different world, there are opportunities today for leverage and transparency that the international community lacked in the 1990s. Hence the extent to which countries can constrain the Taliban from carrying out its worst instincts will depend on the ability to shine a light on the essential issues. In Afghanistan, where data privacy laws were not written or enacted until years after the U.S. military, and its contractors began capturing biometric information, these questions never received clear answers. It’s widely understood that owning legal identification documents is a right, but is the conflating biometric ID  the only orderly means for legal identification? Dangerously flawed and increasingly deleterious, privacy policies in Afghanistan require more policy fixes and less biometrics.

Samriddhi Roy is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation (CS3), United Service Institute of India (USI), New Delhi. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in History from Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University and has completed her Master’s in Conflict Analysis and Peace-building from Jamia Millia Islamia. She had previously worked as a Young Scholar at Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi, and as a Research Intern at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.