Kunduz (Afghanistan) (AFP) – Mobile phone services were restored across swathes of Taliban-contested areas of Afghanistan over the weekend as a partial truce with the militants held for a second day.
The Taliban, US and Afghan forces are currently overseeing a week-long “reduction in violence” that kicked off on Saturday.
The commitment has seen fighting drop dramatically and is set to pave the way for an American withdrawal deal to be signed later this week.
There have been reports of small clashes in rural areas, but no major attacks that have long defined the conflict have erupted, allowing telecoms operators to restore networks.
“For almost three years, all the telecom networks were not working at night in Kunduz province due to the Taliban threats,” said Akhtar Mohammad, the head of provincial telecommunication offices, saying most networks had now been restored.
An official in the northwestern province of Badghis also said mobile networks were up and running, while a source confirmed that progress was being made elsewhere in the country to restore coverage.
The Taliban have long targeted Afghanistan’s private telecom firms, kidnapping engineers, destroying transmission masts and forcing regular coverage blackouts in volatile areas to avoid detection of their fighters.
Afghanistan boasts millions of mobile users in a population of 30 million, with the fast-growing industry employing around 200,000 people and earning strong revenue in an otherwise moribund economy.
Thousands of telecommunication towers, however, are in insurgency-hit areas and vulnerable to attacks.
The partial truce is expected to set the conditions for Washington and the insurgents to sign a deal in Doha on February 29 that could, ultimately, pull US troops out after more than 18 years and launch war-weary Afghanistan into an uncertain future.
A successful week would demonstrate that the Taliban have command and control of their forces, and it would also be a show of good faith before signing any deal.
The partial truce has also given a much-needed respite to civilians who have borne the brunt of the gruesome war.
The UN’s Afghanistan mission reported Saturday that more than 10,000 people had been killed or wounded in 2019 alone.
As fighting eased across the country, Afghans took to the streets to enjoy the relative calm.
In their southern stronghold of Helmand, Taliban fighters mingled with locals, small “peace” demonstrations took place across the country, and a bicycle race was held in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
Washington has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal which would see it would pull about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan out.
In return, the Taliban would give security guarantees and a promise to hold peace talks with the government in Kabul.