GHAZNI, Afghanistan -- Hamidullah, a young resident of the southeastern Afghan city of Ghazni, recently had a harrowing experience. While returning from a trip to the southern city of Kandahar this month, the Taliban stopped the bus he had taken for the 350-kilometer return journey.
“A Taliban fighter asked me to hand over my mobile phone,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They found some photos of Afghan Army soldiers, and then they beat me,” he said.
Hamidullah, who goes by one name, says the photos were of friends and relatives, some of whom serve in the Afghan forces. “After they beat me, they broke my phone,” he said.
Hamidullah is not alone in experiencing such treatment. In Ghazni Province, of which Ghazni city is the capital, many have endured harassment and beatings at the hands of the Taliban. The hard-line Islamist group has set up makeshift check posts along Afghanistan’s main highway connecting the capital, Kabul, in the east to Kandahar, the second city in the south. The province contains the middle stretch of Highway 1, which is more than 500 kilometers long.
While the Taliban has admitted prying into mobile phone data, the hard-line group maintains it limits the practice to people considered “suspicious.”
But every day, scores of travelers report intimidation or harassment as the Taliban snatches smartphones and, in some instances, copies phone data to prove what the hard-line Islamist movement considers suspicious activity. The presence of music or videos that the Taliban deems as violating its strict moral code can quickly provoke the militants' ire.
“I was grilled for half an hour after they discovered some music and dial tones on my phone,” said Mir Ahmad, who recently traveled between Kabul and Kandahar. “It’s not a good idea for the Taliban to peep at someone’s private data, particularly photos.”
Khalid Afghan recently traveled by bus from Kabul to the western city of Herat via Ghazni and Kandahar. He spent several hours at a check post in rural Ghazni as the Taliban went through dozens of smartphones collected from bus passengers.
“We didn’t mind being searched by the Taliban, but checking the contents of our mobiles was really cruel,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “People have private family photos [on their phones], including pictures of their wives, sisters, mothers, and other family members,” he added. “Looking at someone’s private videos and photos is not acceptable in Afghan culture.”
Naseem Sodager, an activist in Ghazni, says that in recent years the Taliban has established control over stretches of major highways across Afghanistan where they comb through thousands of smartphones every week. He says the practice has sparked outrage for many in the conservative Muslim country as the Taliban pries into contacts, content, and social media accounts.
“The Taliban sometimes uses data recovery software to copy and save smartphone data,” Sodager told Radio Free Afghanistan. “In some cases, this data later became widely available and created major problems for people."
For the Afghan government, the Taliban’s ragtag data snooping is evidence of the group’s opposition to development and modernity. Wahidullah Jumazada, a spokesman for Ghazni’s provincial governor, says the practice is part of the Taliban’s keenness to revive its harsh rule from a quarter-century ago, when it banned music, photography, television, and other forms of entertainment.
“Basically, they want to prevent Afghans from linking up with the rest of the world through their smartphones,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “This is why in parts of Ghazni that the Taliban control, the insurgents have forced people to break their phones.”
But Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, rejected such views and offered a different explanation. In an audio message to Radio Free Afghanistan, he claimed his comrades only go through the phones of people their intelligence flags as suspects.
“We do not check anyone’s phone to look at their photos or data,” he said. “We only look at the phones of suspected individuals to complete our information,” he added. “We look at their contacts and other information to decide whether we need to detain them and take them away [for further questioning].”
Evidence from across Taliban-controlled regions in Afghanistan indicates that the hard-line movement is eager to bring back the moral policing that was a hallmark of the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s. In August, the Taliban imposed new restrictions -- including bans on music, mobile phones, and shaving beards -- in rural districts of Ghazni. In the northern province of Faryab, similar pervasive bans took effect last month.
The Taliban’s data snooping has real-life consequences even for the poorest in Afghanistan. Obaidullah Ubaidi, a day laborer, has to pass through several insurgent check posts to get to Ghazni city from his village. He says the Taliban recently broke his smartphone.
“It had all my contacts,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Now I can’t find all the people who used to offer me work.”
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based Habibur Rahman Taseer’s reporting from Ghazni, Afghanistan.