In a surprising move, the Taliban administration in Afghanistan is taking steps to create a large-scale camera surveillance network for major Afghan cities. This endeavor could potentially involve repurposing a plan that was originally crafted by the United States before its pullout in 2021. The aim behind this initiative, as stated by an interior ministry spokesman in a Reuters report, is to bolster the existing surveillance infrastructure already in place in the capital city, Kabul.
The Taliban’s Public Focus
The Taliban administration has publicly stated that its primary focus is to restore security and combat the presence of the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for numerous major attacks in Afghan cities. In pursuit of this objective, the Taliban has even engaged in discussions with Chinese telecommunications equipment giant, Huawei, regarding potential cooperation in establishing this surveillance network.
The prevention of attacks by international militant groups, including well-known organizations such as the Islamic State, has been a central topic in the interactions between the Taliban and foreign nations, including the United States and China. However, some experts question the ability of the cash-strapped Taliban regime to fund such an extensive surveillance program. Furthermore, there are concerns among rights groups that any resources allocated to this initiative may be diverted to suppress protests and dissent.
Lack of Details
The specifics of how the Taliban intends to expand and manage this mass surveillance network, including the possibility of obtaining the U.S. plan, have not been previously reported. This leaves many questions unanswered regarding the scope and nature of this ambitious project.
A Multi-Year Security Strategy
According to Abdul Mateen Qani, the spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, the mass camera rollout is part of a new security strategy that is expected to take four years to be fully implemented. Currently, experts are working on a security map for Kabul, which is a time-consuming process involving security experts. Interestingly, there are already two existing maps, one created by the USA for the previous government, and the other by Turkey, although the timeline for the Turkish plan remains unclear.
In response to these developments, a U.S. State Department spokesperson emphasized that Washington is not “partnering” with the Taliban and has made it clear to the Taliban that they are responsible for preventing safe havens for terrorists. Meanwhile, the Turkish government did not provide a comment on the matter. Huawei’s discussions with the Taliban in August, while characterized as a “simple chat,” have raised concerns. Bloomberg News reported a “verbal agreement” between Huawei and the Taliban regarding a surveillance system contract.
China, for its part, has expressed support for peace and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and has encouraged Chinese enterprises to engage in practical cooperation. While a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman claimed not to be aware of specific discussions, it is evident that China sees cooperation with Afghanistan, including on security matters, as beneficial to its interests.
Implementing a mass surveillance system in Afghanistan faces practical challenges. Frequent electricity cuts in the country mean that cameras connected to the central grid are unlikely to provide consistent feeds. Additionally, only 40% of Afghans have access to electricity, highlighting the infrastructure hurdles that need to be overcome. Funding the project is another significant challenge for the Taliban, given the economic contraction and reduced aid following their takeover.
Security and Militancy Concerns
The discussion between the Taliban and Huawei occurred following meetings between China, Pakistan, and the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, where cooperation on counter-terrorism was emphasized. Tackling militancy remains a key aspect of the 2020 troop-withdrawal deal between the United States and the Taliban. China is particularly concerned about the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in its Xinjiang region. While security officials and U.N. reports suggest the presence of ETIM fighters in Afghanistan, the Taliban denies that militancy poses a threat to its rule.
Surveillance and Rights Concerns
The prospect of enhanced surveillance raises concerns among rights advocates and opponents of the Taliban regime. There are fears that such surveillance could target civil society members and protesters. The Committee to Protect Journalists has reported arrests of journalists since the Taliban takeover, and protests against restrictions on women have been forcefully suppressed. Critics argue that implementing a mass surveillance system under the guise of “national security” could enable the Taliban to continue its policies that violate fundamental rights.
The Taliban strongly denies that an upgraded surveillance system would violate the rights of Afghans. They claim that their system would be comparable to those in other major cities and would adhere to Islamic Sharia law, which prohibits recording in private spaces.
Limitations of Urban Surveillance
Despite the ambitions of urban surveillance, analysts point out its limitations in addressing the presence of militant groups like the Islamic State. The primary base of such groups is in eastern mountainous areas, making cameras in urban centers less effective in preventing attacks and ultimately defeating these groups.
The Taliban’s move to establish a mass surveillance network in Afghan cities is a significant development with far-reaching implications for security, human rights, and international relations. As this ambitious project unfolds, its success, challenges, and impact on various stakeholders will continue to be closely monitored. The complex interplay between security concerns, international interests, and the rights of Afghan citizens will shape the trajectory of this surveillance initiative.