The swift progress of the Taliban in Afghanistan has been truly shocking. It feels like only days ago that US president Joe Biden was explaining what sort of Taliban dominate wasn’t inevitable and the Pentagon was talking about how precisely the fall of the administrative centre, Kabul, could take up to 3 months. Now, the Taliban has control of the entire country and has held its first press conference in Kabul for local and international media. No-one, I really believe, had anticipated that things would escalate quite this quickly.
Although Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press conference that it wouldn’t be seeking “revenge” against persons who had opposed them, many Afghan persons are understandably still worried. On top of this, they – including those that worked with Western forces and international NGOs, along with foreign journalists – have already been unable to leave the united states, as flight capacity has been taken over by Western countries evacuating their citizens.
As such, people have been wanting to move quickly to erase their digital footprints, built up during the twenty years of the prior US-backed governments. Some Afghan activists have been reaching out to me directly to help them set up robust mobile security and asking how to trigger a mass deletion of their data.
The last time the Taliban was in power, social media barely existed and smartphones had yet to take off. Now, around 4 million persons in Afghanistan regularly use social media. Yet, despite the huge rise of digital technologies, a comparative rise in digital security hasn’t happened.
There are few digital security resources that are suitable for people in Afghanistan to use. The leading guide about how to properly delete your digital history by Human Rights First is an excellent destination to start. But unfortunately it is only obtainable in English and unofficially in Farsi. Additionally, there are some other guides obtainable in Farsi thanks to the thriving community of tech enthusiasts who’ve been doing work for human rights activists living in Iran for years.
However, a number of these guides it’s still unintelligible for those in Afghanistan who speak Dari or Pashto, for instance. And also other digital security trainers, I am attempting to make translations possible, but even that is inadequate too late.
People in the global information security and digital rights community must have made more effort to add Afghan voices in tech spaces around the world way back when. And security forces which may have been active in Afghanistan should have put more of a give attention to the digital safety of locals who were part of their teams. The US, NATO and their allies have poured vast amounts of dollars into Afghanistan through different programmes and initiatives, just how come digital risk assessment plans weren’t ready for thousands of Afghans, including activists and interpreters?
People in Afghanistan who caused Western forces also face an impossible choice as countries where they could seek asylum often require digital proof their collaboration. Keep this evidence plus they risk persecution from the Taliban, delete it plus they may find their only way to avoid it no longer available.
An incredible number of people’s lives will now be vastly different as a result of regime change. Digital security feels as though one thing that could have been sorted out beforehand. We are yet to see exactly how Taliban 2.0 changes compared to that which went before. Even though the so-called War on Terror appears to be over, I fear a digital terror offensive may just be beginning.
Nighat Dad is a legal professional and internet activist located in Pakistan who runs the not-for-profit organisation Digital Rights Foundation
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