Can Afghanistan’s underground “sneakernet” survive the Taliban?
A once-thriving network of merchants selling digital content to people without internet connections is struggling under Taliban rule.
When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, Mohammad Yasin had to make some difficult decisions very quickly. As the country reeled from the shock of the insurgent takeover, the 21-year-old—whose name has been changed to protect his safety—snuck into his small place of business and got to work.
He began erasing some of the sensitive data on his computer and moving the rest onto two of his largest hard drives, which he then wrapped in a layer of plastic and buried underground at an undisclosed location.
Yasin didn’t take these precautions because he is part of Afghan intelligence, or linked to the government. He has no state secrets hidden on his computers. He is what is locally referred to as a “computer kar”: someone who sells digital content by hand in a country where a steady internet connection can be hard to come by. “I sell pretty much everything, from movies, music, mobile applications, to iOS updates. I also help create Apple IDs and social media accounts, and with backing up phones and recovering data,” he says, then adds, in a hushed voice, “I can also unlock [stolen] phones and provide other naughty videos.”
When the Taliban captured the city of Herat on August 12, Yasin and his colleagues speculated that it wouldn’t be long before the Taliban’s invading forces took over their own city of Mazar-i-Sharif.
“Things were more tense in Mazar, too, so me and other computer kars of Mazar who work together held a secret meeting to decide what to do to protect all our content,” he says. Among them, the informal union of computer kars had several hundred terabytes of data collected over several years, and much of it would be considered controversial—even criminal—by the Taliban.
“We all agreed to not delete, but rather hide the more nefarious content,” he says. “We reasoned that in Afghanistan, these regimes come and go frequently, but our business should not be disrupted.”
He isn’t too worried about being discovered.
“People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. They will never be able to find [them],” he says. “I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past.”
Less than 20 years after former president Hamid Karzai made Afghanistan’s first mobile phone call, there are nearly 23 million mobile phone users in a country of fewer than 39 million people. But internet access is a different matter: by early 2021, there were fewer than 9 million internet users, a lag that has been largely attributed to widespread physical security problems, high costs, and a lack of infrastructural development across the country’s mountainous terrain.
That’s why computer kars like Yasin can now be found all across Afghanistan. Although they sometimes download their information from the internet when they’re able to get a connection, they physically transport much of it on hard drives from neighboring countries—what is known as the “sneakernet.”
“I use the Wi-Fi at home to download some of the music and applications; I also have five SIM cards for internet,” says Mohibullah, another kar who asked not to be identified by his real name. “But the connection here is not reliable, so every month I send a 4 terabyte hard drive to Jalalabad, and they fill it with content and return it in a week’s time with the latest Indian movies or Turkish TV dramas, music, and applications,” for which he says he pays between 800 and 1,000 afghanis ($8.75 to $11).
"People are hiding guns, money, jewelry, and whatnot, so I am not scared of hiding my hard drives. I am a 21st-century boy, and most Taliban are living in the past."Mohammad Yasin, computer kar
Mohibullah says he can install more than 5 gigabytes of data on a phone—including movies, songs, music videos, and even course lessons—for just 100 afghanis, or $1.09. “I have the latest Hollywood and Bollywood movies dubbed in Dari and Pashto [Afghan national languages], music from across the globe, games, applications,” he told me in early August, days before the Taliban took over.
For just a little more, Mohibullah helps customers create social media accounts, sets up their phones and laptops, and even writes emails for them. “I sell everything—A to Z of contents. Everything except ‘100% films,’” he said, referring to pornography. (Later he admitted that he did have some “free videos,” another nickname for porn, but that he only sells them to trusted customers.)
Most of his customers are men, but women also regularly buy music and movies from him. Much of it comes from Pakistan, which he says has better and cheaper internet connectivity.
As we were discussing the business in Mohibullah’s small store on a crowded street in west Kabul, two women walked in. They declined an interview request, but told us they were “wedding DJs” looking for latest music to play at their clients’ lavish wedding parties. Mohibullah offered them a selection of latest Indian music to browse through, and he transferred each of them a playlist of over 100 songs for 70 afghanis.
Unfortunately for the kars, such clients have entirely disappeared since the rise of the Taliban. The violent, extremist regime has banned music and restricted women’s freedoms.
Yasin and Mohibullah have had to adapt their business quickly to the new regime. They replaced the raunchy Bollywood and Iranian music videos with the Taliban taranas (songs without music) and recitations from the Quran. Afghans love to carry pictures of celebrities on their phones; those have now been replaced with pictures of Taliban flags in different styles. And all the “free movies” kars offer are now hidden; only they know where.
“If they ever find those, I will be punished very badly. They will execute me,” says Yasin, shuddering.
The Taliban takeover has been bad for business, they both admit. Their average earnings have fallen nearly 90%, from around 3,000 afghanis per day to less than 350—from $32 to $3.80.
“From that, at least 100 afghanis goes for generator fuel and about 50 afghanis to the municipality for the space I use on the street,” says Yasin. “That isn’t enough to support my five siblings and [my] parents.”
In addition to policing their content, the Taliban have also been cracking down on kars like Yasin who have expanded their services to help Afghans fleeing persecution.
“Those who are in hiding or who are waiting to be evacuated come to me to help them back up their phone data on flash drives, to avoid being caught by the Taliban fighters who are checking phones at the checkpoints,” he says.
Sometimes he charges a nominal fee, he says, but he has also waived it in some cases.
“It is usually personal data they want to take with them that the Taliban may not approve, and sometimes it’s information that can identify them as supporters of the previous government or foreign allies, that can get them arrested or even executed,” he says.
Mohibullah finds it ironic that the Taliban are cracking down on the content dealers now that they are in power, because they used the sneakernet themselves for radicalization and recruitment.
“Every once in a while, some men would approach us to distribute the Taliban taranas praising their fighters, or graphic videos of the executions they’ve conducted,” he says. “They wanted to use our services to spread their ideology and propaganda among the youth.”
He never shared such content with his clients before now, he says.
“These days, however, the Taliban are among us, and they demand such content. They also ask for pictures of Taliban flags and fighters with their weapons. I oblige because I have to feed my family,” he says.
But the Afghan computer kars are nothing if not enterprising. Many of them continue to discreetly sell forbidden content. Others, searching for a silver lining, are hopeful that there may even be an uptick in business for certain entertainment content as many Afghans, particularly women, are forced to stay indoors.
“During covid lockdowns there was an increase in demand for cartoon clips because children were locked at home,” says Mohibullah. “Now, with the Taliban and widespread unemployment, people are also stuck at home; they might watch more movies.”
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