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Tim Culpan

How a Technology Revolution Powered the Taliban's Return

From makeshift drones to mobile videography, Afghanistan’s new rulers have come a long way from rejecting modernity entirely.

Cellphones are also part of their arsenal now.

Cellphones are also part of their arsenal now.

Photographer: AFP/Getty

When the Taliban was last in control of Afghanistan, the world used cellphones for voice calls, the Internet was accessed from desktop computers over copper phone lines, and digital photography was in its infancy.

But within a few years of defeat by the U.S. military in 2001, the militant Islamists who’d once eschewed technology were deploying makeshift surveillance drones and coordinating their political and operational messaging through a network of mobile handsets. The decision to embrace, rather than reject, the trappings of the 21st century went on to become a key to the movement’s survival and eventual retaking of the landlocked central Asian nation.

“They moved into much greater technology sophistication by about 2007. It's a sign of the group's capacity to adapt and learn and that's one of the reasons why they won,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow and director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution. “One of the things that they learned was to focus on communications, and away from the model of the 1990s, which was to move the country away from any kind of modernity.”