Winning Back Mosul, Safeguarding Its Infrastructure

Unusual question: What will be the fate of Mosul's telecommunications infrastructure, such as it is, as an anti-ISIS military coalition moves to reclaim the city?

I've been thinking about it in light of research I conducted during a prior conflict: In 2001, shortly before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, journalist Ted Rose asked for some help investigating telecommunications infrastructure in the country. There was an interesting angle to the story: In 1999, an American entrepreneur from New Jersey had won the bid for a contract with the Afghan Ministry of Communications to build a new point-to-point fixed network of 9,000 lines in Kabul and Kandahar, essentially so that Taleban elites would enjoy a more reliable alternative to the country's crumbling Soviet-era phone grid. The New Jersey man received a private assurance from Osama Bin Laden that the American engineers he deployed to the country could do their work unmolested and then be free to leave.

Both before and during the aerial bombardment of Taleban strongholds, I conducted phone interviews in Dari with fixed line users on both networks -- the numbers dialed at random -- in Kabul and some of the country's towns. I also spoke to the new network's switchboard operator in Kabul. The upshot: Though coalition warplanes destroyed many lines in Kabul, most were left untouched. Damage to the infrastructure, moreover, was minimal -- and the new grid connecting Kabul and Kandahar remained intact. The situation contrasted sharply with the air raids on Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, where the damage was considerably greater. Circumstantial evidence I had gathered suggested that in Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO were employing munitions to short-circuit transformers and switching stations without destroying them. (The findings were covered by the New York Times here, and the Jordanian news service Al-Bawaba here.)

The care the coalition took with respect to the phone grid proved especially helpful after the war, as the new Afghan government and its allies began to rebuild damaged infrastructure. But the decision to protect the grid amid the fog of war also raised the question of why would coalition bombers would safeguard a network that benefited only their enemies. We asked a military affairs specialist in Washington. Simple, he replied. If we took out the phone lines, we'd lose the chance to listen in on their conversations.

How equivalent calculations might apply to the complex communications environment of present-day Mosul -- in which VSATs, mobile base stations, and aging fixed lines carry social media chatter as well as old-fashioned conversation -- is unclear. But I hope those tasked with executing the campaign are posing such questions, not only for the sake of winning their battles but also with an eye toward the future of that beleaguered city.

Follow author and Middle East specialist Joseph Braude on Google Plus and Twitter @josephbraude.