The Taliban government runs on WhatsApp. There’s just one problem.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Late one night two months ago, a team of Taliban security officers assembled on the outskirts of Afghanistan’s capital to prepare for a raid on an Islamic State group hideout.

As the zero hour approached, the men fiddled with their automatic rifles while their leader, Habib Rahman Inqayad, scrambled to get the exact location of their target. He grabbed his colleagues’ phones and called their superiors, who insisted they had sent him the location pin of the target to his WhatsApp.

There was just one problem: WhatsApp had blocked his account to comply with U.S. sanctions.

“The only way we communicate is WhatsApp — and I didn’t have access,” said Inqayad, 25, whom The New York Times has followed since the Taliban seized power in August 2021.

He was not alone. In recent months, complaints from Taliban officials, police and soldiers of their WhatsApp accounts being banned or temporarily deactivated have become widespread, disruptions that have illuminated how the messaging platform has become a backbone of the Taliban’s nascent government. Those interruptions also underscore the far-reaching consequences of international sanctions on a government that has become among the most isolated in the world.

The United States has long criminalized any form of support for the Taliban. Consequently, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, scans group names, descriptions and group profile photos on the messaging app to identify users among the Taliban and block their accounts, according to a spokesperson for the company.

The policy has been in place since U.S. sanctions were enacted more than two decades ago. Even when the Taliban were an insurgency, the ban handicapped some fighters who relied on the app because it catered to people with neither literacy nor technological skills. Using WhatsApp’s voice message feature, they could send messages and listen to the verbal instructions from their commanders with the press of a button.

But over the past two years, the Taliban’s reliance on WhatsApp has become even more far-reaching as smartphone use has proliferated and 4G networks have improved across Afghanistan with the end of the U.S.-led war. As the Taliban have consolidated control and settled into governance, the inner bureaucratic workings of their administration have also become more organized — with WhatsApp central to their official communications.

Government departments use WhatsApp groups to disseminate information among employees. Officials rely on other groups to distribute statements to journalists and transmit official communiqués between ministries. Security forces plan and coordinate raids on Islamic State group cells, criminal networks and resistance fighters from their phones on the app.

“WhatsApp is so important to us — all my work depends on it,” said Shir Ahmad Burhani, a police spokesperson for the Taliban administration in Baghlan Province, in northern Afghanistan. “If there were no WhatsApp, all our administrative and nonadministrative work would be paralyzed.”

The use of WhatsApp among the Taliban’s ranks began during the war, as the app gained popularity worldwide and cellphone towers began sprouting up across Afghanistan. Today, experts estimate that around 70% of Afghanistan’s population has access to a cellphone. Like millions across the globe, Afghans depend on WhatsApp’s speed and flexibility to communicate with each other and the outside world.

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