Taliban winning the war of words
By Aunohita Mojumdar
KABUL - In the first week of July, several people were killed in a village in
the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar by international forces. The US-led
coalition forces described the operation as a precision air strike which had
killed militants. Locals said they were civilians. Claims. Counter-claims. It
seemed business as usual until investigations revealed that the air strike had
in fact bombed a wedding party, killing 50, including the bride.
Though the incident was reported widely with concern for the civilian
casualties, there was less attention on the other "collateral damage" it caused
- the casualty of credibility.
The war of words between anti-government militants and pro-government forces
has become so routine that little attention is
paid to the contradictions in the claims. In the process, the anti-government
insurgents are gaining, a dangerous situation when the government's legitimacy
is already under question.
The power of the militants' propaganda is evident from a new report published
by the Brussels-based independent International Crisis Group (ICG) this week.
The report, "Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words", argues that the
Taliban are "successfully tapping into the strains of Afghan nationalism and
exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international
backers". The result, it says, "is weakening public support for
nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban".
A boom in independent media, with the help of generous donor support, began in
2001 following the ouster of the Taliban. As media houses mushroomed, however,
little attention was paid to the efficacy of the communication strategies of
the government and the international community.
Despite considerable funding of the offices of the communications departments
of various ministries and high-level offices, little in the way of
accountability has been sought from them. While media houses have had to
"perform or perish", the communication wings of most government institutions
Take for example access to the media. The presidential spokesman (of Hamid
Karzai) and the spokesman of the Ministry of Interior are arguably the two most
important offices which give the government's viewpoint on major events. Yet
among the media based in Kabul, these two are reliably known as the least
accessible and their spokesmen are always "in meetings". Their offices, by
relying on single individuals to impart information, are largely mute in their
While spokesmen for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization-led International Security Assistance Force are available
and provide regular updates to the media, the office of the OEF is outside
Kabul at the Bagram military base while the NATO media office is based in its
headquarters in the capital.
Both bases are heavily fortified, making them difficult to access. The
international forces also fail to provide transcripts of their press
conferences, even though entering the military compounds is a tedious process
which forces many journalists to opt out of attending the regular meetings.
Though the Taliban are understandably not easy to access, they provide ready
updates on information and operations and their own claims. According to the
ICG, the Taliban's rudimentary website is updated several times a day and the
Taliban are able to put out their story rapidly, though its messages are
The speed of the Taliban in communicating with the media is "much easier when
spokesmen do not need to establish facts", the ICG states. However, the
credibility that could compensate for the pro-government forces' lack of speed
is also missing. Attuned to a military culture in which information is just
part of propaganda in a situation of conflict, the international forces feel
justified in presenting their version of the truth in the ongoing war.
Unfortunately, this impacts not just on the military forces, but on the entire
international community and the government.
Rather than step up their efforts to communicate, the pro-government forces are
relying more on efforts to contain and control the media. Local journalists are
from time to time issued "guidelines" on their content. A new media bill that
is still on hold has invited fierce opposition from local journalists as it
seeks to impose greater curbs on media content.
Journalists are also detained both by the government's national security
apparatus and the international forces. While journalists cannot expect
automatic exemption from the processes adopted by security agencies, the
failure to charge the detainees or to produce any evidence leads to the
assumption that the journalists were detained in connection with their
professional work - an issue raised by the International Justice Network in
Kabul last week.
When tasked with their lack of credibility or media savvy, pro-government
spokesmen are prone to compare their efforts with those of the Taliban.
However, this comparison is usually counter-productive since it invites the
media to view the two "sides" as equal contending parties who need to be
evaluated by the same yardstick, rather than automatically distancing the
pro-government forces from the Taliban on the basis of a higher moral ground.
"The Taliban are adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and
disillusionment," the ICG report points out, emphasizing that "the Kabul
administration needs to ensure it is seen as one worth fighting for, not least
by ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability of its members".
The ICG argues that the Taliban's propaganda is weakening public support for
nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai
government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, it
says, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda,
particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties
from aerial bombing.
"Whatever the military benefits of arbitrary detentions, they are far
outweighed by the alienation they cause. The effectiveness of aerial
bombardment, even if strictly exercised within the bounds of international law,
must be considered against the damage to popular support," it says.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in
Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and has covered
the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict situation in Punjab extensively.