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    South Asia
     Jul 26, 2008
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 bumbled along.

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 absence.

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 sometimes contradictory.

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.

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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