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     May 16, '14

How the Taliban won the cultural war
By Tafhim Kiani

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

One main factor behind the resilience of the Taliban is their ability to frame their narrative in such a way that it has a resonance with the people, particularly in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

Over and above their more resourceful and militarily sophisticated foes, within Afghanistan it is the Taliban who are able to define the current conflict and give it meaning through their understanding of the Afghan culture, history and people. They do this by

manipulating events, and overplaying their own strengths and the failures of the Afghan government and its foreign supporters.

The Taliban have long recognized that in order to win this war, they do not need to defeat their enemy but rather just survive. Thus they are able to mount operations that although are not tactically devastating to their opponents, on a strategic level are proving to be successful.

Through these operations, the Taliban are able to frustrate the enemy by overstating their inability to establish control over Afghanistan, while simultaneously exaggerating their own strengths by striking at will.

Instances of civilian casualties are used as a means of gaining sympathy and support for their movement. The Taliban have aimed to define this war as one that is being fought by Afghan nationalists following in the paths of their forefathers defending their territory from yet another foreign invader, and a religious war of mujahideen against crusading armies that have attacked Afghanistan under a larger context of subduing the Muslim lands across the world.

To many outside observers, the notion that the Taliban place large emphasis on public relations and their framing and counter framing processes might seem somewhat counterintuitive, as Taliban treatment of women, suicide bombings, harsh interpretation of the Sharia and other such matters do not instinctively shout out popularity.

However, this is yet another area of difference between the Taliban and the ISAF and US forces. The Taliban have little concern with world opinion, particularly that of non-Muslims. But they know that to win the war, they must have support of the local people in general and the Pashtun in particular and hence have focused almost their entire public relations and propaganda campaign on this target audience.

The ISAF and US forces on the other hand have shown little interest in actively trying to win over public support in Afghanistan on a micro level. ISAF and US forces have been very careful in limiting collateral damage, but they have shown little knowledge of local languages, cultures or traditions and little regard for resentment that is being created due to acts such as night raids into Afghan houses, attacks on wedding ceremonies and the presence of luxurious military bases where from an Afghan vantage point, troops seem to live in decadent Western lifestyles.

In 2010, Shukria Barakzai, a Pashtun MP and leading women's right campaigner was quoted as saying, "I changed my view [of the Taliban] three years ago when I realized Afghanistan is on its own…It's not that the international community doesn't support us. They just don't understand us. The Taliban are part of our population. They have different ideas – but as democrats we have to accept that". [1]

The traditional concept of government in Afghanistan is different to that of the West. In Afghanistan, government has traditionally belonged to that faction or party that can take it by force. Legitimacy has come not through representing the people, but through other acts, such as the provision of peace, stability and justice in society. [2]

Religiosity and tribalism
Today, many from the outside might see the dark side of Taliban religiosity as tribal Islam. However, the Taliban were in fact a rejection of Afghan tribalism.

Afghan society is a mix of tribal structures and religious values. If Afghan tribal structures form a vertical axis within the Afghan community, then religion can be seen to spread horizontally across society. Hence the Taliban were able to free themselves from the tribal nature of Afghanistan, yet still maintain a strong Afghan identity. In fact, the Taliban do not speak of either their Pashtun identity or a global Islamic identity, and instead they present themselves as Afghan Muslims.

This is also becoming apparent within their organizational structure. Even though most of their high-ranking officials and regional commanders are Pashtun, they have started appointing deputy district governors and district level military chiefs, which allow them the opportunity for making more ethnically balanced appointments. [3]

A religiously inspired opposition to the government is not a new phenomenon within Afghanistan. Before the Taliban, Hikmatyaar, Ahmad Shah Masud, Rubbani, Younis Khalis, Sayyaf and Pir Jillani were all fighting to bring about a religious government within Afghanistan.

Of those resisting the Soviet occupation, the only notable secularist was Dostum. Even before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan had a history of religious opposition to governments, led at times by conservative tribal leaders or by charismatic Pirs and Mullahs.

Such uprisings in the border areas between Afghanistan and British India were dubbed "Mad Mullah movements" by the British colonial establishment and today Mullah Umar has often been likened to those earlier charismatic mullahs. [4]

Nationalist and religious frames
The Taliban have attempted to appeal to the Afghan sense of nationalism when highlighting the injustice levied on to their land and kinsmen, while they have tapped into Afghanistan's religious traditions to present a way out of this current predicament.

For the Taliban, the perceived primary injustice on Afghanistan and the Afghans has been that of foreign occupation and a government that had been put in place by invading forces to serve the foreign interest.

From a religious stand point, the Taliban were able to strike a major public relations victory when Mullah Umar, in a particularly difficult period in 1998, appeared in public and shrouded himself in the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad.

For the ordinary Afghan, this gave Mullah Umar an unquestionable religious authority, and for the Taliban activists, it earned him the title of Amir ul-Momineen, or commander of the faithful, offering him a status that was far beyond that of any national or tribal figurehead.

Thus the Taliban are able to portray themselves as distinct from other mujahideen factions and yet as having an essentially Afghan religious character, which is more likely to have resonance with a people who tend to be religiously conservative and suspicious of outside interference.

Especially since the creation of the Quetta Shura, the Taliban have created a sophisticated and an extensive network of communication and propaganda. This includes a website that is updated several times a day in five different languages; magazines, audio tapes and DVDs containing preaching and battle reports; Shabnama, or night letters; traditional nationalist songs and poems and even the use of mobile phones. [5]

Through these, the Taliban are able to exploit perceived injustices of the Karzai government and the US and ISAF forces that are supporting them.

Disturbing tales of Guantanamo Bay, arbitrary detentions in prisons, such as Bagram airbase, loss of civilian lives as a result of aerial bombings, dishonor and humiliation inflicted on the population as a result of night raids into the homes of suspected insurgents, corruption and impotence of the Karzai government to control foreign forces, all spread across activists and the general public alike.

Poetry: a weapon of war in Afghanistan
The current Afghan conflict is an insurgency-counter insurgency conflict, but it is ultimately to be fought as a war of information supported by military action; it is a battle for hearts and minds. If this is true, then it is in this battle that the Taliban have a clear edge over their more sophisticated enemy , because they are able to tap into Afghan cultural references in a way that the foreign forces and even the Karzai government has been unable to do.

The population of Afghanistan is predominantly illiterate, especially in the south of the country where the Taliban strongholds are. Like many other traditional societies over the centuries, Afghans had used poetry as a means of transmitting information from one generation to another.

The Taliban have been successful in utilizing this ancient means of communication to get their message across. Today their poetry is being broadcast over local radio stations, Internet, performed in local gatherings, passed around by mobile phones and copied on to CDs and played in cars and stereos.

Taliban poetry carries a variety of themes and narratives, which may include such topics as: 'We are mujahideen defending Islam against Christian invaders'; ‘we are the sons of Afghanistan following the footsteps of our forefathers fighting off yet another foreign invasion of our land'; ‘Afghan pride and honor vs. the injustice and inhumanity of the invading forces and their puppet Afghan government’.

The poetry often brings either a message of hope, or of intimidation, and reminds the listener that were they to side with the non-Muslim enemy or the corrupt government, then they would be dealt with harshly and in a manner similar to how the Russians and their local supporters were dealt with in the past.

These songs are usually sung and chanted, but are also passed around in writing via Shabnama, or night letters. Where Taliban use words such as 'we' or 'mujahideen', they are not usually referring to Taliban activists or leaders, but all Afghans in general, and in this way they are putting the message across that fighting for Islam and the nation is an obligation to every Afghan, not just the insurgents.

Furthermore, the language that is used in these songs is also important. The Taliban do not use the secular language of insurgency and counter insurgency, but of jihad and martyrdom, and the poetry comes in all Afghan dialects to ensure they resonate with the various different ethnicities.

One patriotic song framed as a letter from a Guantanamo Bay prisoner to his mother is reported in an International Crisis Group report:
I am imprisoned in Cuba jail
I sleep neither during the day nor during the night, my mother
It's a piece of land amidst the ocean
This is Cuba Island
There are detainees in it
It is surrounded by bars
There are cages
Which are very strong
They are as small/as a human being
These are for horror
These are for tragedy
These are for punishing the poor nation. [6]

While another reads:

I will never accept a life where I must bow to others ... I will never back the illegitimate for any money ... I will not swear on Washington as my Qiblah [Muslim direction for prayers], nor will I bow to Bush ... I will not kiss the hand of Laura Bush, nor will I bow to Rice ... My beliefs and my Pashtun pride teach me this ... If I am chopped into pieces, I will not beg to others. (Comments in brackets are the author's) [7]
Some songs carry a message of hope and freedom:
This would be new revolution in which each cruel person will suffer
Each criminal will be ashamed and taken to trial
This flood will clear out the dirt and will spread in every direction
The oppressed will become happy, and everywhere there will be freedom
Everyone will break their chains and every captive's hand will be freed
In order to gain independence for the nation; the countrymen will smile". [8]
These ideas, although highly exaggerated, are based on real grievances. The Taliban understand that messages that resonate with local feelings and emotions will gain higher currency and generate the most sympathy and action. Feelings of anger towards a corrupt government, a mistrust of foreign forces, hatred for night raids and bombing campaigns carried out by US forces and resentment of Guantanamo and Bagram prisons is widespread in Afghanistan, and is not necessarily a cause unique to the Taliban. Through their poetry and other means, the Taliban attempt to use these wide spread emotions to their own advantage.

This is not to say that propaganda and framing processes can alone account for the resilience of the Taliban.

However, a successful religious and cultural framing process coupled with a propaganda that has resonance with activists and potential sympathizers is proving to be effective in, if not winning support for the movement, then at least taking support away from the government and its foreign supporters. Furthermore, the fact that most of the Taliban propaganda is in local languages whilst the international community seems to have a shortage of language skills, means that most of this propaganda is either going unnoticed or is misunderstood outside of Afghanistan. [9]

A report by the ICG quotes a US military officer as saying: "Unfortunately, we tend to view information operations as supplementing kinetic operations. For the Taliban, however, information objectives tend to drive kinetic operations ... virtually every kinetic operation they undertake is specifically designed to influence attitudes or perceptions." [10]

1. Fergusson, J., 2010. Should British soldiers be dying for the rights of Afghan women? No. See here [Accessed 14/04/13].
2. Barnett Rubin, 2009. A Regional Approach to Afghanistan. Video. See here [Accessed 28/03/13].
3. Nijssen, S., 2011. The Taliban's Shadow Government in Afghanistan. Comprehensive Information on Complex Crises. See here [Accessed 11/01/13].
4. Stenersen, A., 2010, p 13. Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan - organization, leadership and worldview. FFI Norwegian Defence Research Establishment. Report no.: 2010/00359. See here [Accessed 4/1/13]
5. International Crisis Group, 2008, p 12-15; Foxley, T., 2007, p 9-11. The Taliban's propaganda activities: how well is the Afghan insurgency communicating and what is it saying? Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. See here [Accessed 14/04/13]; Johnson, R., 2011. The Afghan Way of War, Culture and Pragmatism: A Critical History. London: Hurst & Company.
6. International Crisis Group, 2008, p18. Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? Report no.158, 24 July 2008. See here [Accessed 5/1/13].
7. International Crisis Group, 2008, p18. Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? Report no.158, 24 July 2008. See here [Accessed 5/1/13].
8. International Crisis Group, 2008, p16. Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? Report no.158, 24 July 2008. See here [Accessed 5/1/13].
9. International Crisis Group, 2008, p1. Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? Report no.158, 24 July 2008. See here [Accessed 5/1/13].
10. International Crisis Group, 2008, p1. Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words? Report no.158, 24 July 2008. See here [Accessed 5/1/13].

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Tafhim Kiani completed a masters degree in the Middle East in global politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, in 2012. Since 2002, he has been working at The National Archives, UK.

(Copyright 2014 Tafhim Kiani)

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