Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Asia Report N°158
24 Jul 2008
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result 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, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.
Analysing the Taliban’s public statements has limits, since the insurgent group seeks to underscore successes – or imagined successes – and present itself as having the purest of aims, while disguising weaknesses and underplaying its brutality. However, the method still offers a window into what the movement considers effective in terms of recruitment and bolstering its legitimacy among both supporters and potential sympathisers.
The movement reveals itself in its communications as:
the product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed but not representative of indigenous strands of religious thought or traditional pre-conflict power structures;
a largely ethno-nationalist phenomenon, without popular grassroots appeal beyond its core of support in sections of the Pashtun community;
still reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though local support has grown;
linked with transnational extremist groups for mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally;
seeking to exploit local tribal disputes for recruitment and mainly appealing to the disgruntled and disenfranchised in specific locations, but lacking a wider tribal agenda; and
a difficult negotiating partner because it lacks a coherent agenda, includes allies with divergent agendas and has a leadership that refuses to talk before the withdrawal of foreign forces and without the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).
Out of power and lacking control over territory, the Taliban has proved adept at projecting itself as stronger than it is in terms of numbers and resources. Despite the increasing sophistication of some of its propaganda, however, it still puts out contradictory messages that indicate internal rifts and the diffuse nature of the insurgency. These reveal a cross-border leadership and support apparatus striving to present a unified front and assert control even as various groups maintain their own communications networks. Maintaining relations with transnational jihadist networks, which have a more global agenda, is a potential problem for the Taliban, which has always been a largely nationalistic movement.
A website in the name of the former regime – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is used as an international distribution centre for leadership statements and inflated tales of battlefield exploits. While fairly rudimentary, this is not a small effort; updates appear several times a day in five languages. Magazines put out by the movement or its supporters provide a further source of information on leadership structures and issues considered to be of importance. But for the largely rural and illiterate population, great efforts are also put into conveying preaching and battle reports via DVDs, audio cassettes, shabnamah (night letters – pamphlets or leaflets usually containing threats) and traditional nationalist songs and poems. The Taliban also increasingly uses mobile phones to spread its message.
The vast majority of the material is in Pashtu, and a shortage of language skills in the international community means much of this either passes unnoticed or is misunderstood. English-language statements are relatively crude, but the Taliban is able to put out its story rapidly. More effort is devoted to Arabic language output, aimed at soliciting the support of transnational networks and funders. The overriding strategic narrative is a quest for legitimacy and the projection of strength. Use of tactics such as suicide bombings – previously unknown in Afghanistan – and roadside bombs, as well as such audacious actions in 2008 as a prison break in Kandahar city, an attack on a military parade attended by President Hamid Karzai and an assault on a five-star hotel demonstrate that grabbing attention lies at the core of operations.
Within Afghanistan the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and disillusionment. 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 international community must provide the necessary support and pressure for improved performance, while also examining its own actions. 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. Greater efforts are needed in Western capitals to explain to their own populations the necessity of staying for the long haul rather than yielding to the pressure of quick fixes that give only the appearance of action.
The Taliban is not going to be defeated militarily and is impervious to outside criticism. Rather, the legitimacy of its ideas and actions must be challenged more forcefully by the Afghan government and citizens. Its killings of civilians and targeting of community leaders need to be highlighted, including a public accounting for actions by the militants through open trials – something that has not yet happened. Strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government and ensuring that its actions – and those of its international backers – are similarly bound by the rule of law should be an important complement. Ultimately, winning popular support is not about telling local communities that they are better off today. It is about proving it.
To the Government of Afghanistan:
1. Do not block the flow of information, but seek
instead to disclose more, in an open and timely manner, and build morale by:
a) responding more quickly on incidents such as civilian casualties and other alleged abuses by the government or its international supporters that are likely to feed into insurgent propaganda;
b) speaking out strongly and consistently about Taliban killings and attacks, while holding the international community and Afghan national security agencies proportionately accountable for their actions;
c) refraining from threatening the media for reporting and ensuring that legal definitions of incitement in the media are appropriate and clear; and
d) holding open trials of captured insurgents and allowing their victims public redress.
2. Build the morale of the security forces by having senior officials regularly visit Afghan army and police units around the country, and put a human face on the violence by assisting the wounded and bereaved families.
3. End the culture of impunity by ensuring the rule of law, including by holding government and security officials accountable for crimes and abuses.
To the Governments of Countries Contributing International Troops:
4. Improve communications with Afghans on the directions and activities of the international engagement, while ensuring an Afghan lead in appropriate
a) reaching out to local correspondents for international and national media, not just foreign reporters;
b) building language skills among foreign staff and properly training sufficient numbers of professional translators;
c) streamlining systems and devolving more responsibility to ground-based personnel so they can respond rapidly to incidents involving international forces; and
d) directing enquiries on incidents that do not involve foreign troops to the appropriate Afghan institution.
5. Emphasise that the foreign presence is in support of the Afghan people and subject to the rule of law by ensuring that international troops are held accountable, in particular by conducting thorough investigations and improving data collection and information sharing on incidents of alleged civilian casualties.
6. Communicate clearly to the Afghan public that while the troops will stay as long as necessary, there are no longer-term strategic objectives, such as permanent bases in the country.
7. Ensure when using aerial force not only that an operation is strictly within the parameters of international law, but also that its potential immediate military gain has been weighed against longer-term community perceptions.
8. Press the Pakistan military to end its appeasement of pro-Taliban militants and Afghan insurgents operating from Pakistani territory, and encourage a dialogue between Kabul and the democratically elected government in Islamabad.
9. Emphasise the building and reform of judicial and detention systems in which detainees can be handled safely and legitimately and held to account within a rule-of-law system.
Kabul/Brussels, 24 July 2008