Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Selling the Taliban

In the West, assumptions about Afghanistan too often seem premised on the idea that the Taliban are "men in caves," raising questions about why thousands of international troops cannot quickly defeat them.

However, an insurgency is at its heart a battle of wills and staying power, not of military might. Insurgents in Afghanistan appreciate this and have created a sophisticated propaganda operation that both targets what is seen as weakening support back in foreign capitals and seeks to mold perceptions among the Afghan population.

This is no small-scale operation. The efforts include a Web site, Al Emarah, which is updated several times a day in five languages. The English may often be laughable -- with reference to gourds (guards), a "poppet" (puppet) government and "spatial fours" (special forces) -- but it does the job. The Web site mocks government weakness and highlights every perceived foreign misstep to tap a deep vein of nationalism in Afghanistan -- and to raise questions back in foreign capitals about the role of their forces.

For the local audience there are also magazines in Arabic and Pashto, DVDs showing gruesome beheadings and Taliban attacks, and audio cassettes of nationalist chants -- also available as ringtones. Much of this material apparently is produced across the border in Pakistan in the name of the former regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, or by supporters and sympathizers. All of it seeks to tap historic patriotism and fuel often legitimate grievances in Afghanistan. Journalists can reach Taliban spokesmen for a fiery quote day and night, in stark contrast to their government and international counterparts.

All in all, the Taliban are successfully driving the news agenda and creating a perception of a movement far stronger and more omnipresent than it really is. Taliban atrocities often go unreported in areas they have made off-limits to independent verification. And their methods to control the message go beyond those of your typical press office: Community leaders and journalists who might speak up are cowed with threats or worse.

While the Taliban use their media operation to highlight civilian casualties caused by foreign forces, they also deliberately target civilians -- as with the recent murder of three Western women aid workers and their Afghan colleague just an hour from Kabul. Much less reported internationally are the Afghans who work for international NGOs or the government in rural areas and who often face roadblocks where they are checked for any sign of working with foreigners.

One journalist from an insurgency-hit province, whom I recently met, has moved to Kabul because of the relentless pressure. Among other incidents, he says some pupils he interviewed at the opening of a new government school were killed soon afterward for taking part in the event.

The Taliban realize that they will never win head-on engagements with the international forces, but also that they do not have to. A new emphasis on spectacular attacks in 2008, such as the June jailbreak in Kandahar and an assault on Kabul's only five-star hotel in January, has won global headlines and aims to erode international consensus on the need to stay the course. There is talk on the streets of Afghanistan's "worst ever military defeat," with images circulating of local soldiers fleeing April's three-man attack on a military parade attended by President Hamid Karzai and foreign and local dignitaries.

To combat the Taliban, international forces -- and even more importantly the Afghan administration -- need to be much more responsive and proactive in getting their messages out. Highlighting the Taliban's brutality will undercut its claims to legitimacy. 
The corollary to this would be enhancing the government's legitimacy, particularly through support of Afghan institutions and security forces. International troops are essential to create a security umbrella for such developments to take place. However, the current focus on increasing troop numbers is meaningless if there is not a strategic plan in which building local capacity is the priority. Most Afghans are still far more fearful of what would happen should foreign troops leave than if they stay, but there are limits to their patience. Enhanced Afghan institutions taking the lead would help negate the Taliban's relentlessly xenophobic campaign.

The Afghan government still needs to prove that this is an administration worth fighting for. It should tackle the current culture of impunity in cases of corruption and abuses by members of the administration. The international community, too, must foster accountability in its actions. With Guantanamo having entered the folk culture of Afghanistan, appearing in poems and songs and undercutting claims about the rule of law, arbitrary detentions by Afghan and foreign forces alike must stop. Much greater transparency and accountability is also needed in cases where there are civilian deaths.

Propaganda may be powerful, but it can be countered by both better communications and, ultimately, with deeds on the ground.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.