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Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban
Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban
Report 158 / Asia

Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?

The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement.

Executive Summary

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.

Kabul/Brussels, 24 July 2008

Afghan president Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with US special representative for Afghan Peace and reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (top L) during a cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Kabul. Handout / Afghan Presidential Palace / AFP
Q&A / Asia

Interpreting the U.S. Talks with the Taliban

Talks with the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha have raised hopes that the U.S. could end its involvement in Afghanistan’s war. Our Asia Program Director Laurel Miller and Afghanistan analysts Borhan Osman and Graeme Smith break down what was achieved and what remains unresolved.

How significant were the U.S.-Taliban talks?

Last week’s six-day talks between the U.S. and Taliban were the clearest sign yet that the U.S. is intent on withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban and its regional allies perceive that intent as an opportunity. It is early to draw conclusions but the signals from Doha inspire optimism about ending America’s longest war. A U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal has long been the Taliban’s top demand and the driving rationale for the insurgency. The Doha talks also were the first time that the U.S. has publicly acceded to the Taliban’s insistence that bilateral negotiations on terms for a troop withdrawal precede any peace negotiations involving other Afghans. The Taliban have made no evident concessions, but hints are emerging of some consensus on key issues. Ultimately, the significance of the talks depends on what happens next: if the framework of a deal reportedly sketched out in Doha leads to substantive negotiations among a wider array of stakeholders on future political and security arrangements, then these talks will have produced an important breakthrough.

What has been agreed upon?

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told The New York Times that the U.S. and Taliban have agreed in principle on a framework for a deal under which the Taliban would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals” and that the U.S. would pull out troops. Khalilzad also said that, as the framework is further fleshed out, Taliban concessions will need to include a ceasefire and agreement to talk directly with the Afghan government. The Taliban appears now to be considering whether it is prepared to make such concessions.

How do you get all sides sitting around a table, after decades of war?

An exchange of commitments between the Taliban and U.S. on counter-terrorism and troop withdrawal may be enough to end American military involvement in Afghanistan, but without a more complete peace deal it will not end what is now the deadliest conflict in the world. At the moment, the U.S. reportedly is taking the position that a troop withdrawal would only be part of a bigger package including settlement of political and security issues among Afghans. Whether the U.S. sticks with that position will be important to watch.

What are the unresolved issues?

A major unanswered question is how to structure an intra-Afghan dialogue. How do you get all sides sitting around a table, after decades of war? Also unclear is what the Taliban is willing to accept on timing and sequencing of such dialogue – that is, do they see dialogue launching before a foreign troop withdrawal commences, or only later, after a troop withdrawal that diminishes Afghan government and U.S. leverage is underway? The Taliban have long been willing to negotiate openly with the U.S., as has now happened, and they have more vaguely indicated willingness to talk subsequently with other Afghans, but the specifics of an intra-Afghan negotiation format that can attract the support of all sides remains uncertain.

Details have not yet emerged regarding the counter-terrorism assurances the Taliban offered in Doha and how definitively acceptable they are to Washington. The U.S. may be looking for the Taliban to say something that goes beyond what they have declared in the past. Since at least 2010, the Taliban have promised that they will not let Afghanistan be used to threaten other countries, in a veiled reference to preventing transnational jihadist groups from sheltering in their territory. That kind of oblique language may or may not be sufficient in a peace agreement; its acceptability will depend in part on how anxious the U.S. is to exit Afghanistan. One question is whether the Taliban might be willing to go further now, committing for the first time to actively counter jihadist groups. From the Taliban perspective, they need to see a firm U.S. commitment on complete troop withdrawal with no ambiguity in the wording.

Taliban officials say the aim of the previous ceasefire was to show the world that if they want to stop fighting, they can.

Would the Taliban agree to a ceasefire?

A comprehensive ceasefire is, unfortunately, more unlikely than not at this early stage of negotiations. The Taliban worry about losing their battlefield momentum if they agree to a ceasefire, and their battlefield momentum has won them considerable leverage. A first, brief ceasefire in June 2018 was unusually successful, revealing a groundswell of popular support for an end to the conflict. The scenes of Taliban fighters celebrating in the streets with their opponents caught the insurgent leadership by surprise. Taliban officials say the aim of the previous ceasefire was to show the world that if they want to stop fighting, they can. Until now, however, a long-term ceasefire has been conceivable to the Taliban only in the context of an imminent transition to a negotiated peace involving other Afghan parties. The Taliban are undoubtedly aware that a ceasefire would be a significant political win for the government in Kabul and morale booster for government forces, and thus undoubtedly are disinclined to enable those gains.

In the meantime, the Taliban seem poised to continue fighting. The group is configured to draw strength from its performance on the battlefield, not from politics. As a Taliban fighter told Crisis Group recently: “The reason everyone is talking about us is our military power and fighting ability; otherwise, nobody would have been talking about peace and reconciliation.” In some respects, the prospect of a peace agreement threatens the Taliban’s existence in its current form. They do not seem likely to give up the fight prematurely.

What is the U.S. doing differently in these talks?

Previous rounds of U.S. talks with the Taliban raised the prospect of negotiating a troop withdrawal but did not address that issue head on. This time the Americans seem to have acceded to Taliban insistence on front-loading discussions on a U.S. troop withdrawal, before details are established on intra-Afghan political dialogue. This step reflects U.S. interest in winding down its military involvement in Afghanistan that has been building for years but has spiked sharply in the second year of the Trump administration.

The fact that the U.S. has openly been negotiating bilaterally on substantive issues with the Taliban is another change from past discussions. There have been intermittent U.S.-Taliban contacts since 2011, but never with as much publicity and as many expressions of urgency. How deeply the latest talks have delved into the core substantive issues will only be apparent once more details emerge.

Is the Kabul government on board with the U.S. approach?

U.S. envoy Khalilzad travelled to Kabul for a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani after the talks in Doha. Subsequently, on 28 January, Ghani made a formal address on state television about a future Afghanistan without international troops – something his administration has resisted envisioning for years. He mentioned recent air strikes that reportedly killed civilians and expressed his hopes that Afghan security forces would have a different role after a peace agreement. Still, the president was cautious in his comments on the talks. Ghani reminded his audience of the fate of his predecessor Mohammad Najibullah, who survived the withdrawal of Soviet forces only to be killed by the Taliban during the chaos that ensued.

The Taliban announced that their co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar would [...] become responsible for the Taliban “political commission” based in Doha, making him their chief negotiator.

Whereas Ghani may view a deal with the Taliban as a threat to his position, some of his political opponents among the Afghan elite seem more positive toward the developments in Doha, perhaps hoping for roles in an interim administration that might be installed as part of a peace agreement. Still, the entrenched view among anti-Taliban political factions is that major compromises with their opponents – such as an entirely new constitution – are unacceptable. They also are concerned that the U.S. risks making a “separate peace” and leaving them behind. The U.S. will likely need to use its considerable leverage with these Afghan political factions to bring them to the table and encourage a deal with the Taliban.

What is the significance of the new appointment to the Taliban negotiating team?

As talks progressed last week, the Taliban announced that their co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar would assume the title of deputy leader and become responsible for the Taliban “political commission” based in Doha, making him their chief negotiator. This development suggests the Taliban are serious about negotiations and may reflect a constructive role by Pakistan – which had imprisoned Baradar in 2010, releasing him only last October as U.S. negotiating efforts began to gain traction. The appointment also cemented the role of Qatar as the main venue for negotiations, despite efforts by other regional countries to serve as facilitators. The Taliban had been waiting for the right moment to make this announcement, once they believed that peace efforts had moved to a sufficiently advanced stage. Baradar is a senior and widely respected member of the movement who is probably empowered to test whether the group can achieve its goals through politics rather than fighting.

What would a settlement look like?

Details do not appear to have been hammered out yet, and, until results are shown in writing, it is also possible that U.S. and Taliban negotiators have somewhat different understandings about what has been agreed to so far. As details emerge from the talks, Crisis Group will be watching for answers to these and other questions: to what degree are the elements of the framework understanding part of a package deal that includes a ceasefire and intra-Afghan dialogue? How will implementation of a troop withdrawal be tied to these issues? Would the understandings so far – especially on troop withdrawal – be implemented regardless of how much progress is achieved in the subsequent stages of the process? To the extent that the Taliban agree to negotiate with their Afghan opponents, would they talk to the government or only to some yet-to-be-formed broader collection of Afghan power holders? What will be the agenda of intra-Afghan talks, and, specifically, will the current constitutional system be the starting point for hashing out future political arrangements, or will everything be up for grabs?

Contributors

Program Director, Asia
LaurelMillerICG
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Consultant, Afghanistan