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Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace
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 election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan on 28 September 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail
Q&A / Asia

Afghanistan’s Low-turnout Election, Insecurity and Unsettled Prospects for Peace

Afghanistan’s fourth presidential election since 2001 brought perhaps 26 per cent of the electorate to the polls. In this Q&A, Crisis Group consultant Graeme Smith and Senior Analyst Borhan Osman explain the weak participation rate and explore the contest’s implications for the country’s stability.

What happened in Saturday’s Afghan presidential election?

Results will emerge slowly in the 28 September Afghan presidential election – the country’s fourth in its short post-2001 democratic history. Although both leading campaigns have already claimed a first-round victory, official preliminary tallies are not expected to be released until mid-October. Even then, the vote count will be subject to certification, which will come after electoral bodies adjudicate complaints about the process. If the official count shows no candidate gaining more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round will be required. It is unlikely that a second round could be held until the spring, because winter weather makes voters’ access to polling places too difficult.

The contest features an incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, who enjoys a high degree of control over the state apparatus and a strong likelihood of fending off the dozen challengers seeking to replace him. Ghani’s strongest rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, had become his reluctant partner in a unity government after disputed election results in 2014 led to a political crisis. That crisis ended with a U.S.-brokered power-sharing arrangement.

Election day came after an unusually muted campaign period. Campaigning ahead of previous presidential polls saw contenders charter aircraft, fill stadiums and deliver speeches across the country. In contrast, the 2019 season was relatively quiet, with few rallies, and with candidates who seemed uninterested in spending money or risking lives on large-scale campaigns.

How many people voted?

Turnout was low. Although preliminary results will not be out for weeks, election officials are already estimating that about 2 or 2.5 million voters came to the polls. Those numbers may decrease as some ballots are deemed fraudulent and other votes are thrown out for technical violations. The likely number of final valid votes is hard to forecast because this is the first time Afghanistan has used biometric systems for voter verification in a presidential election. The top end of the current estimated turnout range is 26 per cent of 9.6 million registered voters, a lower turnout than in any other election in Afghanistan – and, in fact, among the weakest turnouts for any national election around the world in recent history. (The largest database of turnouts is maintained by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which contains only a few examples of voters staying away from the polls on such a scale.)

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency.

The turnout figures are likely to be weaker still when considered as a percentage of the eligible electorate. Registration efforts have had disappointing results, capturing only about half of the voting-age population. Approximately half of Afghanistan’s estimated population of about 35 million is eighteen or older and therefore eligible to vote. (Afghanistan has never had a complete census, so these figures are not precise and total population estimates vary by several million.)

Why was participation so low?

Afghanistan is a divided country, with all major urban zones under the central government’s control and a large portion of the countryside in the hands of the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban – who regard the Afghan government as a U.S. puppet and therefore see presidential elections as illegitimate – threatened to disrupt the polls violently and pressed their supporters to boycott. After reports of low turnout emerged, the Taliban issued a statement thanking Afghans for shunning a “staged” process. Election authorities kept almost a third of polling centres closed, attributing their decision to security concerns. Voter frustrations with politicians and apathy might have been factors as well.

The Afghan government blamed Taliban violence for keeping Afghans from reaching the polls, and to some extent this may have been the case. A New York Times tally suggested that casualties on election day so far appear to be roughly in keeping with recent daily averages for the war, which ranks as the deadliest armed conflict in the world (measured by people killed directly in fighting). Although there were no mass-casualty incidents, the Afghanistan Analysts Network has so far counted about 400 smaller attacks that appear to reflect a pattern of voter intimidation by the Taliban. A burst of gunfire or a few mortars landing near a polling station appeared to be sufficient in many places to dampen enthusiasm for the process. Although Afghan security forces were deployed in large numbers to secure the voting process, the Taliban probably could have done more both to disrupt the polls and to inflict greater casualties if the group had decided to mount full-throttled attacks on polling sites – along the lines, for example, of the 17 September Taliban suicide attack at a Ghani campaign rally that killed 26 people.

What does the election mean for stability?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing.

Elections are usually a slow burn in Afghanistan, as results trickle out, how well (or not) the electoral bodies performed becomes clearer and politicians size up their opportunities. Street demonstrations or other forms of instability can occur weeks or months after voting. That said, the risk of a serious disruption to Kabul politics appears somewhat lower than in 2014, as Abdullah’s ability to challenge an unfavourable result may be weaker. As in the 2014 election, Abdullah quickly declared himself the winner, flanked by prominent supporters at a 30 September press event. This time around, however, Abdullah was missing his biggest supporter from 2014: the former governor of Balkh province, Atta Noor, a wealthy northern power-broker whose coterie has voiced support for President Ghani in recent days. Ghani himself has not declared victory in public, but one of his senior aides in Kabul told Crisis Group that the Palace is confident of a first-round win, and his running mate, Amrullah Saleh, has said so publicly.

What does the election mean for the peace process?

The election does not have immediate consequences for the likelihood of success of the on-and-off diplomacy to end the war, although it might affect its timing, especially in the case of serious contestation over the results. But the key question for now is whether and when the U.S. intends to revive its own efforts to negotiate a settlement of the conflict, and in particular its talks with the Taliban.

The U.S. suspended the peace process in early September when President Donald Trump declined to move ahead with an initial U.S.-Taliban deal aimed at opening the way to broader talks among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghan power-brokers. The ball remains in Trump’s court: Taliban officials have told Crisis Group they are still open to resumption of the process. Senior Afghan officials said they would be willing to explore a diplomatic short-cut after the election process is completed, skipping the U.S.-Taliban deal and moving directly to intra-Afghan negotiations – but this has been a longstanding red line for the Taliban, who refuse to negotiate an Afghan political settlement without first resolving with the U.S. the question of foreign troop withdrawal. The Afghan government will be no better able to get the Taliban to erase that red line after the election, even if the announcement of results and reactions to them cause little or no political disturbance. Still, the Afghan government has renewed its commitment, at least rhetorically, to forging ahead with the peace process. On the day after the election, Ghani’s regional peace envoy Omar Daudzai tweeted optimistically that peace would be “accomplished within 2019”.

Contributors

Senior Analyst, Afghanistan
Senior Consultant, Afghanistan
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