Spinning pop tunes to beat the Taliban

A US-sponsored radio station endears itself to Afghans by broadcasting the truth – along with a few good hits. Part 3 of three.

The first words 1st Lt. Daniel Hampton learned in Pashto were ones he had heard time and time again in the remote reaches of eastern Afghanistan: "Mana raka radio," or "Give me one radio."

First Lieutenant. Hampton's Afghanistan "combat" has turned him into something of a disc jockey, running a small radio station that broadcasts from this American firebase into the Kamdesh district of Nuristan, along the Pakistan border – the target of a US counter-insurgency effort to defeat Taliban-led militants.

Hampton has handed out about 4,000 small radios, sometimes distributing them while his Afghan journalists report at events such as the openings of a new school, mosque, or women's clinic.

It's a rare distinction for a combat arms officer in the US Army's 3rd Squadron, 71st Cavalry, who has been trained more to win battles than wars of ideas.

Once part of what the miliary called psychological operations, or "psy-ops," such propaganda exercises are now called "information operations." Senior officers say that distinction matters in this remote area, where they recognize the risk of being seen purely as a mouthpiece of US forces. They – and the Afghan journalists working for the station and a new regional magazine – are trying to gain credibility with their audience by presenting more balanced news content.

The result has turned the journalists into celebrities in these far-flung villages – and also into targets for insurgents.

"People like the music. Everybody has a radio, and they can listen," says Mohamed Iqbal, the 19-year-old translator who launched the station in early June and helped expand it with other journalists. "People walk around like this, holding their radios in their hand, listening," says Mr. Iqbal, gesturing with his hands, "They love news."

The aim of the radio station is to help win support by publicizing the Army's local development projects. The programming is diverse: Daily progress reports on US-funded projects; the death tolls of insurgents and US soldiers alike; and a mix of popular music that brings in 40 tune request letters a day from local villages.

But the need for credibility with the audience has led to an unlikely departure for the military.

"I want the car bomb effect," says Lt. Col. Michael Howard, commander of the 3-71 Cavalry, describing his first rule for the radio. "As when a car bomb goes off in Iraq, and everyone knows about it, I want everyone in Nuristan to know that we really are building a road, a water pipeline."

Lt. Colonel Howard says his second rule is: "Just facts. No psy-ops," referring to the units that the military has traditionally deployed to spin information aimed at a local population. At ground level, US soldiers and Afghans alike say that "no psy-ops" is the only way they have a chance to be heard in these villages.

"It's not just the good stuff," says Hampton, of the news decisions. "If we lose a US soldier, we broadcast it. We let them know we are human, and are here to help them. What's helping us up here is not the bad guys we're killing, but the facts of what we're doing, coming from these Afghan voices," says Hampton.

The killings of two prominent men in the district in the past month for cooperating with the Americans – a village elder and a border police chief – are coinciding with an increased number of threats, delivered after dark, in what are called "night letters." Journalists now stick closer to the base at Naray, and travel less on dangerous roads between villages.

At first, Iqbal's family was pleased that their son was becoming locally famous. Then they received a letter from insurgents who said they knew that Iqbal was translating for US forces. Such letters often claim that the Americans are trying to separate Afghans from their Muslim religion, and come with specific threats, telling people not to sleep, or they will be tortured and killed.

"My father told me: 'Son, it is very dangerous for you. You should stop,' " Iqbal says. But the young man says he is sticking with it. "Father," Iqbal replied, "when my time is finished for God, I will leave anyway."

Iqbal is not the only journalist working in this remote region. Besides the radio, a weekly magazine is now in its first few editions, and employs a handful of Afghan journalists. The basic, tabloid-size periodicals, with color and black-and-white photos, are distributed in these villages where normal newspapers rarely arrive.

"This is very essential, that people hear the news to show the people the right way," says Shakib Sanin, a journalism graduate, and editor of a US-established magazine called "Wishes of People." In a region where the top priority for many are the happenings in Nuristan and the isolated Kamdesh district, the magazine news content mirrors that of the radio, with a mix of national and some very local news.

A recent issue leads with a story on the Afghan police, but portrays them as heroes.

"The police are like a light; a place without light is dark," part of the headline reads. This issue of the magazine also features a story on education improvements in Afghanistan, and one on the "dark time of the Taliban" that notes how female education was once forbidden; how male curriculums focused on Islamic studies; and how so many Afghans once fled the country.

The local news names the man, Haji Osman, believed to be behind the killing of the respected village elder for working with US forces.

"All of this is done because they don't want reconstruction," the story reads.

The publication also includes a status report on local US-funded projects. There is also space for detailed biographies of the murdered elder and border police chief, whose obituary concludes: "We pray to God for him."

The purpose of the US-sponsored media blitz: "So people choose the way to build the country and be safe. They will read the papers and know their country is being rebuilt," says Mr. Sanin, the magazine's editor. "We are like a bridge between the people and the government."

Even the Taliban are frequent listeners, Hampton says.

"The Taliban like it, and the music, but they just don't like us," he says Afghans tell him. "We're providing entertainment for both sides."

Among those who ignore the threats is Golamrahim Muridi, a Naray school teacher who once taught Iqbal and some of the other journalists, and who is now one of the station's top presenters.

In a tiny dark booth, he sits at a plywood desk covered with cassette tapes of local music, queued up for playing on an old cassette deck jerry-rigged for broadcast. Between songs, he reads items of local and national Afghan news. Afghan journalists say the broadcasts – six hours of live broadcasting each day followed by another six-hour period of repeat – are widely heard in a region with some of the highest rates of illiteracy in Afghanistan.

Mr. Muridi steps out of the booth, clutching some of the letters from listeners – mostly music requests and questions that listeners would like answered on air – that are delivered from boxes in three nearby villages. Muridi also carries a map he has drawn showing the radio's 11-mile reach, which he says encompasses 48 villages and hamlets and includes about 35,565 people.

Other areas have demanded their own stations, and the Army plans to install a larger system at Kamdesh in the coming weeks.

"Hello to the radio. We like your programs," says one letter from a listener. "We listen to the best radio news, and best information. Could you play this song?' "

Muridi also reads listeners' questions, posed on a weekly question-and-answer program each Friday. In this batch: " 'When was sport created?' " says Muridi with a smile, a pencil-sized stick for cleaning teeth in his vest pocket. " 'Why did coalition forces come to Afghanistan?' " is another question. And the last: " 'Why is the earth round?' "

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