US fights Taliban on another front: public relations
As Afghan insurgents exploit popular anger at civilian deaths, the US is hitting back with its own message.
More than a week has passed since a United States bombardment killed civilians in western Afghanistan, but the battle between coalition forces and the Taliban has only intensified on another front: public relations.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Civilian deaths caused by US, NATO, and Afghan operations – which, according to the United Nations, topped 800 last year – have long provoked public fury that the Taliban can exploit. But in response, the US has also begun to control the message, often by providing a counternarrative or admitting responsibility.
Last Monday's controversial airstrike in Farah Province killed some 140 villagers, according to Afghan officials. If correct, that would constitute the largest case of civilian deaths since 2001. The attack provoked outbursts of street violence and chants of anti-American slogans.
But the US countered that a "number" of people had died in the engagement – and it blamed the Taliban for using people as human shields.
The controversy then worsened when it emerged over the weekend that chemical weapons may have been used in the clash. The US military rejected that claim and went on the offensive Monday, when Col. Greg Julian, the top spokesman in Afghanistan, alleged that Taliban militants have employed white phosphorus – a highly flammable material that causes severe burns – at least four times in Afghanistan over the past two years.
Just hours later, another spokesperson highlighted 44 documented cases where militants in Afghanistan may have used the chemical in mortar attacks and homemade bombs, most recently in an attack last Thursday on a NATO outpost in Logar Province just south of Kabul.
Key tactic: be first to comment
Homayoun Shuaid, a journalist based in Kandahar, says that when he called Qazi Yusuf Ahmadi, the militants' southern spokesman, to get a reaction on the US claims, they were dismissed as a "bunch of lies and propaganda."
"It's usually the other way around," with the US rejecting Taliban reports, says Mr. Shuaid.
After an attack or errant US airstrike, Taliban representatives usually text message or e-mail reports to him "within minutes," giving their version of what happened, Shuaid continues.
Their claims are almost always exaggerated, he says. But because they arrive first, he says, they take on the currency of truth among a populace that receives most of its information via radio or word of mouth.
Eight years after the fundamentalist movement enforced a ban on television, the Taliban has developed a fast, coordinated media apparatus that has eroded public support for nationbuilding, according to a July report by the International Crisis Group, even though active support for the insurgents remains low.
"This does not mean the people believe everything [Taliban operatives] say. But given the weakness of the government and missteps of the international community, it feeds into a climate of suspicion and potential alienation," says the author of the report, Joanna Nathan.
Their tools span the spectrum, from radio transmissions and a multilingual website, known as "The Emirate," which is updated almost daily with battle reports and press releases, to more traditional means of communication such as audio cassettes and "night letters" passed out by hand. And they have succeeded by filling a narrative void left by the Afghan government and coalition forces, who say they are slowed by hostile terrain and an obligation to find the truth.
US targets 'strategic communications'
In March, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke told journalists that "strategic communications" have become a "major, major gap to be filled" if US-led forces are to reverse losses. This urgency figured in the Obama adminstration's new Afghan strategy revealed in March, which called for a major upgrade "to improve the image of the United States and its allies" and "to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy's terror campaign."