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.
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One component of this strategy, according to British defense analyst Tim Foxley, is "to challenge the Taliban to explain their actions and intent," while promoting a grassroots discussion of "the Taliban's legitimacy, their interpretation of Islam, what constitutes a jihad, and the morality of killing civilians."Skip to next paragraph
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On Wednesday, coalition forces issued a press release condemning a wave of Taliban suicide attacks in the city of Khost that killed 13 civilians and injured 36.
"These attacks again demonstrate the insurgents' complete disregard for the people of Afghanistan whom they claim to represent. These senseless acts reflect how dishonorable the insurgents are; no one can honestly say they are fighting for the people then purposefully attack innocents," said Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, the ISAF spokesman.
Handing out radios
The military's improved responsiveness appears to be part of a host of changes now in motion to try and beat the Taliban at their own game.
The Pentagon has reportedly launched a broad "psychological operations" campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan to take down insurgent-run websites and the jam radio stations dominate the airwaves in backcountry areas.
In eastern Afghanistan's Paktia Province, for instance, the US military is busy setting up a network of radio transmitters to broadcast information on attacks and other security incidents that the Taliban is adept at exploiting. Officials say that US forces have sped up their approval process for messages and distributed thousands of radios to ensure that isolated locals get the news ahead of Taliban spin doctors.
The Army is also rewriting its information operations manual. The new document, set to be released later this year, will give greater authority to battlefield commanders to make communications decisions on the spot – rather than senior officers far from the action – to counter Taliban attempts to stage deaths and then circulate fabricated videos.
Tune in to 'Ask ISAF'
The coalition forces have a weekly call-in radio program, "Ask ISAF," where Afghans can directly present their questions and concerns to officers. The Afghan government, meanwhile, has opened a $1.2 million media center staffed by Western-trained PR specialists. The facility includes a hi-tech media monitoring wing and an outreach department to build better working relations with journalists.
But in Afghanistan's deeply conservative culture, analysts say gestures of respect are just as important as the message itself.
Nader Nadery, director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, calls the public expression of regret offered last week by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a "huge improvement compared to Azizabad," referring to a high-profile case last August in Herat Province where Afghan and United Nations officials found evidence that up to 90 civilian had perished in a US operation.
The military had disputed the findings, saying no civilians had died, only Taliban. But after a high-level investigation, widespread protests, and heavy pressure from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the military put the civilian death toll at 33, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates apologized. Families of the dead were paid $2,000 through the Afghan government.
Such incidents, says Mr. Nadery, mean that the Taliban do not "have to do much extra" to undermine public support for the Afghan government and its foreign backers.
"The damage is done. And it's hard to compensate, whether with money or with words," he says.
• This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.