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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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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.

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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.