US takes to the air(waves) in Afghan campaign

As US warplanes continue to rake Taliban lines and facilities, the CIA is homing in on hearts and minds.

As dusk falls across the Shomali Plain north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, American jet fighters streak across the sky and drop a handful of bombs on front-line positions of the Taliban militia - harassing fire repeated for the past three days.

When the dust-clouds settle, transistor radios flicker to life, and the propaganda war begins.

Until US and British bombing raids began 18 days ago, the Taliban-run Voice of Sharia radio, broadcast from Kabul, filled the airwaves with religious discourse and official decrees. Their opponents, listeners were told, were "evil and corrupt forces."

Today, that Taliban signal has turned to static, its transmitter destroyed by two cruise missiles. In its place are mainly American broadcasts, part of a broad psychological-operations (psy-ops) campaign run by the US military and the CIA in Afghanistan, which aims to reassure Afghans that they have nothing to fear from America's fight against terrorism. And for the few listeners in range, there is a pro-opposition radio outlet, Voice of Peace.

"We have not come here to harm you. We have come to arrest Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda [his terrorist network], and those who support him," US broadcasts announce in Dari, the language spoken mainly by the Taliban's opponents. "We are not here to make your country our colony or to plunder it."

Broadcasts in Pashto, the language of Pashtuns - most Taliban members hail from Afghanistan's largest ethnic group - warn against interfering in US military operations and to steer clear of bridges, terrorist training camps, and military sites. "These terrorists and oppressors are currently in your country.... But the battle against these fanatics that feed off the blood of the Afghan people cannot be won without your help," the propaganda reads, according to a transcript on the watchdog website

While America's psy-ops record is mixed - with mistakes in Somalia in the early 1990s among the most glaring - in a nation as starved for information as Afghanistan, effective psy-ops may be critical to success.

"Afghans are obsessed by radio," says Paul Beaver, a London-based military analyst. Beaver says US psy-ops teams quickly reversed initial efforts to beam in television images to a nation where TVs are rare. Denounced as a cause of "moral corruption" by the radical Islamic Taliban, TV is illegal in the 90 percent of Afghanistan under its control.

"There was a very steep learning curve initially, but [the US] is getting far better at honing the message," Mr. Beaver says. "The aim is to tell the truth, which is often more damning than any fiction. And to tell them what you are doing."

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush signed the most sweeping covert authorization for the CIA in the agency's history, which almost certainly includes a heavy propaganda role. The Pentagon's own specialists are at work, too.

Psy-ops teams are using six custom-equipped "Commando Solo" aircraft for leaflet drops and broadcasts over Afghanistan. Afghan listeners hear a lineup of traditional songs, militant pro-American and anti-Taliban talk - some of it from

female presenters, a direct defiance of Taliban prohibitions on work outside the home for women - and instructions on how to use ration packs air-dropped by US planes.

A Taliban minister, appealing to rebel Northern Alliance commanders to fight against the US, complained last week that "now, the Americans and the British and the Pakistanis are trying to brainwash our people."

Beaver points out that such broadcast missions began in World War II and were effective during the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 US-led NATO bombing of Kosovo. "The people who run this [psy-ops] are very bright indeed," he says. "This is not a backwater military science."

Still, US psy-ops teams have a mixed record. In Somalia, when American forces landed in December 1992 to help avert famine, the first leaflets dropped from helicopters over Mogadishu were mistranslated. "Slave nations have come to help you," they read. In a clumsy effort to cultivate Somali national feeling against warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid, a US-run radio station played heavy metal and boasted that it was "Aidid's worst nightmare." Mobile speakers blasted his compound with the sounds of tanks, machine-gun fire, and roaring helicopters, but psy-ops efforts failed to rattle the warlord. This correspondent was among the first into Aidid's lair, alongside US troops, and the fugitive's secret was evident on his bedside table: a pair of pink ear plugs.

Such measures aren't necessary north of Kabul, where there is a budding home-grown propaganda source for radio listeners: A new station of the rebel Northern Alliance, Voice of Peace, is just three weeks old. Broadcasting from a single cramped room in a military barracks, with a puny FM transmitter tied to a pole on the roof, the radio beams out its own diet of news and views.

"Our message is peace, we work for peace and how we should reach there," says station director Mohamed Alam Ezedhar. While Mr. Ezedhar insists his radio is independent, there is a strong dose of pro-rebel politics. "The people of Afghanistan do not want the Taliban," he says. "Our radio continues the people's policy."

A French agency, Droit de Parole, "free speech" or "right of words," donated broadcast equipment and two generators. It promises to bring a much larger transmitter to boost the signal. Radio officials say they have so far received no American support.

"This is a society without [local] radio, without newspapers, without a news agency," says Ezedhar. So it is "very necessary."

The twice-a-day program starts with five minutes of reading from the Islamic holy book, the Koran. Ten correspondents collect news from various front lines, and report back via military walkie-talkie. Letters from the public are read by both male and female anchors. Music, in Pashto and Dari, is also a key ingredient. "We are the flowers in one garden - Tajik, Shia, Sunni, Hazara, Pashtun - living together," are the lyrics of a song on one recent broadcast. "Everyone has the right to be free."

"If the Americans give us a good radio to reach all the people of Afghanistan, and beyond our borders, it will be very important for us," says Najib Rassa, deputy chief of the station.

Asked about his dream, Mr. Rassa says: "I don't like this kind of small radio. I want a big radio, for all the people of Afghanistan."

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