In the war of spin, US opens a new front

Pakistan forbids the Afghan Embassy from using briefings to attack a 'third country.'

Aside from the harsh Afghan winter, the fierceness of Afghan fighters, and a few hidden Stinger missiles, the Taliban's best advantage over the US was probably the Afghan ambassador's daily press conference here in Islamabad.

At 4:30 p.m. every day, Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef would read a statement before dozens of TV cameras and scribes, giving out the Taliban's latest estimates of civilian casualties and calling the US "the world's biggest state terrorist."

But now, it appears, the Taliban's weapon of information - or disinformation, as some call it - has been taken away, as the US seizes the advantage.

On Tuesday, Ambassador Zaeef was told to desist from further press conferences, or face expulsion from the only country that formally recognizes the Taliban. Embassies should not be used to attack a third country (the US), Pakistani officials told the ambassador. Almost simultaneously, the US announced that its anti-Taliban coalition would open a media center in Islamabad for the first time, to give daily reports on the war.

"The propaganda war has taken a different turn," says Rifaat Hussein, director of the Defense and Strategic Studies Department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. "The battle for the hearts and minds is being waged with new ferocity by the Americans. The government hasn't muzzled the Afghans. They can still meet the press. But they're saying, 'Look, if this is the way you are going to do it, we aren't going to tolerate it.'"

Since air attacks began on Oct. 7, this war has been fought well out of sight. As a result, the battle for perceptions - of who is winning, who is losing, who is dying - has become crucial. In the first few weeks, the Taliban enjoyed an unusual upper hand, issuing daily reports of hospitals bombed, villages destroyed, and civilians killed.

Meanwhile, fearing that leaks to reporters could endanger soldiers on the ground, the US mostly stayed out of this perceptions game. But now, America appears to have entered the game with a vengeance.

"The coalition will be running a new media center, and we hope to open it soon," says Mark Wentworth, spokesman for the US Embassy in Islamabad.

For its part, the Pakistani government has taken a number of steps recently to rein in what it considers to be the engines of disinformation. Mosques have been banned from using their loudspeakers, except for the five-times-a-day call to prayer and the mullahs' weekly sermons on Friday. Religious leaders are banned from holding massive public protests, and some have been placed under house arrest. One, Qazi Hussain, leader of the powerful fringe party Jamaat-e-Islami, is charged with sedition.

But the Taliban press conferences reached the widest audiences, often carried live on CNN and Al Jazeera, in what some Pakistani officials called a "feast of disinformation."

"A country cannot use its embassy for the purposes against a third country," Aziz Khan, Pakistan Home Office spokesman, told reporters. "A country has to observe diplomatic norms and be advised of the third-country rule. The Afghan ambassador was told and reminded of this third-country rule."

When asked whether an outside country pressured Pakistan to shut down the Taliban press conferences, Mr. Khan smiled. "We felt the need to remind him," he said.

The press conferences certainly had their flaws, the greatest of which was the Taliban's inability to provide proof of their charges of civilian death tolls. Most reporters thus were forced to report Taliban statements, along with the caveat that there was "no independent confirmation" of their truth.

Consider the case of John Bolton. According to the Taliban ambassador, a man

identifying himself as Mazhar Ayub was captured on Oct. 26 with a satellite phone in the southern Afghan town of Spin Boldak. The Taliban reported that Mazhar Ayub was actually an American citizen named John Bolton, a Vietnam war veteran who was working on a "spy mission" in Afghanistan.

Whoever he was, John Bolton/Mazhar Ayub died in Taliban custody last weekend. The Taliban asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to return the body to the American government, but American spokesmen insisted that the victim was not an American. The Red Cross eventually had to bury the body in Afghanistan for hygienic reasons, says Pascal Duport, deputy director of ICRC Pakistan. He added that Red Cross officials managed to contact the family, and that they are not American, but he would not elaborate in order to protect their privacy.

When and if the US coalition's media center opens, it will likely handle the hundreds of press calls for information on cases like John Bolton, and provide comment or verification of the latest battlefield claims.

The center's spokesmen will also have the unenviable task of doling out the latest numbers of US and Taliban casualties. In Pakistan's western state of Baluchistan, for instance, Pakistani newspapers quoted local and state officials as saying a US Chinook helicopter crashed near the border town of Dalbandin, 18 miles south of the border. Some papers said the Taliban shot at the chopper and caused a crash landing, killing four US soldiers. But Pakistani and US officials claimed to have "no independent confirmation" of the crashed helicopter. Pentagon spokesman Major Jay Steuck said the US military had no report of a helicopter crashing in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or for that matter anywhere else.

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