Taliban's war of words undermines Afghanistan's nation building

A successful propaganda campaign has weakened public support for the Afghan government and its international backers, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group.

Arbitrary detentions by United States forces in Afghanistan and the aerial bombardment by the international forces has not only increased public discontent, it has also given the Taliban opportunities to cash in on a sophisticated media strategy, observers say.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) has pointed to the dangers of the Taliban's successful propaganda in a July 24 report and argues that the result is "weakening public support for nation building, even though few actively support the Taliban."

While Taliban propaganda is often rudimentary and crude, the ICG report says, the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement. Its use of local languages and traditional cultural medium like songs and poems give it greater outreach than that of international organizations and the government. The ICG report also points out that the Taliban has also begun using DVDs and photographs, which it had earlier prohibited.

International forces also face questions about the accuracy of their reports – such as a US bombing in Nangarhar on July 6 that described civilians attending a wedding party as enemy deaths. The questionable credibility is not just confined to the military forces but impacts the image of the entire international community.

And the lack of credible and effective communication could mean much more than a war of words – especially in a situation where, according to the ICG report, the Afghan population is increasingly "sitting on the fence or weighing options amidst a sense of insurgent momentum."

The Taliban are not winning the propaganda war but are putting a lot of effort into it, says NATO's civilian spokesman in Afghanistan, Mark Laity.

"If you want disinformation, yes, you can get it," Mr. Laity says. "They can make something up. One has to define reliable and accurate information."

But reporter Zubair Babakarkhail of Pajhwok, an independent Afghan news service, says Taliban reports enable him to put out stories on time. "It is difficult to reach the spokesperson of the president's office and the Ministry of Interior and often when they do return a call it is too late."

Mr. Babakarkhail says he does not feel that the information from the military is any more credible. "The Taliban makes claims, and the other side also makes claims,"he says. "We don't believe in either."

UN spokesman Aleem Siddique admits the Taliban are better than the international forces are in reaching the media, but points to UN efforts to reach out to the local press in their own language.

Zamarai Bashary, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, says the media also latches onto bad news, which helps the Taliban propaganda. Mr. Bashary insists that the delay is due to the problem of collecting accurate, verifiable information.

Unfortunately, the lack of speed is also not always compensated by absolute accuracy. Mr. Laity says NATO has "reviewed how we are dealing with civilian casualties and the speed of our response," a task which is made difficult by "the remoteness of the area, the speed of the burial of bodies, and the lack of birth registration."

And while US-led forces cause most of the civilian casualties, a distinction between the Coalition Forces and the NATO-led ISAF forces is not always evident. "People won't make that distinction," Laity says. "We have to live with that."

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