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.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Students at Kabul University protested Sunday against US airstrikes last week that Afghan officials say killed 140 civilians.

More than a week has passed since a United States bombardment killed civilians in western Afghanistan, but the battle between coalition forces and the Taliban has only intensified on another front: public relations.

Civilian deaths caused by US, NATO, and Afghan operations – which, according to the United Nations, topped 800 last year – have long provoked public fury that the Taliban can exploit. But in response, the US has also begun to control the message, often by providing a counternarrative or admitting responsibility.

Last Monday's controversial airstrike in Farah Province killed some 140 villagers, according to Afghan officials. If correct, that would constitute the largest case of civilian deaths since 2001. The attack provoked outbursts of street violence and chants of anti-American slogans.

But the US countered that a "number" of people had died in the engagement – and it blamed the Taliban for using people as human shields.

The controversy then worsened when it emerged over the weekend that chemical weapons may have been used in the clash. The US military rejected that claim and went on the offensive Monday, when Col. Greg Julian, the top spokesman in Afghanistan, alleged that Taliban militants have employed white phosphorus – a highly flammable material that causes severe burns – at least four times in Afghanistan over the past two years.

Just hours later, another spokesperson highlighted 44 documented cases where militants in Afghanistan may have used the chemical in mortar attacks and homemade bombs, most recently in an attack last Thursday on a NATO outpost in Logar Province just south of Kabul.

Key tactic: be first to comment

Homayoun Shuaid, a journalist based in Kandahar, says that when he called Qazi Yusuf Ahmadi, the militants' southern spokesman, to get a reaction on the US claims, they were dismissed as a "bunch of lies and propaganda."

"It's usually the other way around," with the US rejecting Taliban reports, says Mr. Shuaid.

After an attack or errant US airstrike, Taliban representatives usually text message or e-mail reports to him "within minutes," giving their version of what happened, Shuaid continues.

Their claims are almost always exaggerated, he says. But because they arrive first, he says, they take on the currency of truth among a populace that receives most of its information via radio or word of mouth.

Eight years after the fundamentalist movement enforced a ban on television, the Taliban has developed a fast, coordinated media apparatus that has eroded public support for nationbuilding, according to a July report by the International Crisis Group, even though active support for the insurgents remains low.

"This does not mean the people believe everything [Taliban operatives] say. But given the weakness of the government and missteps of the international community, it feeds into a climate of suspicion and potential alienation," says the author of the report, Joanna Nathan.

Their tools span the spectrum, from radio transmissions and a multilingual website, known as "The Emirate," which is updated almost daily with battle reports and press releases, to more traditional means of communication such as audio cassettes and "night letters" passed out by hand. And they have succeeded by filling a narrative void left by the Afghan government and coalition forces, who say they are slowed by hostile terrain and an obligation to find the truth.

US targets 'strategic communications'

In March, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke told journalists that "strategic communications" have become a "major, major gap to be filled" if US-led forces are to reverse losses. This urgency figured in the Obama adminstration's new Afghan strategy revealed in March, which called for a major upgrade "to improve the image of the United States and its allies" and "to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy's terror campaign."

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."

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.

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