Afghanistan's Propaganda War: The Taliban's Public Relations Machine

The Islamic fundamentalists who once banned TV use videos and the Internet to publicize their attacks.

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Some 70 percent of Afghans are illiterate, spawning an influx of audio and visual media. Cassette tapes feature songs and poems that glorify armed resistance and portray U.S.-led coalition forces as "invaders," a recurring theme in the Taliban effort to frame its fight as the latest chapter in a centuries-old struggle between Islam and the West. "I will not kiss the hand of Laura Bush, nor will I bow to [Condoleezza] Rice" goes a line from one poem posted on a Taliban website. According to ICG, many Afghans use these tapes to demonstrate their loyalty at Taliban checkpoints.

Beheadings. The Taliban, meanwhile, is flooding urban centers across Afghanistan and Pakistan with Pakistani-made DVDs and digital files of graphic violence that appeal to would-be jihadists. Many feature attack sequences on coalition forces, as well as archival footage from the guerrilla war against the Soviets. Taped beheadings now in wide circulation echo similar videos from insurgents in neighboring Iraq. A Kabul taxi driver recently showed off footage from the execution of an alleged "spy" on his cellphone.

Many observers insist the Taliban is merely filling the information void left by coalition forces and an Afghan government lacking an aggressive communications strategy. Rahimullah Samandar, editor-in-chief of the Wakht News Agency, explains that when the French patrol was attacked in August, a Taliban spokesman promptly text-messaged him with details about the time, location, and number of militants involved. For its part, NATO issued a press release with scant details the following day, while the notoriously slow government in Kabul did nothing. The Taliban "are giving structured stories like a reporter would, sometimes 10 to 15 times a day," Samandar says, acknowledging that their facts are shaky at best.

Some of this may change now that a British-led, nearly $3 million project is underway to upgrade the Afghan government's dismal public relations operations over the next three years. In September, work began on a modern press center to be staffed by 15 new Afghan spokesmen.

Canadian Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, who in August took over as chief spokesman for NATO forces in Afghanistan, admits that it is "difficult to beat [the Taliban] at their own game." Trying to report events faster than the insurgents is "nonlogical," he argues, because "99 percent of the time, initial reports from troops" are wrong. At the same time, Blanchette acknowledges the risks of waiting too long. "We," he says, "have to pump up the volume."

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