KABUL—In mid-August, the Taliban made global headlines when around 100 fighters ambushed a routine French patrol just 30 miles from the Afghan capital, killing 10 soldiers. It was France's worst single military loss in a quarter century and a grim reminder that a backcountry insurgency has moved closer and closer to the center.
But there was more to come. Within a few hours, men with satellite phones claiming to be Taliban spokesmen were speed-dialing Afghan journalists, boasting of the attack. Less than three weeks later, they added insult to injury. Militants involved in the ambush posed for an eight-page photo spread that ran in the pages of Paris Match, the bestselling French weekly magazine. They sported uniforms and weapons scavenged from some of the dead.
Outrage multiplied in France, where the Afghan mission has been in question. Newspaper polls showed that flagging public support for the war plunged to new lows. "The Taliban are waging a war of communication with this kind of operation," Defense Minister Hervé Morin told a radio interviewer. "They have understood that public opinion is probably the Achilles' heel of the international community that is present in Afghanistan."
Today, the Taliban is fighting a two-front war. Aware it cannot match the firepower of U.S.-led coalition forces head-on, the Taliban is relying on the power of perception, using a fast and increasingly effective propaganda machine that spans from the Afghan hinterlands to skittish foreign capitals. Spectacular incidents like the attack on the French troops suggest a greater threat than militants really pose on the ground. But for an Afghan government hobbled by corruption, an inability to provide basic services, and fallout from civilian deaths caused by U.S. airstrikes, the PR campaign is accelerating the erosion of Kabul's legitimacy.
Climate of suspicion. "The Taliban has been very successful in seeking to portray itself as a more powerful and cohesive a force than it is," says Joanna Nathan, a Kabul-based senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a think tank that monitors conflicts. Lies, casualty exaggerations, and manufactured military "successes" have a way of gaining purchase in "deep wells of local resentment," Nathan adds. "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."
Seven years after the Taliban was ousted, Afghanistan's security is in jeopardy. This year is on track to be the deadliest yet, with more than 230 deaths of western soldiers since January and a 30 percent spike in violent incidents compared with last year, according to NATO figures. The deteriorating situation has prompted U.S. military commanders to call for as many as 16,000 additional troops.
The Taliban remains highly unpopular in much of the country. But its resurgence has prevented police and journalists from reaching vast swaths of the south and east, allowing the insurgents to dictate the war's narrative. Ordinary Afghans, whose support is critical to the counterinsurgency campaign, are a captive audience.
The same Islamic fundamentalists who once banned TV and the Internet on religious grounds have harnessed the power of new media to turn hearts and minds. Since mid-2005, the Taliban has maintained a website, Al Emirah ("The Emirate"), that has dodged coalition efforts to shut it down by switching service providers. Though crude in presentation and poorly written, the site boasts content in five different languages: Pashtu, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, and English. It features religious commentary, poetry, and battlefield reports that are updated several times a day.
Some of their methods are more low tech. Hand-delivered night letters known as shabnamah are a traditional, cost-effective means of sowing fear in remote areas. According to Tim Foxley, an analyst with Britain's Ministry of Defense, these are particularly effective in the Pashtun heartland along the Afghan-Pakistani border where tribal elders and mullahs relay the message to uneducated, pliable villagers lacking access to TV and other media. Those who might cooperate with the government or NATO forces are threatened with torture and execution. Schools, often the only outpost of the state, are a common target. One letter that recently circulated south of Kabul claimed that schools were part of a western conspiracy to corrupt Afghan youth and pledged to punish parents who allowed their children to attend.
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."