Due to translations, the other language editions of NATO Review go online approximately two weeks after the English version.
About NATO Review
Submission policy
Editorial team

Taliban, television, telephones - and terror

Nick Grono, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, outlines elements of the Taliban's media war in Afghanistan, including its strengths, weaknesses - and how to fight back.

Jump to a Question

PAUL KING (Review Editor, NATO): The fight to win hearts and minds has commonly been perceived as one of the key areas in the battle in Afghanistan.

A recent International Crisis Group report has looked into the Taliban's techniques in this area in a report entitled "Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words." It looks into how the Taliban's tactics have developed, and what this means for the battle in Afghanistan.

To discuss the report's findings I'm joined today by Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, Nick Grono.

Nick Grono, your report mentions that the Taliban is communicating in several different languages. In English for the international audience, in Arabic for global issues and financing and recruitment and in local languages to spread support in Afghanistan.

Which of these audiences do you think is most important for the Taliban at the moment?

NICK GRONO (Deputy President, International Crisis Group): I think they're all equally important. I mean, the international audience is targetted to undermine the will of the international community to stay in Afghanistan for the long haul and that's obviously critically important to the Taliban, to demonstrate that they can outlast the international community.

The Afghan audience is particularly important because of course those are the hearts and minds that they're competing for and they're doing a much better job than the international community at reaching out to Afghans and getting their messages across.

Perhaps the Arabic audience is not as important, but it's still a critically important source of funding and so on, but I think the first two audiences in particular are where the Taliban is seeking to have the most impact.

You mentioned that the lack of necessary language skills in the West for communication is having an impact. How much is that so in Afghanistan, and are you advocating more communication in those languages or by local communicators.

Well, I'll take your last point first. I mean, it's advocating both, you know. You have to understand the messages, the objectives of your opponents and we haven't done that very well. The international community hasn't done a very good job of analyzing their messages. This work that we've done on Taliban propaganda is some of the first substantive work that's been done on this, much to our surprise. And yet it's a rich source of information.

Of course, the information is skewed, but you can still learn an awful lot from the messages that your opponents are giving out. And it's also critically important to counter that message by communicating with their own target audiences, which in this case is the Afghans themselves. And so you need to be able to communicate effectively in Pashtu and Dari.

One of the themes that comes up in the report is the lack of accountability in Afghan governance, and the lack of challenging the Taliban's legitimacy is playing into the Taliban's hands. How much of these issues have to be taken on as a communication challenge by the Afghans themselves?

Yes, they certainly do, although the challenge, of course, when you need to address accountability and corruption say, in the Afghan government, it's not just a communication issue. It goes to the very heart of governance in Afghanistan. But you have to understand that and you have to deal with it.

The Taliban certainly understand it because a lot of their propaganda is directed to raising these issues and to undermining the legitimacy of central government. So the international community and the Afghan government have to do a much better job at communicating what they're doing, but actually taking the real steps that are required to address this and that's a real challenge.

The Afghan media clearly doesn't have an easy role to play. It's pressured form the side of the Taliban and also from the side of the government. What's the best way to help the Afghan media become more reliable and freer?

As you said, the media has a really tough time and your heart goes out to the media. If you put something that's critical of the Taliban you're threatened by the Taliban. If you're criticizing the government, you come under real pressure.

The government needs to understand that a free media is in its best interests. There will be critical stories, but to be honest if you want to win the information campaign you can't impose these kind of restrictions on the ability of the media to report.

And also the media has a critical role in helping the government address the accountability and corruption issues. So the government needs to be much more open about its approach to the media. And the international community shouldn't shy away from pointing out inappropriate restrictions that are being placed on the media by the Afghan government.

How can objective reporting prosper in an environment in Afghanistan where events often take place in isolated regions, where facts are hard to come by and where threats, as we said, are often made to journalists. How can the West help journalists to become more objective in their reporting in that kind of environment?

Well, it's an immature media environment. I mean, it's not used to operating in a free environment. But part of the way of working, of assisting the media in kind of developing these skills is to enable it to operate freely. We're seeing something similar in Pakistan. One of the very positive moves of the Musharraf government when it first came in was to actually open up significantly the media space, and you had a whole host of competing voices. A lot of them extreme or histrionic, but over time they developed a much more objective and a much better understanding of their audiences. And I think in Afghanistan you need to see more understanding of the need to give the media room to operate and thereby develop itself.

Do you think that for all the Taliban's use of modern technology and communication techniques, their most powerful tool is still word of mouth.

It's a combination of tools. Word of mouth is a very important one and what's been interesting about this examination of the propaganda techniques is the sophistication and the range of methods that the Taliban uses to get across its message: word of mouth, night letters, ring tones on mobile phones. There's a huge mobile phone penetration in Afghanistan and so they have patriotic chants on ring tones. They have MP3s, so they're very effective at targeting their audience.

The one interesting thing is, in fact, that radio doesn't have a big penetration because the Taliban still find it difficult to set up radio transmitters and have them operate for any period of time. But they very effectively use all other means of communication.

During their time in government the Taliban banned television, music, the Internet and even photographs of any living being. Now they're using exactly those same techniques that were banned to attack the West. Is there a sense of the bigotry or hypocrisy of doing this in Afghanistan?

I suspect not. I mean, I suspect, as you say, it's hypocritical having to use the means against your enemies, but I'm sure that there's some kind of justification in the Taliban's mind about fighting a war and thereby using these means.

And for the population, well, it's the information that comes across to them that they focus upon and I suspect that they're not too concerned about the hypocrisy of the Taliban.

Do you think that western military operations in Afghanistan are a communications problem in themselves, or is the problem just the way these operations are exploited by the Taliban?

Again, it's both. If you have civilians killed in bombing raids then of course the fact of the civilian death is a real issue. The communication side of it is also a big problem. I mean, what we found is that Taliban is much more responsive, partly because the Taliban isn't too concerned about the accuracy of its responses. But the Taliban spokesman will be available 24 hours a day on satellite phone to respond to any incident, whereas often the international forces and the Afghanistan media are a lot more sluggish in their responsiveness.

Part of that is through an effort to ascertain the fact and so on, but part of it is they're just not set up to operate in this responsive way. So you need to address both sides of it.

There's a lot of work going in, we understand, on addressing the civilian casualties issue, and so on and a lot more has to be done, as we're seeing over weeks and months with significant casualties.

But communicating the message and communicate the Taliban's atrocities and what the Taliban is doing to counter it's own propaganda is very important.

In the ICG report, it stated that the Taliban has proved remarkably successful in projecting itself as stronger than it really is. Is this an indication that the Taliban have now mastered psy-ops and do you feel that this impression that they've managed to create could be time limited?

I don't think it's time limited. I think they have a very strong understanding of how to effectively project themselves, and of course, they're not operating in a vacuum. They've seen what's happened in Iraq where there was very sophisticated use made of Internet and other media there. You know, they're coming on the back of this and understand that for asymmetric warfare it's very important for them to project themselves and they've learnt that lesson very well and will continue to do so.

The international community and the Afghan government has been a little more slow to kind of pick up the importance of not just communicating their own objectives, but countering this propaganda, and what we hope that comes out of this report is a greater understanding of some of the issues that need to be addressed.

The report also states that the international community's failure to send in troops in sufficient numbers country wide as neutral peacekeepers in the early days lies at the root of many of the problems faced in Afghanistan today.

Are you referring here to communication problems as well?

No, it's much broader than communication problems. We've been very critical since early 2003, late 2002 of the strategy of sending troops to the relatively safe north and leaving the south, Helmand, in particular, free from peacekeepers or from international forces.

I think when the British moved in in 2006 before then there were perhaps 500 special forces operating in the south, and so it wasn't surprising that the Taliban had an opportunity to establish its roots there, to establish networks and to make the task of the Afghan government much, much more difficult when it came time to move down south.

So the communication side of it is not the substantive part. It's more the actual kind of doing, putting the troop numbers down where they are really required.

There's been a lot of discussion recently that Afghanistan requires a regional approach and in your report you highlight that some of the production of magazines by the Taliban or for the Taliban, some use of the studios for video content and some control of websites, is clearly being done in neighbouring Pakistan. So what are the options for tackling this propaganda, when it's actually being disseminated from and controlled and produced in a country other than Afghanistan?

Well Pakistan is an issue for Afghanistan and most observers understand this. The fact that Pakistan provides safe havens for the insurgents, that there's the ability for the insurgents to regroup in Pakistan, produce propaganda and use that as a base, makes all the efforts in Afghanistan extremely challenging. And so the international community first has to recognize the scale of the problem. That is happening. Over the last 12 to 18 months there has been a dramatic shift, particularly in Washington, D.C. about the role that Pakistan is playing.

The next step then is to work cooperatively with the Pakistan government and make it clear the primacy that the international community places on Pakistan itself dealing with the tribal areas, and dealing with the problem of insurgents there. Efforts are being made, and much more can be done. The international community can be a lot more coherent in getting its message across to the Pakistan government and supporting its efforts in the tribal areas, the northwest frontier province. And so we would encourage much more of that kind of robust discussion to take place and to demonstrate to Pakistan that it's in its own interests that this be dealt with.

Any civilian casualties in Afghanistan are clearly exploited by the Taliban. Yet your report mentions that independent figures shows that anti-government forces killed more than four times more civilians in the first three months of 2008 than international forces.

Do you think this twisted picture is emerging not just because of Taliban propaganda, but also because international forces are not getting their message across clearly?

I think... I mean, this is a big issue. I think, again, it's a substantive issue and not just a communication issue, that the communications is critical important at amplifying the message. And often not enough, I suspect, and not having a firsthand insight into it, the way the communications messages operate that there is a disconnect between the two.

The Taliban has demonstrated very clearly that in fact there isn't a disconnect and they're very quick to respond to these incidents, whereas, I think, much more of a slow response from the international community.

And there needs to be a fundamental understanding. NATO is putting a lot of effort into the communications side of things. It does understand that much more needs to be done, and there must be a much greater focus on the Afghan side of the equation, working with the Afghans and strengthening Afghan capacity. So NATO should be focusing not just on the international side of the equation and strengthening its operations, but ensuring that domestically a lot of these issues can be dealt with and responded to.

Would it be fair to say that the average Afghan in the street is not aware of this imbalance?

Yeah, I suspect that is an issue. And I suspect a lot of that comes down to, as I said, Afghan media capacity. And there was an interesting anecdote that we had in during the course of this research that a lot of international journalists for Reuters and so on are accredited to RC-South, the base in Kandahar. Afghan journalists aren't.

Now how do you get across your message if the Afghans can't speak to the international forces so that you can be telling them what is going on and about Afghan deaths resulting from Taliban operations.

There is a tendency, particularly among internationals to talk to internationals and this gets back to the issue that we've talked about, about needing to train up Afghans, needing more resources to media operations in Afghanistan, which means dealing with journalists who perhaps don't work like journalists that we are used to working with and perhaps have not got the sophisticated understanding of the communication message that we might like, but they are the people who are speaking to the Afghan people and we need to be much more effective at communicating to them.

Your report highlights that tiring out the West and highlighting corruption in Afghanistan are two of the main areas that the Taliban likes to focus on in its propaganda. Which of these two do you feel are more important?

Well, within Afghanistan it's the corruption and the grievances. You have to understand that for the Afghan government to establish its legitimacy it has to persuade the people that it's a credible government that has their best interests at heart, and when there's deep corruption and when there's a cycle of patronage that we see, it resonates very badly with the Afghan people. They have a history. I mean, they have had the last 30 years there's a history of... a paradigm of power holders, abusive power holders abusing the people. And part of the reason that the Taliban was so successful in its early days back in the nineties was that it was perceived as addressing the corruption and a lot of the patronage that took place. And you have many of the similar drivers happening now.

And so there needs to be an understanding about addressing the substance of these issues and it's very, very challenging.

How well are the Jihadi messages selling in Afghanistan? For example, the Taliban claim that either to kill foreign forces, or to be killed fighting them means paradise, but this is obviously a cult of martyrdom that hasn't existed in Afghanistan before, so how well is that message going down there.

From our analysis these are new messages that are being disseminated perhaps by Jihadis who have been active elsewhere. Iraq is the obvious example, but also other conflicts. And that's a very disturbing trend.

It also is something that is exacerbated by the activity of the madrassas in the tribal areas that are propagating extremist messages and this is one of the issues that we think much more effort needs to be focus on countering those messages and countering the substantive issue of the madrassas and the insurgents based in Pakistan.

Finally, what recommendations would you make to treat contributing nations and also for NATO as an international organization in Afghanistan?

I think the primary message we would give is understand the important role of the Afghan media. As I said, it's very easy for the internationals to focus on the international message, which is very important. But not enough attention... we can do the international side of things better and we have the capability. Not enough attention has been paid to the Afghan side of the equation, developing Afghan talent.

In the end, if you're going to be reaching out to Afghan hearts and minds it's going to be through the vehicle of the Afghan media, and we need to focus a lot more effect on ensuring that our messages are going through that media much more effectively.

KING: Nick Grono, thanks very much.

GRONO: Thank you.

Read more: Afghanistan
Share this    DiggIt   MySpace   Facebook   Delicious   Permalink