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The Taliban’s propaganda activities: how well is the Afghan insurgency communicating and what is it saying?

July 1, 2007

Taliban propaganda activities, June 2007

By Tim Foxley
June 2007

Summary

International analysts and media alike often claim that current Taliban propaganda efforts are winning over the population in Afghanistan and that this is tipping the balance in favour of the insurgency. Such claims are exaggerated; but because of a perceived failure to provide effective security and reconstruction, the Afghan Government and international military forces have lost much of the ‘hearts and minds’ initiative that they held in 2002 following the defeat of the Taliban. The Taliban’s own hearts and minds activities are now prolonging and exacerbating an already difficult insurgency problem for the Afghan Government and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the south of the country.

From faltering beginnings, Taliban communications have developed to embrace modern technology such as the Internet, partly by observing other insurgencies. However, their methods
remain crude, home-grown and only partially effective. Their messages are simple, often underpinned by threats and violence, and appear to be most effective when directed to the Pashtun tribal audience on both sides of the Afghan–Pakistani border. Often they are not so much securing hearts and minds as negotiating short-term tribal allegiances. However, the net result—resistance to the Afghan Government and ISAF—remains the same.

Taliban efforts to communicate do not display much evidence of coordination, and they are seemingly uninterested in wider strategic issues that could assist their cause. There are also indications of confusion in Taliban messages, which suggest differences of opinion on strategic and moral issues such as suicide bombings, civilian casualties and attacking schools. In these respects, they have the potential to perform a lot better and this should be a concern for the Afghan Government and the international community.  In terms of effectiveness, there is still no evidence of a large-scale shift in the mood of the Afghan population towards the Taliban as a result of their efforts to influence them. The antipathy of most Afghan ethnic groups towards the predominantly Pashtun Taliban movement means that significant Taliban progress in the northern half of the country remains unlikely.

Despite unhappiness over slow progress in the provision of security and development, the general feeling of the population remains at least tolerant of the current Afghan regime and the
ISAF military presence. No significant shift in popular attitude is likely in 2007–2008 unless the Taliban are able to demonstrate an increasing (and much more substantial) presence in the south of the country.  Although it is only through credible progress in governance, the economy and security that the Afghan Government, supported by ISAF and the international community, can effectively tackle the insurgency, the Taliban are also vulnerable to a hearts and minds campaign against them. With a strong belief in Sharia-based Islamic governance and that ‘Allah will provide’, they display only limited interest in how they might govern the country, deal with other ethnic groups or provide reconstruction and jobs. The population do not favour the return of a Taliban regime and the Taliban are not achieving a repeat of the anti-Soviet-style countrywide uprising that they are promoting. The Afghan Government could be doing a lot more to undermine the insurgency—in particular the recruiting base of young, poor, mainly Pashtun men in southern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan—with a media campaign that challenges and exploits the often confused and uncoordinated Taliban communiqués. An integrated media campaign with a strong Afghan ‘face’, which also engages the population on the Pakistan side of the border, is needed in order to educate and promote wider popular discussion; to challenge the Taliban to explain their actions and intent; and to more actively question the Taliban’s legitimacy, their interpretation of Islam, what constitutes a jihad and the morality of killing civilians.

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