The Taliban’s use of fear, Mar 2010
By Tim Foxley
The Taliban’s use of fear: countering adversary use of fear appeal
Since the first appearance of the Taliban in the early 1990s, the movement has made extensive use of fear as a means of eliciting compliance with its extreme interpretation of Islam.
With its re-emergence following defeat in late 2001, the movement continues to make use of fear—communicated through a range of media and direct actions—in efforts to extend influence and undermine opponents. Fear appeal is not the only method of persuasion used by the Taliban and it is not only the Taliban who are using fear as a means of persuasion in Afghanistan.
Measurable data on Taliban use of fear appeal is limited, non-existent or anecdotal. It is therefore difficult to analyse Taliban fear appeal but assessment of Taliban fear appeal effectiveness is essential before countermeasures can be developed. Some aspects of Taliban fear appeal use may be ineffective or counter-productive for the movement and might therefore be ignored (or encouraged).
The Taliban do not apply fear appeal in a coherent or consistent fashion. Their methods—and the messages they to wish to send—can contradict and confuse. But two key target groups are the Afghan population and the international community. They appear most comfortable (and probably effective) when operating in local rural communities (face to face and night letters) and weaker when trying to promote strategic and political messages (TV, radio, internet).
Examples of successful Taliban use of fear appeal include: intimidation to prevent use of schools; terror and guerilla attacks that undermine the resolve of the international community; messages of jihad and nationalism that play on fears of foreigners that aid recruitment and resistance; highlighting and distorting civilian casualties to curtailing ISAF operations (air strikes, use of artillery, house to house searches, etc).
The Taliban appear to increasingly recognise that use of violence and fear as a tool to influence can be counter-productive in certain situations and may have only short term value. There have been instances of anti-Taliban violence and protest from the population. Paying increasing to international opinion, the Taliban are making efforts to regulate the behaviour of their fighters (codes of conduct and attempts to avoid civilian casualties) and publicise these efforts.
Counter strategies will be dependent on which aspects of Taliban fear appeal are assessed to be of concern. Measures must fit strategic goals and developments on the ground (e.g. ISAF military operations, talks with the Taliban…).
“Quick wins” may not be easy to find or particularly effective. Preparing counter messages should ideally be done in conjunction with Afghans, Pakistanis: tribal and religious leaders, elders, village community representatives, former Taliban and Afghan government representatives.
Local counter-strategies: The Taliban are unpopular, but they prey on Afghan fears of abandonment and uncertainty. At the local level, Taliban use of fear could be minimised simply by “being there”: an ISAF presence that quickly transitions into non-corrupt permanent Afghan government and security presence; opening bazaars; return of local government.
Strategic counter-strategies require a proactive countering of Taliban messages, exposing the absence of Taliban political and developmental thinking for Afghanistan and targeting of key Taliban fears: loss of support, divisions, Taliban actions as un-Islamic, suicide attacks, civilian casualties…