FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHARANA, Afghanistan — In this rugged province where news travels almost exclusively by radio, the man who calls himself DJ Abed Lawang is one of the biggest names on the airwaves, known for playing hit Pashto ballads, telling jokes and hosting a popular call-in show about farming practices.
But there’s one key fact the disc jockey has never told his listeners: He is broadcasting from a studio on a U.S. Army base, delivering messages written by American military officers.
He is one of more than 20 radio DJs in Paktika province, and dozens more across the country, who are engaged in what the U.S. military considers a crucial operation: persuading residents in an area dominated by insurgents to embrace Afghan and NATO forces.
In practice, that means he has to pause between Pakistani love songs and passages from the Koran to read about the heroism of Afghan and American armies, as well as the destruction wreaked by insurgents. The commentary is not always well received; he uses the pseudonym to protect himself, but he told a reporter that he would not mind if his real name, Noor Jan Mangal, were published.
In recent months, as the war has raged in Paktika, Mangal has been instructed to redouble his efforts, narrating the conflict from the U.S. Army’s perspective.
“Afghan and [NATO] personnel take every step to prevent civilians from being hurt while conducting operations,” he said on a recent broadcast, reading a note written by a U.S. officer here and translated into Pashto.
“Insurgents have no true cause. They pick and choose to enforce only that which benefits them,” he read in another message.
As American forces prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the war against insurgents is as much about information as it is about fighting ability. It’s a contest that U.S. and Afghan government forces have often lost — unable to compete with insurgents who live and pray among residents. But American forces have recently discovered a new hope in an old medium.
In a region with one of the lowest literacy rates in the world, where the vast majority of families are unable to afford a television set, 92 percent of Paktika residents listen to the radio every day, according to a U.S. military survey. Officials have crafted their communications strategy around that statistic, investing heavily in new radio stations, dubbed Radios in a Box. There are now about 100 such stations across the country.
The radio campaign has been a boon to the U.S. war effort, enabling the Army to advance its own narrative after successful operations or destructive Taliban attacks. In recent weeks, when insurgents in Paktika attempted to attack a convoy of local politicians, or when Taliban members forced a telecom company to shut down local cellphone towers, Mangal was swiftly handed messages to read on the air.
Before insurgents were able to describe their actions as valiant attempts to vanquish foreign infidels, Mangal put a different spin on the news, explaining — in the words of U.S. officers — the senselessness of the attacks.
When American or Afghan soldiers engage in firefights or air assaults, Mangal is the one responsible for justifying the operations to local residents, a particularly important — and delicate — responsibility when civilians are caught in the crossfire.
“Read this three times per day,” a young lieutenant usually instructs him after delivering handwritten notes.
The U.S. military has distributed 500,000 hand-crank and solar-powered radios across eastern Afghanistan to better the odds that residents will tune into Mangal’s broadcast and other American stations in the region, even if listeners suspect the program’s foreign backer.
Mangal has about 50,000 listeners.
“We hear the station’s messages about the Afghan government and ISAF achievements. It is sometimes good information, but many people here assume [Light FM] is run by Americans. It doesn’t seem independent,” said Ali Mohammad Nazari, 20, a Sharana resident.
Overall, the United States has spent several million dollars on the program, which was launched in 2005 but took hold in many provinces only within the past year. Each station costs about $15,000 to establish and about $12,000 a year in operating expenses.
“This has been by far the most effective way to get our message across,” said Capt. Kurt McDowell, who leads the program in Paktika. “For us, the key is getting the truth out, and getting it out quickly.”
Insurgents have for years taken their fight to the airwaves, transmitting messages about violent jihad and the evils of foreigners using portable transmitters on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The United States has attempted to scramble those signals, temporarily paralyzing the Taliban’s communications strategy.
But those efforts did little to dispel rumors propagated by insurgents. So last year, Gen. David H. Petraeus, then the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, issued guidelines for an aggressive “information war.”
“Challenge disinformation,” Petraeus instructed. “Turn our enemies’ extremist ideologies, oppressive practices, and indiscriminate violence against them. Hang their barbaric actions like millstones around their necks.”
A year later, the U.S. radio program has taken root in several of the country’s far-flung provinces, with DJs including Mangal recruited from private Afghan stations to lead the new information crusade.
U.S. officials monitor Mangal’s broadcasts — along with other U.S.-funded stations — to ensure that he doesn’t bend to pressure from the Taliban or other critics. In recent weeks, they identified, and dismissed, another DJ on the American payroll who officials now suspect has ties to the insurgency.
Mangal, a former stage actor, is a suave 23-year-old with long, gelled hair and a bushy goatee. His studio is decorated with images of Pakistani pop stars and photos of himself interviewing top provincial politicians. Cassette tapes litter the floor.
For the past three years, he has made about $500 per month at Light FM (106.3), fielding a steady stream of phone calls from listeners in the mud huts and rough-hewn houses that pepper Paktika’s mountains and valleys. For the most part, Mangal is comfortable with his fame, basking in the attention of callers and the importance of his mission.
But he is starting to worry. Some residents have argued to Mangal that broadcasting music is un-Islamic. Others have threatened to kill him for taking phone calls from women. And he suspects that a number of his listeners have figured out his connection to the U.S. forces based on the content of the broadcasts.
Given his recognizably pro-American voice, it’s only a matter of time before someone hears him talking in a local bazaar or mosque and makes good on a death threat, he says. He rarely leaves the base these days.
“Most people really like the show. They rely on me for information. They trust me. But then there are some who don’t like the message,” he said.