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.
‘Getting the truth out’
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.