U.S. struggles to counter Taliban propaganda

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 10:39 PM

KABUL - The Taliban in recent months has developed increasingly sophisticated and nimble propaganda tactics that have alarmed U.S. officials struggling to curb the militant group's growing influence across Afghanistan.

U.S. officials and Afghan analysts say the Taliban has become adept at portraying the West as being on the brink of defeat, at exploiting rifts between Washington and Kabul and at disparaging the administration of President Hamid Karzai as a "puppet" state with little reach outside the capital. The group is also attempting to assure Afghans that it has a strategy for governing the country again, presenting a platform of stamping out corruption and even protecting women's rights.

As the radical Islamist movement steps up conventional grass-roots propaganda efforts and polishes its online presence - going so as far as to provide Facebook and Twitter icons online that allow readers to disseminate press releases - the U.S.-led coalition finds itself on the defensive in the media war.

"It's been getting better," a U.S. intelligence official in Kabul said of the Taliban's media strategy. "It's become increasingly complex. It's definitively something we worry about."

NATO has stepped up efforts to counter the Taliban's multimillion-dollar, Pakistan-based propaganda effort by translating some of its press releases into Dari and Pashto and by condemning the group for its frequent attacks that kill and maim Afghan civilians.

In his guidance to troops issued on Aug. 1, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander here, urged his troops to "fight the information war aggressively."

Last month, Taliban leader Mohammad Omar issued a statement that heralded the imminent defeat of NATO forces in Afghanistan and outlined how the Taliban would govern when it returned to power. The bluster was not unusual; the insistence that the Taliban has a specific plan for leading the country again was.

"These days their propaganda has changed," said Afghan political analyst Jelani Zwak, who has studied Taliban propaganda for years. "They are not only talking about the occupation and civilian casualties. They are acting like an alternative to this government."

In a clear reference to Karzai's administration, which many Afghans view as corruption-ridden, Omar vowed that the Taliban would "bring about administrative transparency in all government departments."

Omar also promised the new regime would respect the rights of "all people in the country, including women," an apparent effort to dispel the widely held belief that the return of the Taliban would be dismal for women's rights.

The U.S. intelligence official, who agreed to be quoted on the condition of anonymity, said he believes the reference to women's rights was an attempt to mitigate the bad publicity from a recent Time magazine cover story containing a haunting photo and an article featuring a woman whose face was reportedly mauled by Taliban members.

"That really stuck it to them," he said. "Now they're softening their tone regarding women."

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