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U.S. struggles to counter Taliban propaganda

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."

The Taliban applauded the withdrawal of Dutch troops this summer and suggested that Germany, Canada and Australia - three important coalition allies in countries where the war is unpopular - follow suit.

"It [is] rational that the U.S. forces be left in Afghanistan alone to stew in their own juice and suffer the dire and dangerous consequences of their violation and invasion of another country," the group's statement said.

In press releases and articles appearing on its Web site, the Taliban has sought to reinforce the notion that the Afghan government is subservient to Washington, commonly calling Afghan troops and other government employees "puppets."

"Broadly speaking, Karzai, under the foreign domination, is heading a puppet multidimensional administration whose members are morally, politically and financially corrupt," said a Taliban statement released in response to a Washington Post report in August that several Karzai aides were on the CIA payroll.

The Taliban continues to rely heavily on decentralized, conventional propaganda efforts, which U.S. military officials say is the crucial battleground. These include the distribution of leaflets with threats or pleas, sermons in mosques and clandestine radio stations.

"They've co-opted the religious narrative for the last several years," Rear Adm. Greg Smith, NATO's communications chief in Afghanistan, said in an interview. "They've used that narrative locally very effectively."

Foreign troops, meanwhile, are ill-equipped to offer counterarguments in mosques and other gatherings, forcing them to rely on Afghan officials to do so, Smith said.

So far, that effort has been slow in the Taliban's southern strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces, even as Taliban influence has spread in the east and the north, Afghans say.

U.S. officials say the Taliban has built relationships with Afghan journalists that help the group shape the storyline. The Taliban's propaganda operation is headquartered in Pakistan, where the Taliban has sanctuaries in ungoverned areas near the Afghan border, Smith said.

"They are not fighting a war that involves military victories," Smith said. "Everything they do is to create a perception that the government can't win."

Zwak, the analyst, said he has been struck by a change in the "psychology of Afghan people" as he traveled around the country in recent months.

"People in provinces and tribal areas mostly accept this narrative, that [the Americans] are leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban is coming back," he said.

He said recent public sparring between Karzai and U.S officials and President Obama's announcement that the United States will begin drawing down forces in July 2011 has bolstered the Taliban's standing in contested parts of the country.

"The propaganda war is already won by the Taliban," he said, because "the Afghan government and America are too busy doing propaganda against each other."

Smith, the NATO communications chief, said commanders recognize the importance of projecting a unified front.

The latest row between Karzai and U.S. officials was over the detention of two al-Jazeera cameramen for allegedly distributing Taliban propaganda.

"Coalition and Afghan forces have a responsibility to interdict the activities of these insurgent propaganda networks," a NATO statement justifying the arrests said.

Over the weekend, Karzai criticized the move and demanded the release of the journalists, whose employer is one of the most popular news sources in the Islamic world. The network has denied they were distributing Taliban propaganda.

The men were released Friday, although a NATO spokesman insisted Sunday that U.S. intelligence "indicated a level of complicity" in the journalists' dealing with insurgents.

The Taliban was quick to weigh in.

"The occupying American troops . . . on the one hand claim and call for the freedom and respect of journalism," the group said in a statement. "Then on the other hand they shut the mouths of free independent news agencies."

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