I apologise for bluntly jumping straight to the point of this article, but I want to ask what is being done to take the ‘media' battle to the Taliban?
By this, I mean proactive campaigns that confront and expose the Taliban's statements, their vulnerabilities and their contradictions - and not just the stream of ‘good news' stories broadcast to the Afghans and the international community.
I believe there is too little time, effort and analytical resource directed at understanding what the Taliban are saying, how they are saying it and why they might be saying it. And too few reports of the calibre of the one by the International Crisis Group, which looked into Taliban propaganda. As a result there is little understanding or even any apparent interest in looking at measures that might counter Taliban media activities.
While NATO is investing effort in strategic communications, spreading ‘good news stories' and information across Afghanistan is only one part of the media battle front. My contention is that the Taliban are actually quite vulnerable in this arena and a proactive effort against them could prove fruitful.
Communicating is not a question so much of sophistication but effectiveness
In the physical, or ‘kinetic' battle against the Taliban, analysts like to point out that it is not that the Taliban are strong, but that they usually the only ones actually occupying the ground at the district level. I suggest that this view holds true when thinking about the media arena.
The Taliban are good, or ‘effective', at the local level, when they are communicating in simplistic ways to their Pashtun community - on both sides of the border. Here, it is the commonly held tribal values and language which gives them a great advantage over what I feel is a fairly ‘clunky' Western approach. The Taliban are good at reflecting local concerns - whether it is fear of poppy eradication and loss of livelihood, violation of honour by infidels or collateral damage to people and property.
While the Taliban's media activities are not particularly sophisticated (I feel NATO/ISAF has tended to use Taliban media ‘sophistication' as an excuse for their own ineffectiveness), in many ways we need to be careful about this part of the debate. Firstly, because it is not a question so much of sophistication - but effectiveness. And there doesn't seem to be much evidence of analysis of Taliban media effectiveness. Secondly, for the main audiences to whom the Taliban are communicating, they really do not have to be that sophisticated.
Who is winning the media battle: NATO or the Taliban?
In the media arena, NATO should have the advantage - it has the money, resources, brainpower. But it is handicapped because:
- Its deliberations, dilemmas and concerns are very painfully public
- A lot of its media effort seems to be spent just keeping its own team ‘on message'
- It has a wider, more sophisticated, demanding and sceptical audience in its domestic capitals
On top of these difficulties, the international media frequently and unintentionally make propaganda ‘gifts' to the Taliban. For example, the persistent use of the term ‘Spring Offensive' has gone so long unchallenged that the Taliban now use the term themselves. And if you ask a Taliban spokesman ‘did you launch an attack on Bagram airbase because you knew the US Secretary of State for Defence was there?' the answer is hardly going to be ‘No'.
Continue reading the full article in NATO Review.
Tim Foxley studies Afghanistan for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.