Short Circuiting Taliban Media
The Taliban’s aim is to deny all information except its own propaganda.
During Taliban rule in the 1990s, they seized the federal television broadcasting home office, stopped all programming, and issued a nationwide blackout of film, TV, and (eventually) Internet. State radio sent out only Taliban religious messages, and the few printing facilities were a means of publishing more propaganda. The Taliban attempted to monopolise the information environment, and continue to do so today.
Competing for radio
Today, the Taliban has earnestly attempted to compete with a fledgling but complex and growing media non-extremist infrastructure. A recent USAID-sponsored survey counted 75 active TV stations and 175 active radio stations in addition to a few hundred print media with limited distribution. These media platforms—targeting Afghans—are 60% profit driven, 19% from the military, 13% from neighboring nations, and 8% self funded. Although Kabul is nearing TV and radio saturation with 30 television channels and 42 radio stations, smaller rural capitals and towns without electricity have little more than access to AM and shortwave radio.
Currently, radios are a dominant media format in most regions. Radios are easily accessible, are easy to power, and were a legacy of the Taliban-era when contraband radio was all but the only means for locals to obtain news aside from Taliban propaganda. Although only around 42% of the population has some access to electricity, “Radio in a Box” distribution programs allow around 86% of Afghan household to own at least one radio and 88% to listen to radio broadcasts each month in 2009 with rates increasing each year since.
Competing for Cell Coverage
Another insurgency method is through denial of cell phone coverage to remind civilians that the Taliban hold influence in general; disrupt U.S. forces from receiving calls from informants on Taliban locations, activities, and plans; to simply affect the Afghan government, NATO, ISAF, and businesses; and to sell the appearance of being a viable player for that future date when NATO combat forces leave Afghanistan.
These shut downs, according to press reports, may affect upwards of millions of Afghans countrywide. The Taliban have destroyed cell towers and directly threatened major cell phone company leaders such as those of Etisalat (one of four major Afghan cell corporations) to force shut downs. For example, in Helmand’s capital Lashkargah the Taliban force cell towers to shut down from 8pm to 8am daily. In Wardak, cell signal goes dead 13 hours a day. In Zabul’s capital Qalat there is cell coverage five hours per day while the rest of the province receives no coverage whatsoever. Other provinces suffer from 20-hour shut downs. Reportedly only a few NATO military bases have yet to build cell towers out of the reach of Taliban attack and intimidation.
All the while, the Taliban send out mass text messages to recruit, inspire, and threaten. The Taliban even have distributed its own ring tone—ironic since a previously Taliban-dominated Afghanistan forbade music.
Dominating the Internet
As an insurgency today, the Taliban focuses much on the one area where there is little non-extremist competition.
They focus their effort on websites and social media to blast their narratives out to the widest possible Afghan audience. Without absolute rule, the Taliban liberalised rescinding its ban on depicting images of human beings (considered fallacy by Taliban’s bastardised-Deobandi ideologues) to help reach any and every Internet user in the cities with the hope that word-of-mouth spread messages to the provinces.
The Taliban released 86 online statements or videos from February 2010 through October 2011 for an Afghan audience. The Taliban’s focus on the Internet indicates they they consider the Internet to be a viable forum to reach, at least in part, Afghan audiences to earn some level of popular support or recruitment.
While non-Taliban online ventures are relatively few—possibly due to struggles to attain self-sustainability, limited technical training, illiteracy, and thus far rare use of marketable vernacular language in mainstream written literature—the Taliban saturate the Internet with messages in multiple languages to include Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Urdu, Baloch, and English.
The bottom line is the Taliban dominates online forums when it comes to anything on violent extremism. Therefore, it behoves Afghans and Afghan partners to focus on competing with and undercutting the ability of the Taliban to affect any Afghan audience online. Certain online forums can be a source for community discussions, radio DJs, community leaders, and political leaders in Afghanistan to further expand Internet messages.
It is never too late.
The Importance of Media in Afghanistan
What is the importance of media in a word-of-mouth and sometimes conspiracy-theory-driven society? According to some studies, Afghan citizens do at least consider and even muse over media content—even messages from known political and military sources. Although media participation is low with approximately 85% of listeners never calling into radio stations, 90% of Afghans with access reportedly discuss information from media broadcasts with those in their own communities—suggesting an echo effect between those with regular media access and the rest of society. Media therefore holds some importance and perhaps some ability to sway opinions in Afghanistan, and allowing the Taliban to dominate an important media platform is a grave error.
Moving Past Stability Operations into Countering Radicalisation
It is high time we moved past stability operations in Afghanistan and considered the tactics of a concerted counter-radicalisation campaign. Such a campaign should encompass empowering Afghans to be able to compete with Taliban messaging on every platform—to encourage Afghans to help prevent the young from joining insurrection’s ranks, to force the Taliban more onto the rhetorical defensive, and to perhaps help the non-ideological reintegrate.
Although some of Taliban’s online messaging may be focused internationally for fundraising and regional relevance, some Internet narratives clearly target Afghans, and the Taliban’s online dominance needs to at least be thrown into question.