Jan 21, 2010
Taliban trying to woo, not kill, the locals
Taliban Overhaul Their Image In Bid To Win Allies
By Alissa J. Rubin
New York Times
January 21, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban have embarked on a sophisticated information war, using modern media tools as well as some old-fashioned ones, to soften their image and win favor with local Afghans as they try to counter the Americans’ new campaign to win Afghan hearts and minds.
The Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, issued a lengthy directive late last spring outlining a new code of conduct for the Taliban. The dictates include bans on suicide bombings against civilians, burning down schools, or cutting off ears, lips and tongues.
The code, which has been spottily enforced, does not necessarily mean a gentler insurgency. Although the Taliban warned some civilians away before the assault on the heart of Kabul on Monday, they were still responsible for three-quarters of civilian casualties last year, according to the United Nations.
Now, as the Taliban deepen their presence in more of Afghanistan, they are in greater need of popular support and are recasting themselves increasingly as a local liberation movement, independent of Al Qaeda, capitalizing on the mounting frustration of Afghans with their own government and the presence of foreign troops. The effect has been to make them a more potent insurgency, some NATO officials said.
Afghan villagers and some NATO officials added that the code had begun to change the way some midlevel Taliban commanders and their followers behaved on the ground. A couple of the most brutal commanders have even been removed by Mullah Omar.
The Taliban’s public relations operation is also increasingly efficient at putting out its message and often works faster than NATO’s. “The Afghan adaptation to counterinsurgency makes them much more dangerous,” said a senior NATO intelligence official here. “Their overarching goals probably haven’t changed much since 2001, but when we arrived with a new counterinsurgency strategy, they responded with one of their own.”
The American strategy includes limiting airstrikes that killed Afghan civilians and concentrating troops closer to population centers so that Afghans will feel protected from the Taliban.
American and Afghan analysts see the Taliban’s effort as part of a broad initiative that employs every tool they can muster, including the Internet technology they once denounced as un-Islamic. Now they use word of mouth, messages to cellphones and Internet videos to get their message out.
The Taliban can shape the narrative about attacks sometimes before NATO public affairs even puts out a statement. Unlike the NATO press machine, the Taliban are willing to give details, and while some are patently exaggerated or wrong, others have just enough elements of truth that they cannot be entirely ignored.
The new public relations campaign combined with relatively less cruel behavior may have stemmed some of the anger at the insurgency, which tribal leaders in the south said had begun to rally people against the Taliban.
But the most important factor in their growing reach is the ineffectiveness of the central government and Afghans’ resentment of foreign troops. Military intelligence analysts now estimate that there are 25,000 to 30,000 committed Taliban fighters and perhaps as many as 500,000 others who would fight either for pay or if they felt attacked by the Western coalition.
Admiral Smith and others say that according to a recent Defense Intelligence Agency survey, the Taliban’s new strategy has failed to win over Afghans and that even though the insurgency may be carrying out fewer mutilations and beheadings, it still relies on intimidation through night letters, threatening conversations and even assassinations.
Interviews with tribal elders in areas where the Taliban are active suggest a complex picture. Several interviewed in rural Kandahar Province praised the Taliban’s new, less threatening approach, but said that did not translate into enthusiasm for the Taliban movement. At the same time, there is not much liking for either the Afghan government or NATO troops.
“There is a tremendous change in the Taliban’s behavior,” said Haji-Khan Muhammad Khan, a tribal elder from Shawalikot, a rural district of Kandahar Province. “They don’t behead people or detain those they suspect of spying without an investigation. But sometimes they still make mistakes, people still fear them, but now generally they behave well with people. They had to change because the leadership of the Taliban did not want to lose the support of the grass roots.”
The latest refrain of Taliban commanders, their Internet magazine and from surrogates is that the insurgency represents Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, who are portrayed as persecuted by the Afghan government. “Pashtuns are suffering everywhere; if you go and check the prisons, you won’t find any prisoners except Pashtuns; when you hear about bombings, it is Pashtuns’ homes that have been bombed,” said a Taliban commander from Kandahar Province who goes by the name Sangar Yar.
At the moment, the dueling propaganda wars seem to have reached a stalemate.
“People have no choices; they are in a dilemma,” said Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder and businessman in Kandahar. “In places where the Taliban are active, the people are compelled to support them, they are afraid of the Taliban. And, in those places where government has a presence, the people are supporting the government,” he said.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.