by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.The news media heralds the terror organisation “Islamic State” (ISIS) as the pioneer of jihadi propaganda, noting how the terrorist organization has been minting coins and printing magazines in an effort to market itself as a worldwide caliphate. Newspapers of record from The New York Times to The Washington Post have discussed the alarming breadth and depth of its online presence, which continues to grow even as ISIS’s territory in Iraq, Syria, and the rest of the Muslim world shrinks by the day.
Few analysts have considered that the Taliban, whose insurgency in Afghanistan predates ISIS by almost two decades, might have inspired the caliphate’s ambitious but artless attempt at public relations. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name by which the Taliban refers to itself and of the Islamic state that it once ruled) has produced high- and low-tech propaganda since the mid-1990s. With the Afghan government’s recent setbacks on the battlefield, perhaps the news media should start paying more attention to the Taliban’s years-long mastery of impression and reputation management.
High-Tech Propaganda for the World
Because of the Taliban’s ban on photography and videography during the insurgents’ heyday between 1994 and 2001, critics have portrayed them as conservative, rural mullahs opposed to modernity in general and technology in particular. Cultural psychologist Neil K. Aggarwal documents in “The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community” that the insurgents have, in fact, always been willing to use the Internet.
The Taliban started its first website in 1998, and the insurgents’ leader had one of Afghanistan’s only two working Internet connections in his Kandahar office despite outlawing TVs and VCRs in the rest of the country. The Cultural Commission, the Taliban government agency responsible for public relations, micromanaged all propaganda. Only spokesmen appointed by the insurgents could contact the news media, allowing them to talk with one voice. Commanders who spoke to journalists of their own accord might face punishment. Online fundraisers, meanwhile, requested support for jihad.
The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan forced the Taliban to transition from a sovereign state to an insurgency. Nevertheless, a skeleton crew from the Cultural Commission remained to govern media intelligence and manipulation — likely from hideouts in Pakistan. It exists today, producing online magazines in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto, and Urdu criticizing the excesses of the Americans and extolling the virtues of the mujahideen, meant to appeal to all the Muslim world.
Though the Taliban frames itself as an Afghan-led, local resistance movement when convenient, its propaganda quotes Arab theologians and references conquerors from Islamic history, encouraging African and Asian Muslims to join the Taliban and Western Muslims to attack their Christian homelands. Some of the most popular Taliban videos depict American POW Bowe Bergdahl.
Low-Tech Propaganda for Afghanistan
The Taliban’s Internet emirate has limited utility inside Afghanistan, with literacy at 31 percent. To engage Afghans who might lack the ability to read or write, the insurgents rely on a low-tech campaign of crowd manipulation, disinformation, intimidation, and political warfare.
From mosques in villages across the east and south of Afghanistan, Taliban preachers explain the importance of jihad against the Americans and their Afghan allies, “occupiers” and “puppets” waging a crusade against Islam. Supporters distribute cassettes and DVDs containing pro-Taliban lectures and songs even though the Taliban forbade listening to music during its brief rule. For regions against or outside Taliban control, the insurgents deliver night letters, unsigned pamphlets replete with directives and threats, to clinics, mosques, and schools in town centers.
According to the International Crisis Group, the Taliban provides Afghans in remote communities information from the battlefield through phone calls. On a wider level, the insurgents have intervened in disputes between Afghan tribes and updated the Afghan diaspora in Pakistan with printouts of their magazines, strengthening their legitimacy as a national resistance movement.
Given the U.S.-led coalition’s mishaps in its attempts at counter-propaganda, such as a British war plane crushing an Afghan girl when it dropped anti-Taliban leaflets on her by accident, the Western world may need to reconsider its own campaign to win hearts and minds.
A State Founded on Propaganda
Tim Foxley, a former analyst for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, observed as early as June 2007 in a project paper called “The Taliban’s propaganda activities: how well is the Afghan insurgency communicating and what is it saying?” that the Taliban has been outperforming the West in public relations for years. The rapid fall in the number of Afghanistan-based U.S. soldiers from a height of 140 thousand in 2010 to 8.4 thousand (of those only about 2’000 participate in a counter-terrorism mission — the rest are involved in training and advising Afghan troops), however, has seen the Taliban seize at least one fifth of the country, more than the insurgents have controlled since their emirate’s collapse in 2001.
Though newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and think tanks such as the Middle East Media Research Institute began reporting on the Taliban’s latest inroads on social media, they have missed how the insurgents’ perception management coincides with their recent territorial advances: the Taliban is laying the groundwork for the re-establishment of its Islamic state through its propaganda, and control of the Afghan countryside has given it greater opportunities to do so.
In 2015, the Taliban seized Kunduz, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities. The insurgents retreated when the Afghan government received heavy air and fire support from the U.S., yet they announced that they had instead undertaken a withdrawal to avoid civilian casualties. In 2016, the Taliban overran much of Helmand, a province where farmers have long objected to the Afghan government’s efforts to police them and stop them from growing opium. There, the insurgents brand themselves as defenders of the farmers’ livelihoods while reaping the profits of the illegal drug trade.
In 2016, the Taliban has turned to Telegram and WhatsApp, Internet messaging platforms with end-to-end encryption. The insurgents have used these apps not to plot attacks or recruit foreigners as ISIS might but to deliver open letters to foreign governments, provide news to tech-savvy supporters, and request donations for orphans and widows rather than for the mujahideen (as in the past).
Like ISIS, the Taliban wants to be a state. Unlike ISIS, the Taliban has already been one, its campaign of public relations meant to ready the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s return. The news media, then, should start to consider what the insurgents’ advances on the ground and online mean for the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Western intervention there. If the U.S.-led coalition wants to defeat the Taliban, it must crush the emirate that the insurgents’ propaganda seeks to establish.