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U.S. Radio Brings Afghans Out of the Dark

The U.S. certainly grabbed the attention of many Afghans here recently when planes dropped thousands of leaflets that — inadvertently or by design — looked a lot like money.

They carried no monetary value, but offered instead what could be valuable information. "Reports – News Radio," the leaflets proclaimed, in addition to offering time and frequency specifics for the broadcasts.

The service, offered 10 hours a day over three AM and short-wave bands, represents the latest effort by the United States to tell the people of Afghanistan what is happening in their country, and why. It is also an effort that will escalate in the weeks and months to come, officials in Washington said this week.

And that's a good idea, according to a wide range of Afghans interviewed on Friday.

"There is very little information, but I am lucky and have a radio," said Zafar Khon, who fled his home in Taliban-controlled territory and arrived at this unofficial refugee camp 14 days ago. "I listen to the BBC, to Voice of America, whatever I can find."

Khon demonstrated a fairly adept understanding of current events in Afghanistan. He had heard about the Sept. 11 attacks, knew the U.S. believed Usama bin Laden was behind them, and understood the Taliban's refusal to turn him over is what brought American bombers to Afghanistan.

Khon's response was fairly typical of most anti-Taliban Afghans who have radios. But many Afghans interviewed said they didn’t listen to any kind of news, alternately citing the lack of time, money or inclination.

Fox News talked with a group of 28 men and boys gathered in the camp on Friday morning, and found just three who owned radios. Two of the men listened to Western news services like the BBC or VOA, while the third preferred an Iranian station that included religious sermons.

Word of mouth seemed to be the preferred method of news dissemination for this group.

"We really don't need news reports on the radio, because we have each other to pass the information around," said one young man. "We like go tell each other what goes on."

Like most people living in Northern Alliance-controlled territory, many members of the group expressed a basic comprehension of Afghanistan's current situation. Everyone understood the link between the Sept. 11 attacks — though many were ignorant of the most basic details of them — and the campaign to find bin Laden.

But a group of seven Taliban prisoners of war interviewed at a nearby jail demonstrated an utterly disturbing lack of knowledge about recent events.

"The Taliban told us only that America was bombing, just like the Russians did," said one prisoner, who was captured less than a month ago. "I know nothing of the attacks you mention."

None of the seven prisoners, in fact, expressed any knowledge whatsoever about the events of Sept. 11. None could identify the significance of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or the hijacked airliners involved in the attacks.

Four of the seven had heard the United States was hunting Usama bin Laden, but not a single prisoner could say why. Only one in the group said he understood there was a link between bin Laden and the Taliban government, though he insisted he had never heard of the Al Qaeda organization.

Several families that have arrived in Alliance-controlled territory in recent days said they, too, had no knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks. Most said they were told the U.S. bombing was part of an American-sponsored war on Islam, and was linked to a U.S.-Alliance pact to drive the Taliban from power.

One Afghan who picked up one of the U.S. leaflets a few days ago said he had tried finding the broadcasts, but gave up after failing to find the signal. Radio reception in general is inconsistent in Afghanistan, for both the Western stations and more regional broadcasters.

Others, however, complimented the service, and said it was on more hours in the day, 5 to 10 a.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., than many other broadcasts.

Friday's broadcasts offered a mix of straight news stories, denials or refutations of various Taliban claims, and relevant information useful to many Afghans. Among the top headlines were updates on the day's U.S. airstrikes around Kabul, denial of a Taliban claim that an American plane had been shot down, and a discussion about a report in the The Washington Times that Pakistan was still supplying the Taliban with weapons.

The announcer also said Afghans should expect a change in both color and menu for the bags containing food supplies that are periodically dropped across the area by U.S. planes.

"This is good. This is information we can use," said one Afghan man who listened to the broadcast. "We know it is from the government and may have some propaganda, but the Taliban radio is so much worse. We cannot listen to them. Anyway, you cannot even get the signal most of the time."

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