Report: Taliban Media Network Projects Might But Also Exposes Militant Flaws

Using everything from Internet postings to poetry, the Taliban have created a sophisticated media network that undermines support for the Afghan government by projecting the militia's power as greater than it really is, a new report says.

The report Thursday by the International Crisis Group comes as the Islamist militia that was ousted from power in Afghanistan by a 2001 U.S.-led invasion is making a violent comeback, particularly in the south and east.

The report says the Taliban's propaganda exploits themes such as xenophobia, civilian killings by foreign forces, and corruption in the U.S.-backed government to add to Afghans' disillusionment about their lives.

"The movement uses communications as a force multiplier and is quick to claim actions even when the facts are not established in a bid to appear all-powerful and set the agenda," the report says. "It further understands that even implied threats and grandiose rhetoric can impact on the population's perceptions and calculations."

Because illiteracy is widespread in Afghanistan, and many Afghans have little to no access to the Internet or television, the Taliban use traditional as well as modern methods to spread their message.

For instance, they often use "night letters," or shabnamahs, a traditional means of communicating in the country, to send messages to individuals or throughout villages. Often the letters threaten people who work with international forces or the government, the report says. Cell phone text messages also have been used to deliver threats.

The Taliban movement has a Web site, Al Emarah, or The Emirate, which has various domain names due to attempts to block it. The Taliban publish pamphlets and magazines, and their communications come in multiple languages, including English.

DVDs and audio cassettes also are used. Many of the audio and written messages that have been distributed — apparently not always directly produced by the Taliban — come in the form of songs, religious chants and poetry that appeal to Afghan nationalism and Islamic pride.

Some of the tunes are available as ring tones for phones, the report says. Cassettes include songs such as "Let me go to jihad" and "My mother, I am going with your permission." Some people reported that they kept the cassettes as a form of protection in case they were stopped by Taliban.

The militant media emphasize Afghans' historic resistance to outside forces, perceived Western decadence, and corruption in the current Afghan government. One poem, "Death is a gift," on Al Emarah included the phrase, "I will not kiss the hand of Laura Bush," the U.S. first lady.

While journalists are frequently contacted by Taliban spokesmen, or find them quicker to respond than those of the government, the militants often exaggerate their successes or downplay their roles depending on the situation, according to the report.

For instance, the Taliban media play up civilian casualties caused by foreign forces, but deny involvement in most bombings that kill a large number of ordinary Afghans. Because of the poor security situation, independent journalists often have a difficult time verifying the claims of either side.

But the media messages at times underscore the loose, disorganized nature of the militancy. Because there are multiple groups involved in the insurgency, there is at times competition for attention.

The report notes that both the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Islami network of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar claimed credit for a suicide attack in Kabul's Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in November 2007.

Later that year, the Taliban Web site announced the dismissal of a Taliban commander, but the commander's spokesman rejected it, telling reporters it was a "conspiracy by some elements within the Taliban movement," the report says.

The International Crisis Group, which is based in Brussels, Belgium, says that to help defeat the militant movement, the Afghan government and its foreign allies must highlight the Taliban's atrocities and respond more quickly and accountably to their own mistakes.

It says President Hamid Karzai's government has failed to undermine the Taliban's legitimacy and highlight the Islamist militia's links to criminal groups, and instead has often cracked down on local media for reporting things it doesn't like.

Afghan government spokesmen either could not be reached or declined to comment on the report, having not seen it.