KABUL, Afghanistan – KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A U.S.-funded radio station is hoping a small hand-cranked radio can help turn the tide in a propaganda war against the Taliban, handing out thousands of the devices in the hopes of winning over ordinary Afghans.
The idea is to counter the Taliban-sponsored stations — the so called "Mullah Radios" — that operate mainly in the tribal areas along the Pakistani border and broadcast propaganda that helps turn public opinion against foreign troops and the pro-Western Afghan government.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty this week started distributing 20,000 free radio sets to Afghans, including those in distant mountain villages and refugee camps.
"We want to increase the access to information to the Afghans, especially in remote areas and to the displaced persons," said Julian Knapp, spokesman for RFE/RL. "The objective is to help people become more informed about the democratic processes."
He said the operation, which will last for several weeks, will cost $500,000. That covers the cost of transporting the radios by Afghan Air Force helicopters to the isolated villages and the $20 price tag for each of the solar-powered, hand-cranked sets.
"In most of those places there is no electricity, and batteries are expensive," Knapp said. The radios, a version of which was distributed in Haiti after the earthquake, are powered by both solar panels and a hand crank.
Radio is key to reaching the majority of Afghans: With only a limited access to television, newspapers and the Internet, most depend on radio programs to get their information. In rural areas, where three-fourths of some 28 million Afghans live, 90 percent of women and 60 percent of men are illiterate, according to the latest surveys.
International forces say they are fighting a two-pronged war in Afghanistan — one against the insurgents' weapons and the other their propaganda.
They believe getting the right information to rural Afghans could be key to their success. Much of the troops' focus has been on persuading locals not to support or give shelter to the insurgents, but instead to help coalition troops root them out. A stable Afghanistan depends as much on the confidence of locals in their own government as it does on an end to Taliban violence.
Reflecting the importance of propaganda in the fight against the insurgency, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, recently issued a series of operational guidelines to troops that includes instructions on how to conduct the "information war" against the Taliban.
"Fight the information war aggressively," Petraeus instructed. "Challenge disinformation. Turn our enemies' extremist ideologies, oppressive practices, and indiscriminate violence against them. Hang their barbaric actions like millstones around their necks."
"Be first with the truth," the guidelines said. "Beat the insurgents and malignant actors to the headlines."
Petraeus said in a recent interview that the allies have to work hard to counter the Taliban media offensive "to ensure that terrorist propaganda doesn't stay out there for too long unchallenged."
But, many say the West may have already lost the media war in Afghanistan.
"The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement," the International Crisis Group, a prominent Brussels-based think-tank, said in its most recent report on this issue. "Using the full range of media, it is increasingly tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers."
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in 2002 launched Radio Azadi — Pashto for "Liberty" — in Afghanistan. The station — broadcasting in Pashto and Dari languages — claims to be the most popular source of news in the country, with a 43 percent market share and some 7.9 million listeners weekly.
Knapp said the dial on the distributed radios will not be fixed to Radio Azadi's frequency.
"They can choose to listen to whatever they wish," he said, "but we believe they'll listen to the truth."