[It appears that they are drawing inspiration from the Islamic State’s propaganda-first strategy. In the past, the Taliban released elaborate videos of suicide bombings long after the fact, their material falling far short of the Islamic State’s slick production values. Recently, though, they have been aiming for close-to-real-time updates and have greatly improved on quality. A few days ago, the insurgents released footage filmed by drone-mounted cameras of a suicide car bomb targeting the Nawa district center in Helmand Province.]
By Mujib Mashal
KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters posed for the camera, their shawls and bandannas covering their identities but not their jubilation, as they captured the main roundabout in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz early this month in what could have been called “operation hoist the flag and pull out a smartphone.”
The shaky cellphone video directly contradicted Afghan and American military spokesmen, who were promising that Kunduz was safe from falling for a second time within a year. During the invasion, insurgents live-tweeted their victory and flooded social media with videos, often shot by fighters narrating their movements in close to real time. In the video from the roundabout, one of the many fighters in the background is heard saying into a phone: “I will call you back. The flag is going up. I have to film it.”
It was not an isolated incident. When the Afghan government said the insurgents were far from the southern provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, the Taliban quickly put out a video showing a fighter driving around the city’s outskirts in a seized government Humvee, steering wheel in one hand and microphone in the other.
The video, shown below, is aimed at displaying the ease with which Taliban fighters are moving near the city. But it is also rubbing salt on the wound: The Taliban are making constant use of the American equipment they have captured from the Afghan forces, including the Humvee the fighter is driving.
Increasingly, the Taliban — who, when they controlled the government, banned television and jailed people for photography — rely on their front-line fighters not only to gain territory and strike at the Afghan security forces, but also to record the moment and share it.
It appears that they are drawing inspiration from the Islamic State’s propaganda-first strategy. In the past, the Taliban released elaborate videos of suicide bombings long after the fact, their material falling far short of the Islamic State’s slick production values. Recently, though, they have been aiming for close-to-real-time updates and have greatly improved on quality. A few days ago, the insurgents released footage filmed by drone-mounted cameras of a suicide car bomb targeting the Nawa district center in Helmand Province.
In a country where social media use is becoming more and more vital, the Taliban are making sure to flood the information channels with their message. And with the government already on the defensive both on the battlefield and in the fight over perceptions, the insurgents are also going out of their way to deny the government access to those channels.
In places like Helmand Province, as soon as the fighting intensifies, the Taliban force the cellphone network providers to shut down their signal towers. Government officials struggle to get their message out, with local officials and press officers often out of reach.
“We don’t touch their towers, but we tell them to stop the signals of certain towers close to the battlefield,” the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said. He said they had appointed media officers in the front lines because “we want to fill the vacuum ourselves.”
Physically, too, they have limited the reach and movement of the Afghan government over the past year. The insurgents have often cut off the main highways, and sometimes struck government convoys on them, starting firefights with Afghan forces like the one this video shows near the main highway in Baghlan Province. By sharing videos of such acts, the Taliban clearly want to project the vulnerability of the Afghan forces’s supply chain.
In the early days of the war, there was a motto that rolled off military tongues: the battle for hearts and minds. In the war’s 15th year, many here feel that the Afghan and coalition forces have given up on those hearts and minds in the countryside, where the public has been trampled by both sides.
The government that was supposed to be a better alternative has let people down with corruption and abuse, and has now limited its ambitions to just hanging on — concentrating force around urban centers and hoping for a political resolution to the war.
The Taliban’s effective turn to social media tactics does not change the fact that, ideologically, they represent a dark past.
“Their propaganda is aimed at their own fighters — they want to exaggerate their victories to give them morale and to create fear,” said Sediq Sediqqi, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Interior, who has a unit of his own for the online battle. “They cannot win over the people with such propaganda.”
Still, for the most part, the government’s public communication is stilted, and often limited to bombastic slogans or undeliverable promises that do not match the reality that most of the Afghan people are living.
By owning the information channels moment to moment, the Taliban are spreading their perception of putting the government on the defensive beyond the battlefield, in a way that resonates with a growing segment of the Afghan public. And there has been little so far to counter it.
Fahim Abed contributed reporting from Kabul.