The Taliban’s vast propaganda machine has a new target

The attack on Kabul airport was devastating, with more than 100 deaths from the terrorist attack reported at the time of writing. Following the attack, the Taliban’s first weeks in de facto control of Afghanistan will always be remembered as a time of chaos, violence, and despair.

The menace of ISKP, the Islamic State’s affiliate in the country, was already well-known, and unusual behaviour from it in the run-up to the attack, coupled with intelligence reports of an impending threat, meant that many expected it to launch an attack. But the speed, scale and precision with which it struck will leave an indelible mark on the Taliban’s first days as a ruling party.

These latest scenes of civilian suffering in Afghanistan come on the back of two decades of brutal conflict, one aspect of which appeared to come to a precipitous end earlier this month when the Taliban took Kabul. It was a moment that surprised Afghanistan watchers the world over as much as it did the Taliban itself. While most thought its takeover was a likelihood once the United States had completed its troop withdrawal in September, no one had predicted that the government of former president Ashraf Ghani would cede control as fast as it did.

It was not only in Kabul that the Taliban made such speedy gains. It took it just nine days to capture 18 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals from the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), with Kabul falling on the ninth day along with the eastern city of Jalalabad.

These advances were not just down to military might, something that is all the more important now ISKP has demonstrated its intent to destabilise Afghanistan. By all accounts, the Taliban was both outnumbered and out-armed by the ANDSF and its allies. Rather, the advances were the result of careful planning and years of strategic outreach, both online and offline.

The reality is that the Taliban has been working towards this moment for years, synergising an effective doctrine of insurgent warfighting with a comprehensive, multi-pronged communications effort that saw each and every one of its military advances handing it a new propaganda victory. No matter how big or small the advance in question, it would be reported on by Taliban media officials, often in a manner that was flagrantly exaggerated, before being amplified and celebrated via the Taliban’s sprawling online network, on both official and unofficial sites, and subsequently recast offline as yet another sign of an imminent Taliban takeover.

Sometimes, this would happen in reverse order, with Taliban leaders being filmed as they visited newly conquered communities or celebrated with the rank and file.

Whatever the case, the result was always the same. Both online and in the real world, the Taliban has been systematically shaping Afghanistan’s information environment for years, driving home the apparent inevitability of its victory. The impact of its efforts aggregated with time, such that it became a self-fulfilling, and accelerating, prophecy — the more territory it captured or troops that surrendered, the more fodder it had for its propagandists; the more fodder it had for its propagandists, the more it could triumph on the battlefield before even firing a bullet, as was the case when Kabul fell earlier this month.

Now that the Taliban has consolidated control, the people of Afghanistan and the international community alike are watching on anxiously, looking to see what its next move will be. And, with the attack on Kabul airport, the stakes are even higher.

In an effort to navigate through this melee, the Taliban has been redeploying its propaganda officials. Now, instead of agitating, they are integrating. Whereas before they were rallying Afghans against the government and security forces, now they are focusing on unity, security and good governance, seeking to establish the idea that the Taliban is an inclusive force that is working for all of Afghanistan, not just the doctrinaires of its rank and file.

So far, the lion’s share of their effort has manifested in statements from and interviews with leadership figures. The overarching tone for these materials was set the very day that the Taliban took Kabul, when its deputy supreme leader Mullah ‘Abdul Ghani Baradar issued a video message addressing, among others, the Taliban’s rank and file, noting that the most pressing challenge now was to provide security and bring a peaceful and prosperous life to all Afghans.

In the week since, this message — that the Taliban has swapped its draconian policies of the nineties for a more moderate and progressive approach towards Islamic governance — has been echoed time and again. Taliban officials have been filmed liberally as they meet with female workers and students, hospital staff, business leaders and religious minorities alike, making assurances that things have changed and that the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ of 2021 does not look like the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ 20 years ago.

Moreover, in the wake of the airport attack, they were quick to blame the United States military for failing to secure the area sufficiently, insisting that the Taliban’s own counter-terrorism apparatus has a hold on the threat of ISKP terrorism.

Besides these broad policy pronouncements, it has also begun demonstrating how its new system of rule is purportedly working in practice. In one video published a few days ago, Talibs dressed up as civilians roamed the streets with expensive mobile phones, daring thieves to rob them. At around the same time, a video emerged showing a group of just-captured thieves. They had been badly beaten, but they still had their hands, meaning, implicitly, that the Taliban had opted not to implement the ‘Islamic’ punishment of amputation — at least, not yet.

This stream of ‘good governance’-focused content to one side, it is important to keep in mind that what the Taliban’s leaders and propagandists say is not necessarily going to translate into what the Taliban’s rank and file actually do, and, judging by the frequent reports of forced marriage, extra-judiciary raids, and rejection of female employees that are emerging from both Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, it would appear that some if not many are already trying to break ranks.

With the pressures of ISKP agitation, as well as renewed calls for a US counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan, the risk of its fragmenting as a result of internal dissatisfaction is mounting. On that basis, one thing is for sure: with the capture of Kabul and its now having de facto control of Afghanistan, the job of the Taliban’s propaganda officials just became a lot more difficult.

However, while difficult, it will not necessarily be impossible: after all, they know what they are doing. Their approach to communication is the result of a concerted and years-long effort to understand and shape the narrative landscape in Afghanistan.

At base, the Taliban appears to conceptualise outreach just like any other insurgent group — that is, with a view to propagating its ideals, legitimising its actions, and intimidating its adversaries. In doing so, it has been communicating simultaneously with supporters and adversaries alike, not to mention the vast number of Afghans who feel, or have felt, ambivalent towards both it and the now-former Afghan government.

In aid of these objectives, its influence efforts have generally taken three forms: media-based communications, in-person outreach, and signalling violence. Media-based communications comprise audio-visual content such as radio programmes, videos, magazines and photo-reports that can be broadcast on- and offline. In-person outreach involves community engagement, police patrols, religious fairs, and public punishments — that is, anything that results in direct interaction between Taliban outreach units and local communities. Lastly, signalling violence comprises acts of violence intended to show power, not necessarily just for territorial or material gain.

In the context of the first two — that is, media-based and in-person outreach activities — five distinct but complementary strategic narratives have taken precedence in recent years, superficially focusing on either the military effort or the Taliban’s vision for civilian life and governance.

The first two narratives revolve around the ideas of capability and vulnerability. Directly relating to the Taliban’s military activities in Afghanistan, they have long been a core focus of its propaganda. On the one hand, they show the impact of its armed operations, demonstrating that it is a professionalised, disciplined and well-equipped force. On the other, they make a case for why it is fighting in the first place, documenting in gruesome detail civilian losses caused by airstrikes and night-time raids in Taliban-controlled territories.

The other three narratives focus on more political aspects of its insurgent offering. First, there are the materials that underline its credibility as a governing actor, demonstrating its ability to rule and provide for Afghan citizens through anything from videos showing education provision and healthcare to mosque-building and roadworks. Second, there is the content that frames it as a good faith participant in the Afghan peace process, simultaneously attacking the ‘malign’ activities of other parties like the former government and the United States. And, third, there is its more nationalistic stream of propaganda, which revolves around making a case for its suitability as a patriotic and unifying representative of the Afghan nation.

To begin to understand the scale and sophistication of the Taliban’s propaganda apparatus, you need to consider what it has published over the course of the last 12 months. To do this, we downloaded, disaggregated and analysed the full extent of its online outputs using ExTrac, a conflict analytics platform focused on deciphering insurgent communications and military activities. Even a cursory glance at the data indicates that, not only is the Taliban’s propaganda machine vast, it is carefully segmented and entirely unspontaneous. On top of that, it dwarfs the media apparatus of the Islamic State, a group that is typically understood to lead the way in extremist communications.

In the year up to August, when the Taliban seized control of Kabul, its online media network published just shy of 38,000 pieces of propaganda. That is more than 145 times as much as was produced by the IS-KP in the same period. (Interestingly, since its capture of Kabul, the central node in its media infrastructure has been either offline or working intermittently. It remains to be seen what is causing these outages — whether it is external pressures from the Taliban’s enemies or an internal decision to focus on monopolising the Afghan state’s existing media infrastructure. Whatever the case, its output will likely stabilise again at some point in the not too distant future, though perhaps via a different online mechanism.)

These materials were published simultaneously in five languages — Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu. About a third of them were Pashto, which is the language spoken by the Taliban’s core support base, with Dari-language materials making up a second third, and Arabic, English and Urdu content making up the remainder. That the majority of its content was in Afghanistan’s two most widely spoken languages — Pashto and Dari — makes sense. The propaganda effort was above all focused on the home front.

Whomever the target audience, the Taliban’s focus was unerringly on demonstrating its capability, credibility, legitimacy, and suitability, not to mention driving home the apparent vulnerability of the Afghan nation for which it claimed to be fighting. One of the standout components of its capability-focused propaganda — which made up the largest proportion of its output by far — was the content it published in relation to its amnesty campaign. This saw it documenting, often in minute detail, ANDSF surrenders and/or defections, footage or photographs that would usually be spliced with images of them being treated justly and with propriety when in Taliban custody.

It is worth noting that, on more than a few occasions, gross violations of this amnesty policy (including summary executions) have been reported. Regardless, the broader message seems to have sunk in, with the fall of Kabul happening as a direct result of mass surrender on the part of the ANDSF and then-government.

Besides this, over the course of the last year in particular, the Taliban has been investing a huge amount of time and effort in shoring up support in its rank and file, legitimising its participation in the intra-Afghan talks and US-Taliban negotiations and seeking to position itself as a credible and good-faith stakeholder that is, crucially, unwavering when it comes to the implementation of its core ideological values.

Now that the Taliban has prevailed in Afghanistan, its media apparatus is more important than ever. Whether you view them as public diplomacy officials working for an emergent state bureaucracy or propaganda operatives in the employ of a terrorist group, their role is absolutely paramount to its ability to navigate through the next stage of its political project. If they fail to stay their course, it could spell the end of the Taliban’s unity and, consequently, its fragile hold on power.

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Originally published at https://www.wired.co.uk on August 28, 2021.

Researcher: Af-Pak and South Asia´s Security and Politics; (Sunni Jihad: AQ, AQIS, ISKP, Taliban/Jihadi groups) (MSc: Pol.Sci) (BSc: Peace & Development; IR)

Researcher: Af-Pak and South Asia´s Security and Politics; (Sunni Jihad: AQ, AQIS, ISKP, Taliban/Jihadi groups) (MSc: Pol.Sci) (BSc: Peace & Development; IR)