Afghanistan's propaganda war

The fight between the Taliban and resistance forces has been driven by psychology and misinformation

Within hours of Kabul falling to the Taliban on August 15, Ahmad Massoud, the 32-year-old son of Afghanistan's "national hero" Ahmad Shah Massoud, boarded a helicopter bound for Panjshir, where he planned to command resistance forces fighting the country's new regime. Few at the time believed it. Rumours swirled that he, like so many others in Afghanistan's elite, had fled the country.

The following night, Mr Massoud was filmed on an iPhone camera on a rooftop in Panjshir. "You can see with your own eyes that I am here," he said to the camera. "Don't believe what you read on Facebook. Sadly, Facebook can be useful, but it can also be destructive."

Over the next three weeks, social media would become central to the resistance's strategy, as well as its challenges.

For as long as there has been war in Afghanistan – or anywhere, for that matter – there has been psychological warfare. For most of this year, it was fought between the Taliban and the now-fallen government of the Islamic Republic. As district after district, then capital after capital, fell to the Taliban over the summer, the militants were diligent in their dissemination of videos showing surrendering Afghan soldiers, proud locals waving Taliban flags and eyewitnesses to battles swearing that any casualties were caused by the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces. Facts were combined with fantasy to create a sense of inevitability to the Taliban victory.

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The Afghan government's propaganda was less about inventing reality than denying it. In the first week of August, five provincial capitals fell to the Taliban. At the time, the government did not acknowledge any of it. Instead, the Ministry of Defence issued press releases and tweets indicating that it was slaying unprecedented numbers of Taliban fighters. Just a week later, when Taliban fighters entered Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, it was clear that even if there was misinformation from both sides, the government's lines misinformed the most.

And then the Taliban became the government. And it was clear that it had no idea how to run a central bank, a national electrical grid or a modern education ministry. But it did know how to work social media and the media in general. The infrastructure for mass communication was already in place, and better thought out than almost every other aspect of government.

Front and centre of the Taliban's transitional administration has been the "Cultural Commission of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan", which is overseen by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid and includes a dedicated social media team whose members expense their mobile data packages to the militant group.

The Cultural Commission includes photographers and "journalists", many of whom were previously fighters and continue to wield kalashnikovs in their social media photos.

A member of the commission's social media team told the BBC this week that the group first began developing its Twitter strategy in February 2020 in order to promote an op-ed written by Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban's deputy leader, published by The New York Times.

Two days after Ahmad Massoud took to the Panjshir Valley to energise the anti-Taliban resistance, he, too, published an op-ed in a US outlet: The Washington Post. It made no mention of any intention to negotiate with the Taliban. Instead, it gave the singular impression that the resistance was about fighting. "We need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies," Mr Massoud wrote. "We know that our military forces and logistics will not be sufficient. They will be rapidly depleted unless our friends in the West can find a way to supply us without delay."

This was the new line from the Afghan resistance. It differed from what sources close to Mr Massoud, and eventually Mr Massoud himself, told The National in interviews, which was that the ultimate goal of the resistance was a diplomatic solution.

The difference in messages is entirely understandable. One, gained through reporting and interrogation in the form of interviews with journalists, reflected reality, which was only hinted at in Mr Massoud's op-ed: that Panjshir was highly vulnerable, that the chances of success were very slim and that the fate of the 200,000 people in the valley – most of whom are women and children – could not be risked for the sake of a heroic battle to the end. The other message, disseminated unilaterally by the resistance's emerging public relations machinery, was aimed squarely at ideological friends in the West, and their pocketbooks: that it really was a zero-sum battle between good and evil, and that "you're either with us or against us". Panjshir's fighters had to be turned into inspirational figures and mythical heroes – not men, but lions.

That sense of urgency and fervour to stay "on message" has since become the driving force behind hundreds of Twitter accounts that have popped up in recent days. Some have circulated photographs of Taliban fighters surrendering to resistance forces. The photos, however, were actually taken years ago. Others circulated a video purportedly showing resistance fighters shooting down a Pakistan Air Force jet sent to help the Taliban in its recent attack on Panjshir. That video, as it happens, is a screen capture from the popular video game Arma 3. It has since been broadcast on several of India's largest news channels as evidence of Pakistani military support against the Panjshir resistance.

In the end, several rounds of negotiations between the Taliban and the resistance failed. With each failure, both sides ramped up the rhetoric, and in the end the great battle both spoke of took place. It, too, was shrouded in misinformation.

On September 5, several Taliban officials announced prematurely that Panjshir was conquered, resulting in celebratory aerial firing of guns across Kabul, killing 17 people. By the morning of September 6, Taliban forces actually did capture Panjshir's capital, Bazarak. Mr Massoud released an audio recording from an undisclosed location, in which he alluded to the social media theories alleging Pakistani military support to the Taliban in Panjshir.

Since the recording's release, protests have broken out in cities across Afghanistan, with demonstrators shouting "Death to Pakistan". Several demonstrators were beaten and arrested by the Taliban, who a day earlier had sought to project influence by hosting Pakistan's intelligence chief in Kabul. The protests have the potential to evolve into a broader movement that could challenge the Taliban. But there is also a risk that the anger will be directed at the more elusive issue of Pakistani political interference in Afghanistan, rather than the more immediate issues of how to ensure the Taliban governs effectively.

Mr Massoud's exact words in his recording, which he published on Facebook, were more cryptic than the lines on the demonstrators' placards. "Forces from Afghanistan's neighbour" assisted the Taliban, he claimed. By refraining from naming Pakistan directly, he could perhaps leave something to the imagination. Granular information – proof of specific crimes – is unnecessary if the people can fill the gaps with broader, contextual truths. In a propaganda war, such a tactic is, to quote Mr Massoud himself, useful, but also destructive.

Published: September 8th 2021, 5:03 AM
Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy

Sulaiman Hakemy is opinion editor at The National