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Taliban hoist flags to build political brand

By E.B. BOYD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 13, 2017

KABUL, Afghanistan — Analysts say the Taliban are placing a new emphasis on symbols as a part of a wider attempt to portray themselves as a modern political force, hoisting their flag to stamp their mark on captured territory and flooding social media with videos designed to recruit and motivate a new generation of internet-savvy fighters.

“The Taliban appear to have woken up to the importance of organizational symbols,” the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network says in a new report. They “project an increasing consciousness of their ‘brand.’”

Flags now flutter throughout the regions the Taliban have grabbed from the Afghan government over the past two years. Estimates of the amount of territory now under Taliban control range from 15 to 40 percent.

The movement’s website appears in seven languages. Videos produced by the group feature clips of captured military outposts and government buildings, and Taliban leaders travel from house to house in areas under their control to show their propaganda videos to potential recruits, said Shahla Farid, a political science professor at Kabul University.

This contrasts with the early years of the Taliban, who emerged in the 1990s after the guerrilla war against the Soviet occupation. In those days, fighters didn’t wear uniforms, and the group rarely displayed organizational symbols.

Today flags fly proudly from fighters’ pickup trucks and motorcycles. When the Taliban briefly overran the northern city of Kunduz in the fall of 2015, they immediately planted their banner in the middle of a central traffic circle.

Borhan Osman, author of the report by Afghanistan Analysts Network, said the new emphasis on symbols reflects the group’s desire to portray itself as a legitimate national movement.

“They are now dealing with countries like Russia and Iran,” he said. “When they are talking to these governments, they want to be viewed as a modern political force.”

While observers in the West sometimes lump the Taliban in with transnational jihadi movements, the group’s focus has always been strictly domestic. Calling itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, it sees itself as the country’s rightful government, which was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion that followed the 9/11 attacks.

“Flying the flag is a way for the Taliban to demonstrate to the population that they, not the government, are the legitimate rulers,” the AAN report said.

The Islamic group’s banner consists of a white background with the “Shahada” — the Islamic creed — splashed across it in large, looping Arabic script. The shahadah proclaims the belief in the oneness of God and in the fact that Mohammed is his prophet.

After a U.S.-sanctioned peace process stalled two years ago, Russia, which is concerned about growing Islamic influence in the Central Asian nations to its south, initiated discussions with two of Afghanistan’s neighbors, China and Pakistan.

As part of those discussions, Moscow has advocated steps that could begin to legitimize the Taliban, including lifting sanctions against some of its leaders and supporting them in their localized fight against the Islamic State. The Taliban has been eager to join those discussions, and the next meeting of the group is scheduled later this month.

At home, the Taliban’s leadership is hoping that displaying flags will project unity in the face of new internal divisions. Since the death of the group’s founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in 2013, schisms have emerged within the movement.

“It’s a different Taliban,” Osman said. Individual factions have developed their own power bases and funding streams. “They have become much more cumbersome to keep cohesive.”

Today’s Taliban also have to figure out how to appeal to the newest generation of fighters. While the first generation was drawn from the anti-Soviet mujahedeen, and the second emerged out of religious schools, today’s recruits are young men who have come of age swimming in the hyperheroic jihadi imagery that has flooded the internet.

The Taliban leadership has had to think differently about how to attract these young fighters, Farid said, especially now that the Islamic State, a pioneer in the use of online media, is beginning to make inroads in Afghanistan.

Producing videos of training regimens, firefights, and captured compounds, backed by triumphant music and slick graphics, is one part of that. Using symbols on the battlefield is another.

“The more a territory is dotted with flags,” the report said, “the more it persuades fighters of their influence.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

boyd.eb@stripes.com
Twitter: @ebboyd
 

In an image released by a Taliban spokesman on Twitter, militants display their flag at the center of Kunduz, Afghanistan, when they briefly captured the city in the fall of 2015.
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