#WarofWords: As ISAF pulls back on social media attack, Afghans jump in

Illustration for MEDIA FIGHT story


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 21, 2013

KABUL — Even the war of words is transitioning in Afghanistan.

As the Afghan security forces have taken on more responsibility for day-to-day military operations, so too have they started ramping up written attacks on the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the International Security Assistance Force, as the NATO-led military coalition is known, has largely bowed out of the fight, focusing more on tweets about topics such as cricket and midwifery than military operations, though they do post links to the Afghan security forces’ news releases.

“Our primary focus now is to link to the efforts of our Afghan partners as ANSF has assumed the lead for security operations in Afghanistan,” Col. Jane E. Crichton, director of ISAF public affairs, said in an email.

Gone are the days when ISAF spokesmen would engage in Twitter battles with the Taliban, conversations that sometimes devolved into online schoolyard taunting.

“We observe Taliban and pro-Taliban social media accounts ...,” Crichton said in the email, but “we do not engage in online discussions with the Taliban.”

The Taliban, too, seem to be shifting their public relations efforts toward their Afghan foes. Their recent email blasts to reporters have a bit of a form letter feel to them, but they do respond nearly daily to operational reporting through news releases from both the ministries of defense and interior, which oversee Afghan security forces.

After the Ministry of Interior trumpeted success on a recent operation in an email sent to the media, the Taliban fired back right away with an email to reporters.

“The Interior Ministry of the Kabul administration, as is their habit, have lied today and said that with the help of their foreign masters they have killed 19 Mujehideen … We strongly reject the above claim of the defeated enemy. The enemy is facing defeat on all fronts of the country and have made no achievements anywhere.”

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid acknowledged that the insurgent group has been ramping up its information campaign, saying the message is just as important as battlefield tactics.

“Media is a very important tactic in the war for us, and we have to defuse the false information of the enemy,” he said in a telephone interview.

While the Taliban have been more effective than ISAF or the Afghan security forces at getting their message out quickly, the Afghan press has grown distrustful of statements from all of the parties involved in the war and is loathe to use such information in reports, said Danish Karokhail, head of Pajhwok, one of the leading Afghan news agencies.

“Sometimes the media is the victim of this propaganda war,” he said.

 While there’s been a shift toward positive stories, rather than digs at the Taliban, in ISAF's social media messaging, it’s likely to have limited influence in Afghanistan, where few people are connected to the Internet outside of urban centers, said Alex Strick van Linschoten, an author and researcher who has studied ISAF’s messaging.

“A lot of what they’re doing is pitched at a foreign audience,” he said. “Their website has never been for engaging an Afghan audience.”

The Taliban, however, make a much more concerted effort to reach the Afghan audience, with Dari and Pashto releases that ridicule the central government as puppets to the U.S. military.

The Afghan government has been slow to embrace Twitter, which is popular in Afghanistan, even as the Taliban have used it more and more to get their message out. Officials with the Ministry of Interior, responsible for the Afghan National Police, tweet very infrequently, and the Ministry of Defense has no official account, though its spokesman, Gen. Zahir Azimi, does.

There are exceptions, though. The provincial government of the crucial battleground province of Kandahar has been particularly aggressive in its use of social media to paint the Taliban as reckless killers, who have little regard for civilians.

Commenting on a bombing at a cemetery during the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr that killed more than a dozen civilians, an Aug. 8 tweet from the Kandahar Media and Information Center blasted the Taliban.

“By killing these innocent women on the 1st of Eid, enemies of Afghanistan have once again proved their barbarism,” the tweet reads.

ISAF has subtly changed their wording recently, largely scrapping “insurgents” and “Taliban” in favor of “enemies of Afghanistan.”

In its most recent casualty release, ISAF said “Three International Security Assistance Force service members died following an enemies of Afghanistan attack.”

An ISAF spokesman said the change was to get in line with Afghan terminology.

However, the military coalition still sprinkles in harsh language to emphasize civilian casualties inflicted by insurgents.

A recent news release from the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force about a buried bomb that killed civilians in eastern Afghanistan carried the headline, “Taliban Savagery Kills Two More Civilians in Baraki Barak” and used a statistic that seemed to greatly inflate the number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan for 2012. The Task Force did not respond to a request for clarification on the casualty figures they used, which were nearly 30 percent higher than the U.N. has reported.

On the social media front, Tweets from ISAF these days have shifted more and more to reports and photos of daily life in Afghanistan, almost always dealing with success stories. On Wednesday, three consecutive tweets included mentions of a water polo workshop, a World Bank pledge of aid money and a photo of a historic building in Kabul. Other recent ISAF topics include the opening of a midwife center and a cricket match.

Crichton said part of ISAF’s strategy is to counter what they see as an unfair focus on bad news by the Western media.

“While we acknowledge that military operations continue, we, and much of our Afghan audience, are disappointed in the singular focus of the Western media on negative events,” Crichton said in the email. “Afghan media outlets regularly report non-security news and events, much of which goes unnoticed in the west. We feel that the imbalance in coverage by the Western media does our audience a disservice.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes