Turning to radio to counter the Taliban

Turning to radio to counter the Taliban

Proposals are being considered to give the team up to $150 million a year to spend on local FM radio stations, to counter illegal militant broadcasting, and on expanded cellphone service across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The project would step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters and CDs denigrating militants and their messages.

Senior officials say they consider the counterpropaganda mission to be vital to achieving the war’s aims. “Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war,” said Richard C Holbrooke, special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will direct the effort.

“The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication,” Holbrooke added. “We can’t succeed, however you define success, if we cede the airways to people who present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. And we need to combat it.”

The team Holbrooke is forming is the latest entry into the government’s effort to direct the flow of information in support of US policy. The campaign is scattered throughout the bureaucracy and the military, variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.

Officials acknowledge that the government routinely fails when trying to speak to the Muslim world and battle the propaganda of extremism — most often because the efforts to describe US policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.

The new campaign is especially focused on providing cellphone service, and thus some independent communications ability for people in remote areas where the Taliban thrive.

It is a booming industry there now: Afghanistan had no cellular coverage in 2001 but today has about 9.5 million subscribers.

That work is closely coordinated with US and allied forces in Afghanistan, where Rear Adm Gregory J Smith, NATO’s director of communication in Kabul, said the challenge was in protecting the population and the official communications network from insurgents.

“Then, and maybe for the first time in their lives, they can be given access to radio and TV and cellular telephone service,” he said. “The ability to communicate empowers a population. That is a very important principle of counterinsurgency and counterpropaganda.”

In southern Afghanistan, now the centre of US military offensives under the troop increase ordered by President Barack Obama, insurgents threaten commercial cellphone providers with attack if they do not switch off service between 7 pm and 7 am, officials said. About 60 towers, or 10 per cent of the national coverage, shut down every night because cellphone providers fear attack.

That prevents villagers from calling local security forces if they see militants on the move or planting roadside bombs; the lack of cellphone service at night also hobbles the local police and nongovernmental development agencies.

Expanding and securing cellphone service has the additional benefit of assisting economic development, officials said, as it could provide wireless access to banking systems for those who now must travel long distances for financial services.

Vikram Singh, on loan from the Pentagon as Holbrooke’s senior defence adviser for the project, said the United States would begin by “building the capabilities of the private sectors and the governments in both of these countries to effectively communicate and engage with their own populations”.

This is particularly important, he said, in the border areas of Pakistan and across large parts of Afghanistan that for decades had only primitive communications.