Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

by Joshua Foust on 4/29/2008

Over at the Insurgency Research Groups blog, John Mackinlay posits a fascinating theory:

In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.

Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD [Propaganda of the Deed] campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself.

In one sense, he’s not saying anything new: using the media in a coordinated insurgency is as old as Mao, or at least the first Palestinian intifada. Similarly, a recent report by a couple of Harvard economists made the claim that anti-war media coverage fuels the insurgency in Iraq.

Seen more locally, it just makes basic sense for the Taliban to target high profile targets for their bombings. Successful insurgencies, and successful terror campaigns don’t, contrary the fear-mongering of the current U.S. administration, focus on inflicting maximum casualties but maximum effect, in this case shocks to the system (for lack of a better term). The reason the Serena Hotel attack was such a big deal was that it is seen as symbolic of the foreign involvement in Afghanistan (for good or ill). Attacking Karzai on Mujahideen Day similarly sent the message that while the new mujahideen aren’t marching on the capital, they can still strike at will wherever they please.

While I would shy away from slotting the Taliban in with Carlo Pisacane or Paul Brousse, at least in intent if not impact, he’s on to something in terms of the Taliban adapting a vastly more sophisticated media strategy. The problem, however, comes when he asks the media to self-censor.

The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.

It seems nice, except such a principle would become overly burdensome. In a certain sense, all acts of terror are POTD events—so should all photos, videos, and written accounts of atrocities be banned? Mackinlay doesn’t seem to allow for the multi-dimensionality of POTD events. September 11 worked in this way: it was shocking, brutal, and pushed the cause of Al-Qaeda to a prominence and popularity it had never before enjoyed. But the constant repetition of the tower collapsing also galvanized American, and to a lesser extent European, public opinion into a near rage—setting the stage for angry polemicists to issue calls to “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity” (which, given one of the complaints of Osama bin Laden, is deeply ironic).

In a very real sense, most media outlets are perfectly aware of the propaganda value of their coverage. In the U.S., there is a growing chorus on the Right that the TV news shows are being propagandistic by not showing the video of the towers falling, or of people jumping to their death, every single anniversary of September 11. Similarly, Eason Jordan’s admission that CNN deliberately altered its coverage of Saddam-era Iraq to maintain “access” horribly damaged the station. And when Fox News reports something in the Wall Street Journal, or from Sky News, they issue caveats about the corporate relationship of their parent companies.

But front-loading every report of atrocities around the world with warnings that they could be used for propaganda? This stretches reason. The Taliban attacking Hamid Karzai is a major news story—beyond “a burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs,” at least six people were killed, and Karzai nearly so. No matter how you cut it, that would be international news. Asking media groups to over-caveat their reports does not diminish the propaganda value of the attack.

Of a similar tack, asking media groups to modify their “editorial stance” (the more semiotically inclined would want a shift in the meta-narrative, or something) is problematic. British outlets are rather open in their bias: we all know the Guardian will try to find some anti-American angle to its reporting. Some U.S. outlets have their own biases as well: the Wall Street Journal editorial page, for instance, can be relied on to spout insanities in the service of neoconservatism, as can Fox News. NPR can similarly be relied on to push a left-of-center slant in its stories.

Put otherwise, there is already a variety of slant and bias in the media’s coverage of events. Some played up the way this attack represented a further deterioration of Karzai’s authority; some tried to spin the attack as the insurgency itself weakening. The debate, and the realization of conflicting views on the same events, is already there.

So what is it exactly Mackinlay wants? I think they already do what he says they should, just not as explicitly.

Update: IRG posts a response from an anchor at BBC Radio Newshour. It is worth reading.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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