Another Embed, Another Propaganda Piece

by Joshua Foust on 12/14/2008 · 3 comments

I’m curious if it is simply assumed that when reporters do an embed with the Taliban they’re being given a very carefully choreographed performance. That is, to a limited extent, the conceit behind military embeds (though they have their own problems, to be sure). But what we tend to see from Taliban embeds, whether recently like Nir Rosen or 15 years ago like Nancy DeWolf-Smith, is this gleeful sense of gaining secret knowledge, as if an obvious outsider can learn much of use in a few days (or even a few hours) with some guerilla fighters.

In the Guardian, Ghaith Abdul Ahad continues this tradition somewhat in Wardak, though his piece is admirably lacking Rosen’s self-hype and self-congratulatory tone of despair. But this sense of mindlessly repeating Taliban propaganda remains. I’m not certain if this sort of reporting can lend itself to real context… but at the least, such pieces are of interest if only for what they reveal of the Taliban’s propaganda campaign and it’s deftness with the media.

This is probably easiest to simply block quote.

“Yesterday I had only 18 fighters,” the Qomendan said, his unwavering gaze fixed on a point somewhere in the middle of the low-ceilinged room. “You saw how many mercenaries and Americans were there. With the blessing of Allah, the fighting is changing. When I started in this area, three years ago, I had six fighters, one RPG and two machine guns like these.” He pointed at the BKC machine guns that lay idly on the door. “Now I have more than 500 fighters, 30 machine guns and hundreds of RPGs.

Adorable boasting, yes, but what about just later on, when Mullah Muhamadi complains of having so little ammunition he can’t launch his scheduled three attacks per week? These are just a few paragraphs apart in Ahad’s piece, yet they’re not highlighted as an example of how much militants enjoy hyperbole—especially in the presence of other reporters. There is also the interesting (and constant) reference to Arabic; I sincerely doubt a huge number of madrassa students in central Afghanistan can speak Arabic fluently.

Muhamadi… opened his dusty black bag and pulled out a laptop. The other fighters gathered around the screen, and watched a short film shot by Muhamadi of one of the attacks. It showed a few fighters, their faces concealed. The mullah pointed at one of them and announced that this was Qomendan. They stood under foliage on the side of the road. As a green police pick-up truck passed, the men opened fire.

Also on the computer they showed pictures of an American soldier. In one he was sitting in a makeshift wooden office in front of a computer screen, two other soldiers behind him all smiling into the camera. In another he was outside with an Afghan interpreter. “We killed him and captured his computer,” the mullah told me. “He had served in Iraq.”

Again, with the boasting. Which sounds more likely: that a Talib managed to kill a U.S. soldier who just happened to have his personal laptop with him out on patrol, and that computer wasn’t undamaged in the attack and therefore ripe for the taking (otherwise, they’d have had to take it from a COP or FOB, and that just hasn’t happened in Wardak)? Or that they downloaded a bunch of photos and videos off Flickr and YouTube to put on a show for the foreign reporter?

Qari Amanullah stretched his legs on one of the beds in the shabby room and rested his torso on his elbow. The smell of grilled meat and the sound of music wafted from the window. Amanullah explained that he came from a family who ran a small farm. When the Taliban were still in power he joined a local madrasa where he spent 12 years studying the Qur’an and religion. After he had memorised the Qur’an and acquired the title qari (“reader’), he abandoned his studies and joined the fighting.

If the Taliban control the entire city and hotel, why was there music playing? Similarly, there are lots of boasts about setting up shadow government and providing services. But the only service they talk about is justice—namely, dispute resolution. That’s all well and good, but swift vigilante justice isn’t quite the same as creating a displacement government that avoids the mistakes of one’s predecessors.

He said the failure of a recent voter registration drive in Ghazni showed how effectively the Taliban was cutting off the countryside. “We stood at road intersections and prevented people from registering for the coming elections — even if the planes were flying above our heads that didn’t prevent us from manning checkpoints. And some of our men followed the people to the market to make sure they wouldn’t register. Now registration has almost stopped in our province.” But why were they determined to prevent people from voting? “It’s better for them. Most of the people know that this new government won’t help them but those who don’t know we prevent them.”

This is an easily disproved lie. According to the Joint Electoral Management Body, in 2004/2005 nearly 750,000 people registered to vote for president and the Loya Jirga. Just last month, Ghazni governor Mohammed Usman said he was extending the registration deadline in his province because some people were unable to vote; but they’ve already registered more than 800,000 people, 35% of which are women. Indeed, nation-wide, the registration phases have proceeded with little or no reported disruptions, which indicates the Taliban are in fact not violently contesting the initial stages of the election.

Lastly, there is the worrisome presence of university students shilling for the Taliban. Only, Anand Gopal reported this exact same phenomenon back in May. And as Christian Bleuer argues, militancy has a long and tarnished reputation among Afghan university students… and much of it is just hot air.

Alas, there seems to be a lot of hot air here. This isn’t a knock on Ahad’s reporting—he does an admirable job of highlighting what the Taliban’s reigning narratives are… and especially how easily they have learned to manipulate the tropes western media loves to report. But it still doesn’t tell us anything about their short- and medium-term intentions, how they REALLY think the tide is turning (especially in Wardak, where there has been a noticeable increase in insurgent attacks. That would be nice to see, sometime.

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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 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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Inkan1969 December 15, 2008 at 1:21 pm

BBC News is reporting that the local truck driver’s association in the Peshawar area is refusing to drive coalition supplies along the supply route through NWFP now that the Taliban have repeatedly attacked it. How dangerous a situation is this for the coalition: Can the coalition rush in their own drivers to maintain the supply route, or will the route be shut down putting the coalition in danger of collapse?

Joshua Foust December 15, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Inkan, that’s a good point, and to me helps highlight that this sort of embedded reporting is just propaganda meant to scare us. The Real Talbian, so to speak, has been effective at squeezing transit and supply routes — from where I sit, that is a far bigger threat than a student radical, or some guy boasting about pulling pictures off Flickr. Like the old adage, amateurs study tactics, but generals study logistics.

anonymous December 15, 2008 at 4:52 pm

Joshua, that is a great post. It always makes me kind of confused when journalists reprint with fidelity the obvious fabrications and exaggerations of the Taliban. I’m just not sure what it adds to the debate, save melodrama.

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