Rumoristan

by Sekundar on 9/10/2010 · 10 comments

Given the means available to deliver counter-narratives, such as radio, television, leaflet, and newspaper, available to ISAF and the Afghan government, it is surprising that rumors and conspiracy theories (and I don’t mean exaggerations or mild suppositions, but off-the-wall batshit rumors that would make a birther blush) continue to plague the country as they do. At the beginning of the summer, noted Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi published an article (PDF) in LSE’s Ideas Today on the power of rumors in Afghanistan. The thesis was that in a nation with such an abysmally low literacy rate as Afghanistan’s, the prevalence of oral information transmission lends itself to rumors. Giustozzi points out that the rapid spread of mobile phones since 2001 has led to rumors flying from province to province in minutes. The armed opposition in Afghanistan is particularly adept at using the rumor-mill to further its aims; they’re already in the villages, and (if they’re competent) know what resonates. This is difficult for the government and Coalition Forces to mitigate; in a country that prefers oral transmission and source familiarity, nothing beats face-to-face interaction. And that’s only for the unfounded rumors.

These days, it seems the U.S. is doing a better job at sandbagging itself than the Taliban ever could. ISAF and GIRoA public affairs officers already have their hands full with protests erupting in Kabul over the future bonfire of vanity in Florida. Add the charges of the American government keeping a wannabe torturer employed, charges that U.S. forces have been dismembering Afghan corpses, the dull roar still surrounding the mosque in Manhattan, and trying to paint election prospects as rosy, and I think this might end up being the worst month for public affairs officers in Afghanistan ever. If ISAF and the government can’t get a better handle on the rumor-mill now, it could be a quick slide towards popular repudiation of ISAF.


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Sekundar works in national security, and has worked and studied in Central and South Asia.

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{ 10 comments }

Joel Hafvenstein September 10, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Sekundar – do you really find it surprising that ISAF and GIRoA’s messages in the official media don’t have a lot of credibility? Or that in a country where genuine conspiracies, proxy wars, and alliances of convenience have dominated politics for decades, most people reflexively assume that the “official line” is a lie, and speculate enthusiastically about what’s really going on under the surface?

Quite aside from the scandals du jour, ISAF has failed for years to counter Afghanistan’s most popular overarching conspiracy theory. When you spend a few days chatting with Afghans – including the anti-Taliban, relatively cosmopolitan set – you inevitably hear that America/ Britain/ ISAF could beat the Taliban if they really wanted to, but in fact they’re pulling their punches while secretly arming the Taliban in order to keep Afghanistan in chaos and justify a continued foreign military presence. (And so on with variations on the theme, some crazier than others). I’ve heard this conspiracy theory amongst every region and ethnic group I’ve visited in Afghanistan. It’s been voiced more readily and vociferously with each passing year.

Is it untrue? Of course. Is it unfounded? Hardly. It’s founded in the widespread experience of deteriorating personal safety; of foreign troops whose words (“we’re here to improve your security”) have for years been contradicted by their actions (insularity, over-prioritizing force protection, scandalous readiness to accept Afghan civilian casualties); of foreign money and power supporting local thugs who thrive off the war economy and plainly have no interest in long-term stability. The resources of ISAF militaries are visibly vast, but their effectiveness in terms of protecting Afghan civilians has been low. In such a context, you can’t drown out conspiracy theories by spreading counter-messages; you’ve got to actually change your game. McChrystal got that, I think. I wish it hadn’t already been too late.

anan September 10, 2010 at 1:21 pm

“they’re pulling their punches while secretly arming the Taliban in order to keep Afghanistan in chaos and justify a continued foreign military presence.”
Obviously this is widely believed by anti Taliban Afghans. Let me ask you a stupid question that I don’t know the answer to and that might have no good answer.

Joel, Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries on earth in one of the least strategic geographies in the world [except for the fact that Afghanistan borders Pakistan] with almost nothing of strategic value that non Afghans want. Why would internationals want to have a continued military presence in Afghanistan? However I think through this, I can only come up with one possible reason . . . to threaten or pressure Pakistan. But then this is exactly what the large majority of Afghans want internationals to do.

Can you help me understand this?

During the Georgia/Russia war, some anti Taliban Afghans feared that ISAF wanted to use Afghanistan as a base to attack or pressure Russia; and that ISAF might back the Taliban as a way to harm Russia. But now that Russia/NATO relations have improved, and now that Russia and NATO have issued joint communiques emphasizing their joint interest in collaborating to increase ANSF capacity, do any Afghans still harbor these conspiracy theories?

Joel Hafvenstein September 11, 2010 at 7:34 am

anan: Several of the “explanations” I’ve heard do involve the US wanting to keep a permanent military presence close to Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia. Afghans holding this theory often don’t follow the ups and downs of geopolitics from month to month, but they know that in general, the US has several enemies/rivals in this region.

Others — mainly conservative Pashtuns, in my experience — have explained it to me in terms of the US’s global war against Islam. In their eyes (and many other Afghans’), Afghanistan is today the heart of the Muslim world. It’s one of the only places that has always held onto true Islam. America is afraid of this superpower-defeating stronghold of faith, and determined to break its spirit (turn it into another Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or something). Hence America’s purported indiscriminate bombing of villages and funding of both the criminal government and the Taliban — a bunch of thugs who call themselves “mullah” but don’t actually know the first thing about shari’a, and only discredit Islam by their violence and ignorance.

Finally, picking up on the distinction in your other comment between “good and naive” ISAF and evil conspiratorial ISAF, I’ve talked with some Afghans who believe that different Western powers are playing out their rivalries here. For example, that the Americans or whoever are really fighting the Taliban in their province, but the British are then resupplying the Taliban by night. It may seem crazy, but hey, most Westerners who follow Afghanistan believe something similar about “close allies” America and Pakistan. For Afghans whose only data on the US-UK relationship is how it plays out in their local area, it’s not as outlandish to suspect that they’re deliberately working at cross purposes.

If you consider the history not just of Afghanistan but of Iran and Pakistan over the last 50 years, there have been plenty of actual Western-led conspiracies which feed all these theories which seem so lunatic and offensive to a Western observer.

Bobby September 11, 2010 at 11:16 am

One of my Afghan local national assistants recently told me that when British military units rotate out of theater, as a matter of policy, the Brits execute all of their local national interpreters. Not some of them, but all of them, every single time. As proof, he cited two friends from his village who went to work for the Brits in southern Afghanistan and were killed (when questioned how they were killed, he said he didn’t know, only that their bodies were returned to their families). [Note that I’m an American civilian.]

When I asked if he had any friends who had gone to work for the British and were still alive, he acknowledged yes– including some of whom had been working for the British for more than three years, and (presumably) had experienced and survived multiple UK unit rotations. That he contradicted himself in that very next sentence was completely lost on him, so I asked how they were still alive if interpreter execution was British policy, he had no answer– but even today he maintains it is, in fact, their policy, even though I’ve tried refuting it on a number of different grounds, including moral (the British military would not execute civilians who work for them), expediency (if the British killed all their interpreters every time, how would they ever get anyone to work for them in the future? if they were killing their interpreters, why would they return the bodies to the families? why wouldn’t they wait until the last British unit left before they executed the interpreters?), more likely causes of death (isn’t it possible that the Taliban targeted your friends for working for the British?), common sense (if the British did this, don’t you think sooner or later some British soldier would have exposed it and posted it on the internet somewhere? what about the interpreters working for the non-British forces down there, don’t you think they would say something about it?), and others. But at the end of the day, it is almost impossible to prove a negative.

So, yes, I fully believe that Afghans can subscribe to some rather (what seem to us) preoposterous notions. And given our inability to understand these very important unique characteristics about Afghan culture (well, maybe not so unique– many Iraqis and Angolans I met shared the same “conspiracy theory” tendencies, although the Angolans might actually been right about what they suspect), I fully understand why the international community has such a difficult winning the public relations war.

–Bobby

Sekundar September 10, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I agree some policies have to be changed, Joel, but even in cases where the policies have been sound and the results good, ISAF/GIRoA has choked on the presentation. Similarly, when insurgents make a mistake (killing, as you know, far more Afghan civilians every year than ISAF/GIRoA), there often no comments from GIRoA/ISAF, allowing the insurgents to spin their own mistakes.

Rumors themselves, though, that seem too absurd to be believable (ISAF is in Afghanistan for the oil/minerals/human organs, or part of a Tajik/Zionist conspiracy, or that one tribe is favored over another, or that a girls school was built in a certain location so troops could watch the females walk to and from it, or that ballistic eyewear has x-ray capabilities) should be easy to disprove. And yet GIRoA/ISAF can’t, and in some cases (Giustozzi) GIRoA personnel repeat the allegations. Part of the problem is the opaqueness of the mission, but there is also a failure to communicate.

Joel Hafvenstein September 11, 2010 at 8:23 am

Hi Sekundar — I definitely agree that ISAF has made communication failures as well as policy failures, and that the bloody civilian toll of the insurgents could be emphasised more.

On the crucial issue of civilian casualties, McChrystal certainly transformed ISAF’s communication, but I see his policy shifts as more important. Previously, ISAF command just had not grasped that it wasn’t enough to kill fewer civilians than the insurgents — because of the asymmetric nature of the war, causing innocent casualties is much more damaging for GIRoA/ISAF. GIRoA needs to win active allegiance; the Taliban can get by with a population that’s largely neutral between government/ insurgency. The policy shift from force protection to civilian protection meant exposing ISAF and ANSF to risk in a way that McChrystal’s predecessors had shied away from, despite years of saying the right things.

I may be underestimating the powers of PR, but I don’t know what kind of media messages would effectively disprove rumors like the girls’ school or x-ray goggles. Those rumors aren’t based in mistaken information, but in a deep lack of trust. You counter them by winning trust, which has a lot to do with communication and reducing opacity but (to my mind) even more to do with behavior.

Finally, regarding “one tribe is favored over another” — of course it’s silly to think that America has a formal policy to favor Barakzais over Noorzais (though the election of a president named Barack did occasion some jokes in Kandahar). In practice, though, NATO forces clearly have favored some tribes over others. All over the country, decisions about which Afghans to trust have resulted in NATO militaries and embassies bringing benefits (e.g. security/transport/fuel contracts, legal impunity) to some families and clear punishment (e.g. nighttime raids, stints in Gitmo, interdiction along smuggling routes) to their long-time rivals. So that rumor is anything but absurd to Afghan eyes.

anan September 10, 2010 at 1:10 pm

To add to Joel Hafvenstein’s comment, it is widely believed by anti Taliban Afghans that ISAF/US/international community are backing the Taliban against them, their GIRoA and their ANSF. This is even believed by many sophisticated professional educated anti-Taliban ANA officers. [To clarify, not enlisted, but actual educated commissioned officers.] These conspiracies are also believed by low level Taliban foot soldiers.

This is the largest single challenge ISAF [really the international community as a whole including the UN] confronts in Afghanistan, in my opinion. No clear strategy has emerged from ISAF to deal with this.

To clarify, while ANSF might trust the ISAF soldiers they work with on a daily basis, they might still think that ISAF as a whole is backing the Taliban and that their local ISAF happen to be the “good and naive” ISAF who are not part of the conspiracy.

Toryalay Shirzay September 11, 2010 at 4:13 pm

So it seems many of you out there in the contaminated land of Afghanistan have seen and even smelled the stench of the many layers of scum covering the mind and the soul of the Afghans.Afghans live and thrive on rumors and the Afghans have excelled in character assasination which is their favorite national pastime .All of them practice this behavior in addition to making up stories,outright lying,having no regards for facts.The Afghans use all the above to humiliate whoever they want to intimidate and bully and use above traits to defeat their enemy.All non-Afghans need to be aware of these stark facts and act accordingly.

Joel Hafvenstein September 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Toryalay – I’m sure saying this is a waste of time, but because you’re a regular commenter on this forum, not just a random troll: your stereotyping of Afghans and (elsewhere) Muslims is appalling, and you should be ashamed to post such hateful stuff on a public forum.

Toryalay Shirzay September 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Joel– so you are trying to say you know Afghans better than i do. I know them from inside out; i refuse to be an apologist for anybody and i have sworn to myself that i will tell the facts no matter what and let the chips fall where the may. My descriptions of the afghans are based on a life long experience of their society and because the facts of the Afghan society are more bitter than the most poisonous venom ,they appear to you as stereotyping due to your shallow understanding of the afghan realities.Your polite sensibilities toward the afghans will not help to solve the most intractable problems the afghans have created for themselves.Such tendencies of yours and the likes of you will simply prolong the tragedy of afghanistan as the prolonging of this war demonstrates. Centuries of deep scum in afghanistan can not be cleansed with wishful thinking of sissies and mr.nice guys of the US/NATO varieties .This tough job requires strong will and very strong action;otherwise we will continue seeing more of the current mess we are in due to incompetence and insufficient resolve.

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