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.