Afghan Leaders Sideline Spokesmen in an Escalating Misinformation Warfare
KABUL, Afghanistan – After seeing the wounded children in the hospital and learning about the Afghan air strike that took them there and killing nine others their age in northern Afghanistan, Ahmad Jawad Hijri never expected his reaction to land him in jail.
But Mr. Hijri, then the spokesman for the governor of Takhar Province, was arrested, detained for three days, and then released after telling the news media what happened – a standard part of his role that he had played many times. Top officials in Kabul insisted that the strike killed only Taliban fighters, not children, and that anyone who said otherwise should be prosecuted.
“I saw the wounded children in the hospital,” said Hijri. “I didn’t make a mistake.”
The war in Afghanistan has long been a competing narrative. However, the government’s response to the October 22 strike in Takhar province signaled a change in tactics by President Ashraf Ghani’s government: an obvious declaration of willingness to suppress and deny information about innocent deaths. It also highlighted the changing political landscape as Qatar peace negotiations continue and the Taliban seek to capitalize on the attention they are attracting on the world stage.
The news that defined the first years of the war, when both sides struggled to win Afghan hearts and minds, has almost stopped. The main players – the United States, the Taliban and the government – are testing different communication strategies to achieve the desired goals.
But with Americans potentially pulling out of the country in the coming months, the Afghan government – inundated with Taliban attacks, falling morale among its security forces, and waves of targeted killings across the country – has only shrunk to portray itself as a bastion of democratic values.
According to experts, the air strike in October was a turning point for the Afghan government. Even the right to accountability shifted to outright condemnation of those who violated the government’s bottom line, probably for fear of further losing public standing.
The move has only encouraged the Taliban, who want to prove their ability to lead Afghanistan better than the current leaders, who are increasingly losing credibility.
The Afghan government “is so afraid of criticism that it is unwilling to admit mistakes or hold itself accountable,” said Patricia Gossman, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s ultimately self-destructive, but they really want to control information.”
At the beginning of the war, the Afghan government was reluctant to face civilian casualties caused by the coalition or the Afghan armed forces, often promising to investigate but offering results that were rarely made public. But at least the episodes were recognized, and local officials from areas where civilians were wounded or killed were allowed to speak freely about them.
The Taliban used civilian death as a propaganda tool for the entire war, pointing out air strikes and night strikes by the US and NATO as blatant crimes against the Afghan people. But as Western forces reduced their presence and Afghan forces turned their own weapons against the insurgent group, the resulting air strikes and misdirected artillery fire that wounded and killed innocents became an increasingly powerful propaganda tool, this time directly on the Afghan government.
An example of this was photos of dead civilians and destroyed property posted on Twitter last week by a Taliban spokesman, highlighting them as war crimes committed by the Afghan and US military. Such images are often catalysts for public outcry that goes both ways: They accuse the government of failing to protect their people and the Taliban for their unwavering commitment to violence.
When the Taliban expanded their propaganda distribution, the Afghan government intensified official dialogue with the public. Since October, the Ghani government has been silencing provincial spokesmen and district governors and demanding that they stop relaying information to the news media, several Afghan officials from several provinces told the Times, particularly on civilian casualties.
The crackdown has raised concerns among provincial officials that they may lose their jobs or be arrested. A spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said journalists often had to wait hours or days to hear from provincial governors because their spokesmen were not allowed to respond.
American officials and members of Mr. Ghani’s government attributed the action to a lack of coordination between local and national authorities, saying that provincial spokesmen were forbidden to speak only about security issues.
Sediq Seddiq, Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, denied the government attempted to restrict information, saying that the Afghan government “has been a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and enforcing access to information laws in the region are unparalleled “.
Ultimately, the Afghan government’s decision to suppress information at the local level means that the Taliban have more room to control the narrative in the districts of the country where they are present, but that Afghan officials have more control over the national narrative said a former US official.
This dynamic played out in southern Afghanistan on Sunday. Local officials in Nimruz province alleged an Afghan air strike there the day before had killed at least a dozen civilians, only to learn from the governor that 12 Taliban had been killed and a civilian casualty report was being investigated. On the same day, protesters took the remains of those killed to the provincial capital, saying that women and children were among the dead.
The suppression of information was a boon to the Taliban, an insurgent group that once banned televisions and rarely spoke to reporters. According to experts, the agreement with the United States of February 29 on a timetable for the withdrawal has helped legitimize the group at the international level, which has made the Taliban’s PR apparatus grow significantly.
Taliban opinions in English are often now published on the group’s website, Voice of Jihad, and sometimes appear in international news media, including the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Local Afghan news outlets publish statements by Taliban spokesmen on social media, much like Afghan officials do. It is a long way from a decade ago when Taliban news was often dismissed as a lie.
The Taliban often lie about the death toll in their attacks, denying civilian casualties and sometimes blaming coalition forces for them. The group has declined to play a role in recent targeted killings across the country, despite being directly implicated by the US military and Afghan security officials.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, said its media strategy was aimed at “sharing the truth for the people.” In reality, the group has two options: one supports the peace talks and the other discredits the Afghan government on the battlefield and supports Taliban fighters.
To counter the Taliban’s narrative, the United States has set up a small psychological operations unit called the Information Warfare Task Force-Afghanistan, according to US military officials. The shady outfit was made at the request of Gen. Austin S. Miller, commander of the U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, following the assassination of Gen. Abdul Raziq, the Kandahar police chief, in 2018. After his death in an insider attack, rumors quickly attributed his murder to the Americans.
By combining cyber tools, intercepted communication and social media, the unit acts as an immediate antipole to disrupt the news and information channels of the Taliban and terrorist groups in the country.
Mr. Hijri, the former provincial spokesman, still refuses to cover up the civilian victims he saw on October 22nd. A report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission backed up its claims on the episode, saying that an Afghan government air strike killed nine children. aged 7 to 13 and wounded more than 14 others. Taliban fighters were also injured.
“I’m in the middle of two stones: one side is the Taliban and the other side is the government,” said Hijri. “Now my fate is not clear.”
Taimoor Shah contributed to coverage from Kandahar, Afghanistan.