The Propaganda War Intensifies in Afghanistan as the Taliban Gain Ground
KABUL, Afghanistan – First, a remote provincial capital in southwestern Afghanistan fell. The next day it was a city in northern Afghanistan. On Sunday, Taliban fighters took three more cities, including their biggest prize to date, the main provincial capital of Kunduz.
During all this time, the Afghan central government has recognized very little.
In three days, at least five provincial capitals have been seized by the Taliban, in a ruthless ground offensive that has led many local officials to abandon their posts and flee the towns they rule.
But the country’s government, always trying to make it seem like it has the upper hand over the Taliban, has remained relatively silent on the huge losses suffered across the country. Rather than admit that the cities fell, the government simply said that the courageous Afghan security forces were fighting in several capitals of the country and that the airstrikes killed dozens of Taliban fighters.
“The country’s security and defense forces are always ready to defend this land,” the Afghan defense ministry said. tweeted Sunday when Kunduz was under siege. “People’s support and love for these strengths increases their motivation and effort. “
With the fall of the cities and the end of the American military campaign for the most part, the propaganda war in Afghanistan has grown in disproportionate importance. For the Taliban, it is an effort to communicate a rhythm of victories, big or small, and to create an air of inevitability in their return to power. For the government, this is a total effort to avoid panic, boost morale and minimize losses.
In recent days, the Taliban have shared videos of cheering crowds welcoming them to the provinces (although some say Afghans are only doing so to avoid being injured by the Taliban later). On social media, Taliban spokespersons blamed the civilian casualties and infrastructure damage on the Afghan government, rather than the group’s aggressive takeover of large segments of the country.
Their messages call on the Afghan security forces to surrender, with promises that they will be treated humanely, accompanied by photos of the weapons seized and of the security forces who have given up. In particular, the Taliban’s messages lack any mention of reconciliation with the government.
The government’s information strategy sought to create the opposite impression, with often exaggerated and sometimes false claims about military victories, recaptured districts and claims of Taliban casualties.
This approach emerged this summer to replace something much more concrete: a publicly stated plan to defeat an enemy that appears to be on the verge of crushing fragile Afghan government institutions. Instead, Afghan leaders offer assurances, meeting regularly for an elegant group photo at the presidential palace, conveying an image of stability and calm in the face of the violence.
But news outside Kabul, the capital, has created a disconnect, especially as alarming reports are circulating of provincial officials of the Afghan security forces – exhausted, starving and underfunded – being overwhelmed by insurgents or falling behind. making it completely.
In the north, the key city of Mazar-i-Sharif is now largely surrounded, as the capitals of three neighboring provinces fell to the Taliban on Sunday. In the south, the economic center of Kandahar has been under siege for a month, despite escalating US airstrikes to slow the advance of the insurgents.
As of Sunday, senior government officials still had not publicly acknowledged the seizure of a provincial capital; instead, tweets from the Afghan Ministry of Defense touted the deaths of hundreds of Taliban fighters, but the government has inflated those losses in the past.
A nascent plan to slow the Taliban’s winning streak now exists, according to US and UN diplomats and officials, and it closely follows long-standing US recommendations that Afghans should consolidate their remaining forces around roads and cities. crucial, as well as major border crossings. , effectively abandoning most of the dozens of neighborhoods already taken by the Taliban.
Mr. Ghani alluded to the plan in a speech to parliament on August 2: “The Afghan army will focus on strategic objectives,” he said. “Afghan police officers must ensure the security of cities and strategic neighborhoods. “
But the Defense Ministry continues to insist that the government intends to take back all of the hundreds of districts captured by the Taliban within six months.
“Our strategy is to increase the number of airstrikes against the Taliban,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Fawad Aman. “First, we are going to reclaim the neighborhoods that are very important. Then we will try to reclaim all the districts under Taliban control.
This would go directly against what the Americans have been advising for months: not to defend rural communities. This is indeed what happened anyway, as Afghan forces, district after district, surrendered or fled, sometimes without a fight.
And despite the government’s counter-message that it is killing Taliban fighters in astonishing numbers, the losses they suffered appear to have had a limited effect on the group’s military campaign. Since early May, the Taliban have captured around 200 districts, giving them control of more than half of Afghanistan’s 400+ districts.
Sometimes the government has claimed to have taken over districts that never fell to the Taliban, such as Pashtun Kot in Faryab province and Ahmadabad in Paktia province. At other times, government claims appear clearly wrong to residents of allegedly recaptured neighborhoods.
“There was no operation,” said Lutfullah Mashal, a delivery truck driver in northern Balkh district, which the government falsely claimed to have taken over after being overtaken by the Taliban in June. “The Taliban move freely in the district. They tax people and they implemented all of their old rules. “
The sighting of the driver was confirmed by an official from the provincial police headquarters who was not authorized to speak to the media.
When the government fails to keep a neighborhood it has taken over, even briefly, the consequences can be severe for residents.
On July 18, members of a pro-government militia retook the Malistan district of Ghazni province, populated by Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite ethnic group persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. The next day, the Taliban expelled the militiamen. About 20 Hazara civilians in the district were killed by the Taliban; dozens more fled to Kabul. The government has never publicly acknowledged the new loss of the Malistan district.
The government’s choppy narrative seems to have convinced few. “The government has the capacity to reclaim districts,” said Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, former deputy interior minister. “But the main point is, what are they going to do after they get them?”
“The neighborhoods will soon collapse again,” he added.
A senior officer of the country’s army, who wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, noted that many Taliban conquests are carried out by a small force of ten fighters which should be easy. to take back quarters. Yet even if they did, he said, Afghan security forces would likely not hold them back due to weak defenses, weak local leaders and lack of support from the central government.
Bashir Ahmad Nemani, a local police commander in the northern province of Badakhshan, saw these weaknesses firsthand. The province, including its Khwahan district, is now almost entirely in Taliban hands – a bitter pill for the government as it was the only region in Afghanistan that resisted insurgents throughout their rule at the end of the 1990s.
This time, faced with an onslaught from the Taliban, the Badakhshan provincial police chief “promised reinforcements,” Nemani said. “They never came. The local militia working with the government quickly collapsed.
“There was no option,” he said. “Everything has been destroyed. The police collapsed. Mr. Nemani crossed the border into Tajikistan with six of his men.
Airlifted to Kabul by the Tajiks, he said he wanted to continue fighting and only wait for the word of the government to return and take up arms.
“There is a lot of pain in my heart,” Mr. Nemani said. “Who could be happy with this brutal situation? “
Najim Rahim contributed reporting.
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