The following post was contributed by IRG member, indeed IRG founder, John Mackinlay.
On Sunday 27 April Taliban fighters attacked Afghanistan’s National Day parade with light mortars, RPGs and AK 47 fire. The firing started during the 21 gun salute at the climax of the parade and the presence of camera crews and reporters from every major TV station and international news agency ensured that the story and above all the images were instantly beamed across the world in several major languages in time to make the evening news. After the initial reactions, there has been no intelligent acknowledgement in the US and European print stories which followed on Monday that this attack is part of Taliban’s propaganda of the deed (POTD) campaign and the extent to which the media are its major propagating asset. Are our “defence correspondents” too shy to scrutinise their own indispensable part in the Taliban POTD strategy or genuinely unaware of their central role in post modern insurgency?
In his yet to be published paper “Hearts and Minds: Time to Think Differently” Steve Tatham (researching at UK’s Defence Academy) shows convincingly that Taliban moved to a much more sophisticated propaganda approach in 2006 when it became the “key component in their campaign”. It is also possible that Taliban were increasingly aware that their previous efforts fell far short of the expectations of a potential audience that was multilingual and routinely exposed to the best television products in the world and therefore educated and very demanding in a visual sense. This point is also made in Nicholas O’Shaughnessy and Paul Baines about to be published 2008 paper “British Muslim Susceptibility to Islamist Propaganda: An Exploratory Study”. According to Steve Tatham Taliban’s re-branding project began by sending a start up team as interns to Al Qaeda’s video production unit Al Sahab in 2006 and very soon afterwards in early 2007 their own production standards visibly improved. In April 2007 the new, media savvy Taliban began to promote themselves as “the people’s movement” thanks to a five part series screened by Al Jazeera and compiled by their credulously enthusiastic Pakistan reporter. In June 2007 images of a Taliban suicide bombers graduation ceremony augmented this new image of themselves on the internet and in June a spokesman announced that they were henceforth the “New Taliban”.
Seen in this context Taliban’s recent attacks in Kabul (in January at the Serena Hotel and yesterday at the National Day parade) should be considered by our defence reporters with greater rigour as part of a new and highly sophisticated POTD campaign in which they themselves are a key factor. It is unlikely that the National Day attack was conceived as just another event in a series of random bang – bang attacks, which is how it has been reported. Had Karzai’s parade gone according to plan there would be no images of Sunday’s National Day ceremony now appearing on any of the international channels or newspapers. A burst of small arms fire and a few mortar bombs transformed it into a much more sensational event for the press who with steadfast incomprehension have filed exactly the images and moments that the Taliban’s own propaganda manager would have chosen himself. By doing so they boost up a global interest in the particular aspects of its disgrace, the sense of pantomime, the rout of be-medalled parade soldiers scampering across the parade square before the Taliban fire and worst of all rows of dignitaries diving for cover behind their seats on the flag decked parade stand. Thanks to the media all that remains of this tragic day are these relentlessly unforgiving and unqualified images.
The incident on Sunday demonstrates a classic propaganda of the deed partnership in which the insurgents with growing skill select a media-significant target and with witless incomprehension international reporters beam the most sensationally damning images of the event around the world so as to deliver the worst possible interpretation. There is no need for a Taliban subtext or even a photo caption, the images speak powerfully for themselves sending messages of a stricken regime put to flight in their gilded uniforms by the daring fighters of the Taliban.
The failure of frontline reporters to understand their role in a POTD campaign is emphasised in BBC 2’s flagship series on terrorist attacks “The Age of Terror”. In it Peter Taylor, who has been reporting on terrorism for 30 years makes a “thoughtful and intelligent examination” of the Palestinian hijack to Entebbe and the PIRA bomb at Enniskillen. But in both programmes so far his cameras dwell endlessly on the kinetic details of the attacks and at no time does he explain the two campaigns in terms of their significance in the evolution of insurgency. In particular the fact that neither attack had any military or tactical significance and that to succeed as part of a nascent POTD campaign their respective stories and images had to reach the outside world via the media, and that the assumption that the media would was central to the operational concept in each case. Taylor seems to view the attacks from a moral island without appearing to understand the concept that was being played out and above all that the media were part of the problem.
In the media’s defence it could be argued that on Sunday in simple, unqualified descriptive terms they showed what took place, and how are we to trust them if they withheld images and stories so that a different account emerges? However newspapers and TV stations have always been biased towards an editorial perspective or a particular audience. They also impose restrictions on themselves for apparently honourable reasons – to protect the privacy of children, rape victims, Prince Harry’s military service and caveats on impending military and police operations. The BBC routinely prefaces its news from Zimbabwe with the notice that their reporters are banned from that country. Why not therefore include in this category of honourable exceptions a constant qualification and declaration of their status in the reporting of a post-modern insurgency in which the POTD motive is central to every attack? Why not explain the propaganda context of their images or better still embargo the use of all images when reporting a sensational terrorist incident, including the endless resuscitation of images of previous attacks? But short-termism and golden–goose-egg syndrome ensure that no ambitious editor will forgo immediate profit to prevent the emergence of a regime in which their own function would be banned.