Posts Tagged ‘Taliban’

Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy

4 August, 2008

In a weekend interview with The Daily Telegraph, which was also picked up by The Times, Brigadier Ed Butler – the former head of the SAS, and former commander of British forces in Afghanistan – claimed that not only were some British Muslims fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, but that militant Islamic groups in south-east Asia were also supporting terrorist plots in the UK.

“There are British passport holders who live in the UK who are being found in places like Kandahar… There is a link between Kandahar and urban conurbations in the UK. This is something the military understands, but the British public does not.”

Given this relationship between the foreign and domestic theatres, what are the implications for UK counterinsurgency strategy? In an article entitled Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy, IRG founder John Mackinlay argues that in the UK we are currently making a mistake in placing our expeditionary commitments over our domestic campaign, and that the current counterinsurgency discourse – as embodied in US Army / USMC FM 3-24 – is insufficiently nuanced to address the nature of the threat posed to Europe, and the UK in particular, by contemporary global insurgency:

Although doctrinally US and UK forces appear to have changed course, the core values of our security institutions remain the same, and at their most instinctive level they have not altered sufficiently to keep up with the changing world. In operational terms we are still facing backwards towards an era when counterinsurgency was a purely expeditionary activity, whereas in reality we need to be thinking more seriously about a 21st century adversary which does not require overseas territories, and which flourishes within our own population.

Representing an overwhelming US presence, US counterinsurgency doctrine is likely to become the concept for every future coalition. So it is this doctrine, and not a yet to be written NATO or national version, which will influence our future modus operandi.

FM3-24 has the appearance of novelty, it mentions the ‘global dimension’ and the possibility of ‘insurgent networks’, but in practical terms its prescriptions are only relevant to an expeditionary, territorial intervention focused on a particular state, with a clearly recognisable centre of gravity. The US doctrine is saying in effect that although the adversary which we seek to address is established globally and exerts itself in the virtual dimension, the military response will be a traditional unilateral expedition, whose capabilities will be tangible, territorial and limited to a space that is physical.

As a result of our failure to fully appreciate the inter-relationship of the domestic and expeditionary elements of our counterinsurgency campaign – or, at least, our failure to operationalise this understanding – it is argued that in the UK we are dangerously neglecting the former in pursuit of the latter.

In common with other European states the British government is engaged on two fronts, the overseas expeditions against the supposed sanctuaries in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a domestic campaign to stem disaffection and radicalisation in its own population. These campaigns are organisationally distinct. The overseas effort principally involves Defence, Foreign Affairs and Overseas Development, whereas the domestic plan of action principally involves the Home Affairs ministry. The problem is that in the UK the images and reverberations of the overseas campaign act against the domestic campaign. It is the continuous traffic of routine news and political debate concerning British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than old fashioned jihadi propaganda, which antagonises the vulnerable Muslim element of the British population, especially those who see their faith as the target of the war against terror.

Despite the obfuscations of its government, the British de facto give primacy to the expeditionary campaign. This prioritisation is not explicit, but by deed and declaration the government pursues its expeditionary campaigns in denial and disregard of mounting evidence that the UK’s foreign policy and military profile in the war against terror contributes to the increasing radicalisation of its own Muslim population.

Read the full article here:
Re-ordering the UK’s Campaign Primacy


Winning the War of Words in Afghanistan

26 July, 2008

The International Crisis Group has released a report entitled Taliban Propaganda: Winning the War of Words?. The report examines the way in which the Taliban exploits various forms of media to further its campaign, and focuses on what may be learned about the movement from studying its use of the media – both in terms of what the movement says in its communications, and what it does not say.

Executive Summary:

The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement. Using the full range of media, it is successfully tapping into strains of Afghan nationalism and exploiting policy failures by the Kabul government and its international backers. The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban. The Karzai government and its allies must make greater efforts, through word and deed, to address sources of alienation exploited in Taliban propaganda, particularly by ending arbitrary detentions and curtailing civilian casualties from aerial bombing.

Analysing the Taliban’s public statements has limits, since the insurgent group seeks to underscore successes – or imagined successes – and present itself as having the purest of aims, while disguising weaknesses and underplaying its brutality. However, the method still offers a window into what the movement considers effective in terms of recruitment and bolstering its legitimacy among both supporters and potential sympathisers.

The movement reveals itself in its communications as:

  • the product of the anti-Soviet jihad and the civil war that followed but not representative of indigenous strands of religious thought or traditional pre-conflict power structures;
  • a largely ethno-nationalist phenomenon, without popular grassroots appeal beyond its core of support in sections of the Pashtun community;
  • still reliant on sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though local support has grown;
  • linked with transnational extremist groups for mostly tactical rather than strategic reasons but divided over these links internally;
  • seeking to exploit local tribal disputes for recruitment and mainly appealing to the disgruntled and disenfranchised in specific locations, but lacking a wider tribal agenda; and
  • a difficult negotiating partner because it lacks a coherent agenda, includes allies with divergent agendas and has a leadership that refuses to talk before the withdrawal of foreign forces and without the imposition of Sharia (Islamic law).

Out of power and lacking control over territory, the Taliban has proved adept at projecting itself as stronger than it is in terms of numbers and resources. Despite the increasing sophistication of some of its propaganda, however, it still puts out contradictory messages that indicate internal rifts and the diffuse nature of the insurgency. These reveal a cross-border leadership and support apparatus striving to present a unified front and assert control even as various groups maintain their own communications networks. Maintaining relations with transnational jihadist networks, which have a more global agenda, is a potential problem for the Taliban, which has always been a largely nationalistic movement.

A website in the name of the former regime – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is used as an international distribution centre for leadership statements and inflated tales of battlefield exploits. While fairly rudimentary, this is not a small effort; updates appear several times a day in five languages. Magazines put out by the movement or its supporters provide a further source of information on leadership structures and issues considered to be of importance. But for the largely rural and illiterate population, great efforts are also put into conveying preaching and battle reports via DVDs, audio cassettes, shabnamah (night letters – pamphlets or leaflets usually containing threats) and traditional nationalist songs and poems. The Taliban also increasingly uses mobile phones to spread its message.

The vast majority of the material is in Pashtu, and a shortage of language skills in the international community means much of this either passes unnoticed or is misunderstood. English-language statements are relatively crude, but the Taliban is able to put out its story rapidly. More effort is devoted to Arabic language output, aimed at soliciting the support of transnational networks and funders. The overriding strategic narrative is a quest for legitimacy and the projection of strength. Use of tactics such as suicide bombings – previously unknown in Afghanistan – and roadside bombs, as well as such audacious actions in 2008 as a prison break in Kandahar city, an attack on a military parade attended by President Hamid Karzai and an assault on a five-star hotel demonstrate that grabbing attention lies at the core of operations.

Within Afghanistan the Taliban is adept at exploiting local disenfranchisement and disillusionment. The Kabul administration needs to ensure it is seen as one worth fighting for, not least by ending the culture of impunity and demanding accountability of its members. The international community must provide the necessary support and pressure for improved performance, while also examining its own actions. Whatever the military benefits of arbitrary detentions, they are far outweighed by the alienation they cause. The effectiveness of aerial bombardment, even if strictly exercised within the bounds of international law, must be considered against the damage to popular support. Greater efforts are needed in Western capitals to explain to their own populations the necessity of staying for the long haul rather than yielding to the pressure of quick fixes that give only the appearance of action.

The Taliban is not going to be defeated militarily and is impervious to outside criticism. Rather, the legitimacy of its ideas and actions must be challenged more forcefully by the Afghan government and citizens. Its killings of civilians and targeting of community leaders need to be highlighted, including a public accounting for actions by the militants through open trials – something that has not yet happened. Strengthening the legitimacy of the Afghan government and ensuring that its actions – and those of its international backers – are similarly bound by the rule of law should be an important complement. Ultimately, winning popular support is not about telling local communities that they are better off today. It is about proving it.

Read the full report here.

Bureaucratic facade and political realities of disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan

22 May, 2008

Antonio Giustozzi, author of Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan, has a paper on DDR in Afghanistan published in the Conflict, Security & Development journal.


Internationally sponsored disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan was characterised by a marked divergence between the bureaucratic process designed by the UN and the political reality of disarmament. The bureaucratic process had several flaws of its own, which were particularly obvious in the case of DIAG, but the main reason for the substantial failure of disarmament was the absence of political will among key Afghan partners. International players in the process choose to compromise on rather unfavourable terms, saving the facade of demobilisation thanks to the formal disbandment of the militias incorporated under the Ministry of Defence, but in fact allowing thousands of militias to continue operating throughout the country.

The article shows how the very limited impact of DDR and even more so DIAG was already obvious in the early stages of the process and was deliberately ignored. The article concludes that the compromise could at least have achieved some limited aims, such as delegitimising the militias, had not many of their leaders been allowed to compete successfully for parliamentary seats shortly afterwards.

Access the paper here:

Bureaucratic facade and political realities of disarmament and demobilisation in Afghanistan
Update: Free version no longer available.

German Special Forces in Afghanistan – Not Licensed to Kill

20 May, 2008

Much has been made by various commentators in recent months about the negative impact national caveats are having on Nato/ISAF operational capabilities in Afghanistan. As well as affecting operational effectiveness, such caveats – which place self-imposed restrictions on the way in which individual national forces may be deployed – are having a corrosive effect on relations between contributing Nato countries, and on overall ISAF morale.

Although forces from all 26 Nato member states are deployed in Afghanistan, only Britain, America, Canada, Denmark and Holland have not used caveats to limit the rules of engagement of their troops. While the French, Italians and Spanish have all come in for criticism in the past, particular ire has been directed at the German contingent, whose forces may only be deployed in a non-combat role in the relatively peaceful north.

Such criticism is only likely to intensify following the revelation yesterday by Der Spiegel that an important Taliban commander – said to be responsible for the November 2007 Baghlan bombing which killed 79 people, including dozens of children – was allowed to escape by German KSK special forces as they were not authorised to use lethal force.

The case has caused disquiet at the headquarters of the ISAF peacekeeping force in Kabul. The current strategy for fighting the enemy is to buy as many Taliban sympathizers as possible, to at least win them over for a while — and to “eliminate” the hardliners through targeted assassinations.

From a military point of view, the so-called targeting has been a success. Close to one-third of the Taliban leaders, about 150 commanders, have since been “neutralized,” meaning they are either dead or captured. Most of the capture-or-kill missions, as the operations are called in military jargon, are undertaken by British or American special forces.

But so far the Germans haven’t wanted to take part. And that causes problems, because the insurgents are increasingly gaining influence in the nine provinces under German command.


Nonetheless, even in a time of growing threats in Afghanistan, Berlin is sticking to its “principle of proportionality,” stressed one high-ranking official in the Defense Ministry. A fugitive like the Baghlan bomber is not an aggressor and should not be shot unless necessary, the official explains.

Soldiers from Britain’s British Special Air Service or the US’s Delta Force are less bothered about such hair-splitting. For them, this is a war in which it comes down to “kill or be killed,” say sources in military circles in Kabul. The “targets” are identified, tracked down and — often with the help of laser-guided weapons systems — “eliminated.”

The Germans have considerable misgivings about such an approach. They have secretly given “clarification notes” to NATO with far-ranging instructions for their soldiers which expressly contradict the usual procedures: “The use of lethal force is prohibited unless an attack is taking place or is imminent.” Sources in NATO circles regard the confidential document as a “national exception,” a caveat which places restrictions on operational capability. The Germans, for their part, always avoid using the word caveat, out of diplomatic considerations vis-à-vis their allies.

The most remarkable thing about the secret document is its stated justification. The German government considers its allies’ approach as “not being in conformity with international law.” Little wonder that NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is marked by tension and friction.

While the principle of proportionality is an important one in counterinsurgency, the German position epitomised by this incident is clearly pushing the principle to the point of absurdity. However, irrespective of how ridiculous this individual incident is, it is the underlying issue of national caveats that is ultimately at fault, and here the Germans are by no means solely to blame.

Speaking in March, ISAF commander Gen Dan McNeill said that he “would like the caveats to be eliminated”, claiming they were “frustrating in how they impinge upon my ability to properly plan, resource and prosecute effective military operations”. Unfortunately, there does not currently seem any realistic prospect that such wishes are likely to be fulfilled.

Read the full Der Spiegel article here.

[Der Spiegel]
Der Spiegel

Insurgency, the Media and the Propaganda of the Deed

8 May, 2008

IRG member Neville Bolt, who is completing a PhD on the Propaganda of the Deed in the War Studies department at King’s, has added the following to the debate regarding the role played by the media in facilitating insurgent exploitation of the POTD strategy, and the difficult question of how best to respond.

NB: To read John Mackinlay’s original post, criticising the role played by the media in accentuating the propaganda effect of insurgent operations such as the recent Taliban attack on Karzai and the Parade in Kabul, click here. To read the perspective of BBC editor Nick Walton, who edited the World Service’s coverage of the Taliban attack for the Newshour programme, click here.


Lest we forget Alastair Campbell’s TV studio-offensive that led to the culling of BBC bosses over Iraq, I would make a plea on behalf of the media which walks a permanent tightrope between critical independence and government pressure. John Mackinlay’s article highlights the dilemma for all journalists and news organisations covering Afghanistan and other conflict spots. True, many reports could apply the kind of techniques John mentions, namely the BBC’s intros to Zimbabwe stories reminding viewers of the Corporation’s prohibition from working inside the country, or its exercising a sensitivity to safeguarding the interests of minors or rape victims. Perhaps that could be a useful contextual device to begin to explain what is happening in Afghanistan. But in the end I’m not sure what the public makes of riders saying the BBC is banned from Zimbabwe. In fact it all too often appears that the organisation is cynically attempting to promote the derring-do of its intrepid staff when they do go in. I suspect these riders wear a bit thin or actually go unnoticed by most viewers after a while. To add a studio interview on the back of each report is not realistic for reasons of time. Anyway I sense this might eventually bore the audience (remember news is both information and entertainment) or come across as some kind of propaganda, whose strings are being pulled by unseen hands.

I fully endorse John’s analysis that propaganda occupies the central role in Taliban military strategy, and more generally that postmodern insurgency asserts the primacy of POTD. However, we should not always presume journalistic myopia or misunderstanding, or indeed that every reporter or analyst should share our view. I haven’t spoken to Peter Taylor specifically about the absence of the POTD angle from his BBC2 ‘Age of Terror’ series. However he has offered to come in and address the Insurgency Research Group later this year. We should explore this line with him then.

Equally we need to remind ourselves that the media, even the British media, does not act homogeneously, that television, radio, press, and net do report according to different worldviews, and indeed from divergent political and corporate agendas. Within each of these strands of journalism, and in the larger press or broadcasting groups, there remains a reasonable diversity of opinion. And that’s healthy. Journalists may appear ‘feral’, they may hunt in packs, but that doesn’t mean the wolves see eye to eye. Although BBC News did not carry the Kabul story as POTD, the Economist (3/5/08), by contrast did. Their correspondent describes it as a Taliban ‘propaganda victory’, noting that such ‘spectaculars’ without requiring much logistical input, mould public opinion.

The Western counter-narrative has to live with a permanent dilemma. The Taliban and other insurgents will continue to piggy-back on Western (and non-Western) media outlets. Indeed they will do their best to control them, shaping campaigns within a strategy of ‘political marketing’, completely cognisant of the demands of what makes a ‘good story’. Why are we so surprised? After all, our own political parties and lobby groups do that to each other every hour of every day. However censoring footage from a Taliban ‘spectacular’, crosses the line in the sand. Moreover persuading news editors to remove the violent spectacle from a news compilation (one ingredient of a ‘good story’), and merely replacing it with talking heads recounting what they witnessed, offers a new take on the myth of Sysyphus. Media outlets already exercise discretion, periodically self-censorship. But even if these images were to be self-censored and removed from our screens, we know they will get out somehow from bystanders, non-Western news networks, NATO troops or Taliban propagandists. Consequently the damage to journalistic credibility, built on fair and truthful reporting, with Western domestic and foreign audiences and readerships, risks being even more far-reaching. It’s a dilemma.

What strikes and unsettles many non-Brits about UK media reporting of Zimbabwe, for example, is its unrelenting, hostile coverage of the Mugabe regime – albeit this reporting appears valid and justified to most who have visited that country. But interestingly this is not mirrored by most international broadcast networks. It just so happens that the British media’s approach to Zimbabwe coincides with UK Government policy towards Mugabe. Through their owners’ corporate agendas, public funding rounds or state licensing regulations, our media organisations already stand too close for comfort to government. I suspect John is not suggesting independent media now begin to promote government policies. That would be a dangerous road to go down. What I believe John is really looking for is not a rider, disclaimer or scene-setter on each report, but a fundamental process of re-education, a new way of interpreting and communicating events, so that all outrages and attacks are presented through this permanent prism of POTD. So it is in the conception of the story. That means the reporter at source should interpret events through a lens other than one of political economy, or military gains and setbacks. So perhaps what is needed is for groups like IRG to engage more with the journalistic community, and edge towards this elusive prism through a continuous process of argument and persuasion. The real work needs to be done off-air, not just on.


Read More:

John Mackinlay:
The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

Nick Walton:
The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

Afghanistan: Americans have the wristwatches, but who has the time?

[My] State Failure:
About an indirect approach to information operations

Did the Taliban Master 19th Century Anarchist Theories While We Slept?

A Soldier’s Story – Video Blogging from Helmand

4 May, 2008

In what it calls ‘a ground-breaking departure for newspapers’, the Sunday Telegraph has ’embedded’ a video camera with a front-line infantry regiment about to deploy on a 6-month tour to Helmand in Afghanistan.

Readers will be given a soldier’s eye view of life in Helmand, where 8,000 British troops are locked in an increasingly bitter conflict against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.

The Sunday Telegraph will receive regular video dispatches from Corporal Billy Carnegie, a section commander with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 5th battalion of The Scottish Regiment (5 Scots), which will appear on the Telegraph website on a regular basis.


Cpl Carnegie’s soldiers will video his unit taking part in foot patrols and combat operations against the Taliban, as well as helping with reconstruction and winning the hearts and minds of the local population.

His dispatches will record how soldiers fight and survive in the austere environment of the Helmand Desert, where temperatures soar to 50 C in the Summer.

Although ‘ground-breaking’ for UK newspapers, this type of project is not in itself new. Most notably, Deborah Scranton used the technique of providing active-duty soldiers with the means to record their own experiences for her prize-winning 2004 documentary The War Tapes, and also for her current PBS Frontline documentary Bad Voodoo’s War (available to view online here), both of which follow US troops in Iraq.

The Sunday Telegraph’s offering is unlikely (or even intended) to match the production values of the Scranton features, but should prove an interesting experiment, if only to see how much licence they are granted by the MoD. While text-based milblogging is quite common among US forces, it is comparatively rare among UK forces, and early examples have been characterised by run-ins with the authorities, as detailed by Daniel Bennett (BBC / KCL War Studies PhD) in this post and this post on his Reporting War blog.

I’m also interested in how much potential such projects may have as information operations, both domestically and internationally. On the domestic front, General Sir Richard Dannatt expressed concern last year at the “growing gulf between the army and the nation”, adding that “when a young soldier has been fighting in Basra or Helmand he wants to know that the people in their local pub know and understand what he has been doing, and why.” Such video blogs would seem an obvious and accessible means of addressing this issue, and reinforcing popular support for the deployment.

Similarly, on the international front, it might be worthwhile for the MoD to arrange, perhaps in return for access, for media outlets like the Telegraph to make subtitled versions of such products freely available for reproduction by foreign-language media outlets around the world. As bottom-up, independent collaborations between ordinary footsoldiers and journalists, such projects have a credibility with audiences that top-down government / military initiatives would struggle to match, and this should be exploited.

Meanwhile, the first post in the Telegraph series is available to view below. It is simply a pre-deployment introduction to CPL Carnegie and his section, with the Afghan sequences to follow over the coming weeks.

Warning: non-UK natives may struggle with some of the Scottish accents!

NB: If you have any problems viewing the embedded video, try the Sunday Telegraph site here.

The Propaganda of the Deed: A Perspective from the Media

2 May, 2008

Following John Mackinlay’s earlier post regarding the media’s complicity in the use made by insurgents of the propaganda of the deed – which focused in particular on the coverage of the recent Taliban attack on the National Day parade in Afghanistan – the following response has been contributed by Nick Walton, who edited the Newshour programme on BBC World Service radio which covered the Taliban attack in depth.


From the point of view of an informed layman, I understand and largely agree with your analysis of what happened, from the motives of those attacking, to the resultant images broadcast around the world without a caveat attached regarding POTD.

However, speaking as a journalist, things are a lot murkier! POTD is one layer of context (albeit a vital one) that allows us to understand an event such as this attack. Inevitably much of the context has to be stripped out on the day to day reporting of events such as attacks, actions etc…

For news programmes (with varying degrees of analysis) and other media, the first thing to do is to report what happened – in this case, for instance, we conducted an interview with an MP who was on the podium when it was attacked, along with sounds from TV footage to tell the story of what happened.

Some forms of media stop there. Newshour, for instance, has room to continue further, so we used an interview with our correspondent – the key question being asked was to be brought up to date with any reaction from both within Afghanistan and outside. This added more of the ‘what happened’, and allowed us to touch upon the analysis, although quite superficially. I gather that our focus was on the security-failures aspect of the attack.

We cannot bombard the listener with full analysis and context every time, so, on issues such as this, we generally try to visit certain areas of questioning to provide a narrative over time that helps people to understand or at least interpret what is happening. Tactics such as POTD fit in to this, but will not be brought up at every instance.

Other media, obviously, are less able to spend even the time that we spend – but that does not mean that they are not doing their job. For the six o’clock news, for instance, much of what they do is predicated on the assumption that for those who wish there are other sources that allow people to access the context and so on as appropriate.

One of those sources would be an in depth programme such as The Age of Terror – and I agree with your point regarding that series. But then I would never look to TV for anything too intelligent or subtle.

Ah, but the one thing that I have signally failed to address is why do the insurgents’ jobs for them by showing the attack at all (in particular without the context of the POTD)? On that count, why show, on the day that it happened, September 11th? Well news is sensation, news is things happening, news is stories with beginnings, middles and ends, that fit the medium. The attack made an interesting start to the programme – it was vastly more engaging than most other things happening on Sunday – and thanks to the TV sounds and the MP eye witness, it made engaging radio.

No one would seriously argue that it was not news – the motives involved are a consideration, but we cannot self censor an event such as this attack on the grounds that those carrying out the attack did it for the publicity. If Greenpeace dress up as rabbits and hold a protest to draw our attention to the rainforest, that’s not news for me – but if they gain publicity by means of a terrorist attack, I’m afraid it is (provided it is treated responsibly).

Obviously we need both awareness of any motives, and sensitivity while dealing with the material. This certainly does not happen, as there is very little understanding or awareness of such unfashionable military concepts in journalism these days (as there isn’t understanding of areas like economics or science – too many bloody English Lit graduates in journalism, if you ask me).

This is only a partial defence, and probably only a surface explanation of the media’s actions regarding Sunday’s attack. After all, I am only an accidental journalist, and mostly a reluctant one too. There is more to say, but a skimpy e-mail would not do it justice…

The Taliban’s Propaganda of the Deed Strategy

29 April, 2008

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.

The Taliban, Executions & the UN

21 April, 2008

Reuters ran a story yesterday that caught my eye. It seems the Taliban have appealed to the UN, the EU, and just about anyone else who will listen, to place pressure on President Karzai in order to try and prevent him from approving the execution of around 100 (mainly Taliban) prisoners whose death sentences have recently been approved by the Afghan supreme court.

A statement on their web site read:

“We … demand the UN, the European Union, Red Cross and human rights organisations to take quick steps for stopping this barbaric act and stop the killing of innocent prisoners.”

While not personally in favour of the death penalty, my first reaction was a certain wry amusement that the Taliban – who are not exactly known for their liberal sentiments, or for their sense of restraint when it comes to executing criminals or prisoners of war – should take such a moral stance against “this barbaric act”.

However, beyond the apparent hypocrisy, this story is also of interest on another level. Irrespective of the content of the Taliban’s complaint, the actual appeal to the UN itself is highly significant.

A central and non-negotiable tenet of radical Islamist groups, from the Al-Qaeda nexus through to legal entities such as Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), is a rejection of all ‘man-made’ rules and organisations – particularly democracy, and its globalised embodiment, the UN – which are seen by the Salafists as rivals to the word of God, as dictated in the Qur’an.

This position is set forth by one of the most influential jihadi ideologues, Abu Muhammad ‘Aasim al-Maqdisi, in his treatise Democracy: A Religion! [PDF]. Similarly, Article 186 of the draft HT constitution reads: “The State is forbidden to belong to any organisation that is based on something other than Islam or which applies non-Islamic rules”.

As such, while it may seem a small matter, the Taliban’s appeal to the UN, which in and of itself is a de facto recognition of the UN’s authority, clearly distinguishes it from groups such as Al-Qaeda and HT, who on point of principle would never appeal to the UN under any circumstances. Taken in isolation this might not be regarded as significant, however, as has been detailed in earlier posts on this blog, it is symptomatic of an emerging cleavage between the Taliban – whose goals are essentially local – and Al-Qaeda type groups, whose goals are more disembodied and transnational.

The Taliban, General Giáp and Guerrilla Strategy

13 April, 2008

According to a Taliban spokesman interviewed by the Asia Times, the Taliban’s 2008 spring offensive will be characterised by a new strategy based upon the guerrilla tactics of legendary Vietnamese general, Võ Nguyên Giáp.

As one of the principal architects of the defeat of France and the US in the two Indochina Wars, General Giáp is an understandable model for the Taliban to try and emulate in their own war against the US and its European allies.

Afghanistan is about to enter a new phase; for the first time since their ouster in 2001, the Taliban will scale back their tribal guerrilla warfare and concentrate on tactics used by the legendary Vietnamese commander General Vo Nguyen Giap, an approach that has already proved successful in taming the Pakistani military in the tribal areas.

“For the first time, the Taliban will have a well-coordinated strategy under which we will seize isolated military posts for a limited time, taking enemy combatants hostage, and then leaving them,” “Dr Jarrah”, a Taliban media spokesman, told Asia Times Online in a telephone conversation from Kunar province in Afghanistan.

“This is the second tier of General Giap’s guerrilla strategy. The third tier is a conventional face-to-face war. This aims to demoralize the enemy,” Jarrah explained. “We have been delayed by rainfall, but you shall see action by mid-April.”


The Taliban’s new focus is the brainchild of several retired Pakistani military officers who are now part of the Taliban movement. They are complemented by men trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s India cell to fuel the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

These “neo-Taliban” have changed the face and dynamics of the Afghan insurgency. They are particularly careful not to blindly waste manpower, as in the past. During 2008, the main center of Taliban activity will be eastern Afghanistan.

While the Taliban’s desire to explicitly adopt classic insurgency doctrine is interesting, it is questionable whether they are in a position to successfully emulate Giáp in Afghanistan. One of the main differences is that Giáp was able to benefit from a regular supply of heavy weaponry and munitions from Mao across the border in China, including the artillery and anti-aircraft guns that proved key to isolating and destroying the French at Ðiện Biên Phủ.

Although able to overrun isolated outposts manned by poorly equipped Afghan National Police (ANP) – in the same way as Baitullah Mehsud’s Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are able to temporarily seize isolated forts in the FATA in Pakistan – the Taliban are a long way away from achieving the kind of coordinated assault, backed by heavy weaponry, that would be required to seize a coalition Forward Operating Base. It is also questionable whether the Taliban have the extremely tight command and control structure required to conduct the coordinated multi-pronged offensives key to Giáp’s success.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the Taliban’s claims have been greeted with considerable scepticism by NATO/ISAF commanders:

“Every year they claim a spring offensive. What offensive are they talking about? Blowing up cell phone towers in Helmand and Kandahar or blowing up power stations in Ghazni? This is not an offensive,” [ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carlos] Branco told Asia Times Online in a telephone interview from Kabul.


“The Taliban haven’t had a new strategy in the past, neither will they have one in the future. They will do what they did in 2007. They avoided any confrontation with NATO or the Afghan National Army and instead they attacked district headquarters and claimed they had captured the whole district. But before the arrival of our troops, they left.

“They did indeed attack some of our forward operation bases, but their attacks were ineffective as they lack the military capability … it makes me laugh when they try to compare their guerrilla strategy with that of General Giap’s,” said Branco.

“This is really nonsense. General Giap used coordinated guerrilla attacks and employing conventional tactics with a range of weaponry. The Taliban’s tactics are useless. The tried to use those tactics in 2006 and suffered heavy losses. I don’t think they will be able to repeat those tactics. They are not able to confront us on open ground, not even at the platoon level,” Branco said.

Read the article here. Read a PBS interview with General Giáp here.