Afghan leaders sideline spokespersons amid growing disinformation war

KABUL, Afghanistan – After Ahmad Jawad Hijri saw the injured children in hospital and learned of the Afghan airstrike that brought them there, killing nine more people around their age in northern Afghanistan , he never expected his answer to lead him to jail.

But Mr Hijri, then spokesperson for the governor of Takhar province, was arrested, jailed for three days, and then fired after telling the media what happened – a standard part of his role he had. played several times before. Senior officials in Kabul insisted that only Taliban fighters were killed in the strike, not children, and that anyone who said otherwise should be prosecuted.

“At the hospital, I saw the injured children,” Hijri said. “I didn’t make a mistake.”

The war in Afghanistan has long been one of the competing narratives. But the government’s response to the October 22 strike in Takhar province signaled a change in tactics by President Ashraf Ghani’s administration: an open declaration of its willingness to suppress and deny reports of innocent deaths. . It also highlighted the changing political landscape as peace negotiations continue in Qatar and the Taliban try to profit from the attention they are attracting on the world stage.

The press briefings that defined the first years of the war as the two sides fought to win Afghan hearts and minds have almost ceased. This leaves its main players – the United States, the Taliban and the government – to experiment with different communication strategies to achieve the desired goals.

But while Americans stand ready to withdraw from the country in the coming months, the Afghan government – inundated by Taliban attacks, morale in its security forces, and waves of targeted killings across the country – has only receded. to present itself as a bastion. democratic values.

The October airstrike, experts said, was a turning point for the Afghan government. Even the pretense of accountability turned into an outright condemnation of those who went against the government’s bottom line, possibly out of fear of further losing public position.

The crackdown only encouraged the Taliban, eager to prove that they are capable of running Afghanistan better than the current rulers, who are increasingly losing credibility.

The Afghan government “is so afraid of criticism that it refuses to admit its mistakes or take responsibility,” said Patricia Gossman, associate director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. “It’s ultimately self-destructive, but they desperately need to control the information.”

Earlier in the war, the Afghan government was reluctant to deal with civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition or by Afghan forces, often committing to investigation but delivering results rarely made public. But at least the episodes were acknowledged, and local officials in areas where civilians were injured or killed were allowed to speak freely.

The Taliban used the killing of civilians as a propaganda tool for the entire war, labeling the nightly air strikes and raids by the US and NATO as blatant crimes against the Afghan people. But as Western troops reduced their presence and Afghan forces deployed their own weapons against the insurgent group, the stray airstrikes and misguided artillery fire that injured and killed innocent people has always become a propaganda tool. more powerful, this time directly directed against the Afghan Government.

One such example involved photos of dead civilians and destroyed property posted on Twitter last week by a Taliban spokesman who called them war crimes committed by Afghan and US military. These images are often the catalyst for a two-way public outcry: blaming the government for its failure to protect its people and the Taliban for their unwavering commitment to violence.

As the Taliban have stepped up their dissemination of propaganda, the Afghan government has tightened the reins of official dialogue with the public. Since October, the Ghani administration has muzzled provincial spokespersons and district governors, demanding that they stop giving information to the media, several Afghan officials from several provinces told The Times, including of civilian casualties.

The crackdown made provincial spokespersons fear losing their jobs or being arrested. A spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said journalists often had to wait hours or days before hearing from provincial governors because their spokespersons were not authorized to respond .

U.S. officials and members of Mr. Ghani’s administration attributed the crackdown to a lack of coordination between local and state agencies and said provincial spokespersons were not allowed to speak only on issues of security.

Sediq Seddiq, spokesman for Mr. Ghani, denied that the government was trying to limit the news, saying the Afghan government had “been a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and enforcing access laws. to information that is unprecedented in the region.

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 Afghan officials have more control over the narrative. national, said a former US official.

This dynamic took place on Sunday in southern Afghanistan. Local officials in Nimruz province claimed that an Afghan airstrike had killed at least a dozen civilians a day earlier, only to be said by the governor that 12 Taliban had been killed and a report said. civilian casualties were under investigation. On the same day, protesters took the remains of those killed to the provincial capital, claiming women and children were among the dead.

The suppression of information has been a boon for the Taliban, an insurgent group that once banned television and rarely spoke to reporters. Experts say their Feb. 29 agreement with the United States on a withdrawal schedule helped legitimize the group internationally, prompting the Taliban’s public relations apparatus to expand significantly.

Taliban opinion pieces written in English are often published on the group’s website, Voice of Jihad, and sometimes appear in international media, including the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. Local Afghan news outlets are posting statements by Taliban spokespersons on social media, just as they would Afghan officials. This is a far cry from ten years ago, when Taliban messages were often seen as lies.

The Taliban often lie about the death toll in their attacks, denying civilian casualties and sometimes blaming coalition forces. The group has denied having played a role in the recent round of targeted assassinations across the country, although it has been directly implicated by the US military and Afghan security officials.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the main spokesperson for the Taliban, said their media strategy focused on “sharing the truth for the people”. In reality, the group has two lines of effort: one supporting the peace talks and the other discrediting the Afghan government on the battlefield and supporting Taliban fighters.

To help counter the Taliban narrative, the United States has launched a small psychological operations unit called Information Warfare Task Force-Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officials. The Dark Outfit was formed at the request of General Austin S. Miller, the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, following the 2018 murder of the general. Abdul Raziq |, the Kandahar Police Chief. After his death in an insider attack, rumors quickly attributed his murder to Americans.

By combining cyber tools, intercepted communications and social media, the unit acts as an immediate counter-current to disrupt the messaging and information channels of the Taliban and terrorist groups in the country, officials said.

Mr. Hijri, the province’s former spokesman, still refuses to cover up the civilian casualties he saw on October 22. A report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission corroborated his claims about the episode, saying that an Afghan government airstrike killed nine children, aged 7 to 13, and injured more than 14 others. Taliban fighters were also injured.

“I am in the middle of two stones: on one side, the Taliban and on the other, the government,” Hijri said. “Now my fate is not clear.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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