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The man winning the Afghan war with spin

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9 February 2010 13:06

James Brown served in a strategy role for the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

The name Zabihullah Mujahid may belong to one man or maybe to five. He may live in Afghanistan or Pakistan. His name would certainly have been absent from deliberations at the London Conference on Afghanistan last week. Yet he may be the greatest asset the Taliban has in a war that is increasingly being decided on perception of victory rather than actual tactical military victory.

Zabihullah Mujahid is the moniker adopted by the media spokesman for the Taliban. He is the Taliban's Gerry Adams – eloquent and available for comment 24 hours a day. He is Mullah Omar's mouthpiece in a war dominated by instantaneous media coverage. Mujahid puts the Taliban into a symbiotic relationship with Afghan and international journalists who crave regular information but receive little from Afghan and Western military forces.

The Taliban's media operations are extremely active – in the last week of January over 160 statements were released relating to issues ranging from local attacks on Western forces to denial of peace talks. The majority come from Zabihullah Mujahid. The Taliban practice the golden rule of strategic communications – he who fills the news vacuum first, wins.

When Taliban forces attacked government buildings in Kabul on 18 January, the first authoritative figure quoted on the attack in the New York Times was Zabihullah Mujahid. Sure, the NYT admitted Mujahid's initial claims of casualties among Afghan officials were an exaggeration, but they reported his words all the same. When Taliban gunmen stormed a UN guesthouse in late October last year and killed three UN workers, Mujahid explained the Taliban's motivation: 'This is our first attack on UN staff in Kabul because of the elections...and we will continue the attacks'.

Spectacular attacks in Kabul linked to rapid media statements are an old trick for the Taliban. They've refined their methods based on media results from similar attacks on Kabul government buildings in February 2009 and an earlier Victory Day attack on President Karzai in April 2008. While the attacks make for headlines around the world that bemoan the lack of security in Afghanistan, they don't really change the broader security situation in Afghanistan much at all.

What the Taliban's spectacular attack strategy does do is create events tailor made for media. This strategy is integral to creating the perception that the Taliban is winning in Afghanistan.

The reality is that there are several good reasons for why perception of momentum should rest with the Afghan and Western security forces: the US has committed to raise troop levels by nearly 30%, the war is finally being resourced on an appropriate level, and an increasing commitment of civilian and aid resources is matching the military increase in tempo.

But the US and ISAF have had little success in spinning their story. General McCrystal's own initial assessment report to the US Secretary of Defence outlines some of the inadequacies in the ISAF strategic communications effort that he labels 'ill-equipped and under-resourced'.

The ramifications of losing the battle for perception are much more serious now that the Afghan Government and the international community have decided to enthusiastically pursue a program of reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban. CSIS analyst Anthony Cordesmann notes in this podcast from July 2009 that attempted reconciliation with Taliban elements will be dangerous if public perception is that the Taliban are wining. Reconciliation in that light, he believes, will only offer insurgents valuable time to regroup or an opportunity to exploit Afghan Government weakness.

In May 2009 Zabihullah Mujahid granted a rare TV interview to CNN's Nic Robertson. Mujahid had his back to the camera but his hands gave away what kind of man runs the Taliban's war of spin. They were not the hands of a hardened hill fighter the likes of which Australian forces regularly encounter in Uruzgan.

Instead they were the smooth, well-kept hands of a professional – most likely fluent in several languages, eloquent, and well connected within media and political circles in the Af-Pak region. In a climate in which the Afghan Government is talking reconciliation, it remains to be seen how long it will be until Zabihullah Mujahid turns his face to the camera. Victory in the battle for perceptions might just be the re-creation of the Taliban as a legitimate political force, with Zabihullah Mujahid as its legitimate chief spokesman.

Photo by Flickr user elycefeliz, used under a Creative Commons license.

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