HERAT, Afghanistan — More than a week has passed since a U.S. bombardment killed civilians in western Afghanistan, but the battle between coalition forces and the Taliban has only intensified on another front: public relations.
Civilian deaths caused by U.S., NATO and Afghan operations — which, according to the United Nations, topped 800 last year — have long provoked public fury that the Taliban can exploit. But in response, the United States has also begun to control the message, often by providing a counter-narrative or admitting responsibility.
Last week's controversial airstrike in Farah Province killed some 140 villagers, according to Afghan officials. If correct, that would constitute the largest case of civilian deaths since 2001. The attack provoked outbursts of street violence and chants of anti-American slogans.
But the U.S. countered that a "number" of people had died in the engagement — and it blamed the Taliban for using people as human shields.
The controversy then worsened when it emerged over the weekend that chemical weapons may have been used in the clash. The U.S. military rejected that claim and went on the offensive Monday, when Col. Greg Julian, the top spokesman in Afghanistan, alleged that Taliban militants have employed white phosphorus — a highly flammable material that causes severe burns — at least four times in Afghanistan over the past two years.
Just hours later, another spokesperson highlighted 44 documented cases where militants in Afghanistan may have used the chemical in mortar attacks and homemade bombs, most recently in an attack last Thursday on a NATO outpost in Logar Province just south of Kabul.
Homayoun Shuaid, a journalist based in Kandahar, says that when he called Qazi Yusuf Ahmadi, the militants' southern spokesman, to get a reaction on the U.S. claims, they were dismissed as a "bunch of lies and propaganda."
"It's usually the other way around," with the U.S. rejecting Taliban reports, says Shuaid.
After an attack or errant U.S. airstrike, Taliban representatives usually text message or e-mail reports to him "within minutes," giving their version of what happened, Shuaid continues.
Their claims are almost always exaggerated, he says. But because they arrive first, he says, they take on the currency of truth among a populace that receives most of its information via radio or word of mouth.
Eight years after the fundamentalist movement enforced a ban on television, the Taliban has developed a fast, coordinated media apparatus that has eroded public support for nation-building, according to a July report by the International Crisis Group, even though active support for the insurgents remains low.
"This does not mean the people believe everything (Taliban operatives) say. But given the weakness of the government and missteps of the international community, it feeds into a climate of suspicion and potential alienation," says the author of the report, Joanna Nathan.
Their tools span the spectrum, from radio transmissions and a multilingual Web site, known as "The Emirate," which is updated almost daily with battle reports and press releases, to more traditional means of communication such as audio cassettes and "night letters" passed out by hand. And they have succeeded by filling a narrative void left by the Afghan government and coalition forces, who say they are slowed by hostile terrain and an obligation to find the truth.
In March, Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told journalists that "strategic communications" have become a "major, major gap to be filled" if U.S.-led forces are to reverse losses. This urgency figured in the Obama administration's new Afghan strategy revealed in March, which called for a major upgrade "to improve the image of the United States and its allies" and "to counter the propaganda that is key to the enemy's terror campaign."
One component of this strategy, according to British defense analyst Tim Foxley, is "to challenge the Taliban to explain their actions and intent," while promoting a grassroots discussion of "the Taliban's legitimacy, their interpretation of Islam, what constitutes a jihad, and the morality of killing civilians."
The military's improved responsiveness appears to be part of a host of changes now in motion to try and beat the Taliban at their own game.
The Pentagon has reportedly launched a broad "psychological operations" campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan to take down insurgent-run Web sites and the jam radio stations dominate the airwaves in backcountry areas.
In eastern Afghanistan's Paktia Province, for instance, the U.S. military is busy setting up a network of radio transmitters to broadcast information on attacks and other security incidents that the Taliban is adept at exploiting. Officials say that U.S. forces have sped up their approval process for messages and distributed thousands of radios to ensure that isolated locals get the news ahead of Taliban spin doctors.
The Army is also rewriting its information operations manual. The new document, set to be released later this year, will give greater authority to battlefield commanders to make communications decisions on the spot — rather than senior officers far from the action — to counter Taliban attempts to stage deaths and then circulate fabricated videos.
The coalition forces have a weekly call-in radio program where Afghans can directly present their questions and concerns to officers. The Afghan government, meanwhile, has opened a $1.2 million media center staffed by Western-trained PR specialists. The facility includes a high-tech media monitoring wing and an outreach department to build better working relations with journalists.
(This story was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)