How Taliban interference is hijacking Afghanistan's election

How Taliban interference is hijacking Afghanistan's election
Comment: The Taliban is hijacking the narrative during what should be a routine Afghan democratic exercise to elect a president, writes Tanya Goudsouzian.
5 min read
25 Sep, 2019
A Taliban car bomb in Zabul province left 20 dead and 95 wounded [Anadolu]
With the Afghan presidential election only days away, the Taliban has made good on its promise to disrupt the process by attacks claiming dozens of lives every few days. 

In response, the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANSDF) - supported on occasion by US air strikes - have also ramped up their offensives against the Taliban and other armed groups.

Simultaneously, the insurgent group and its supporters have
upped their PR game to deflect attention from their own carnage, for example by highlighting the accidental death of 15 pine nut farmers in Nangarhar in a drone strike meant to target Islamic State group (IS) fighters.

The controversial use of drone attacks has long been the subject of condemnation by rights groups who allege that the US military does not take enough precautions to prevent civilian deaths. Further adding to the frustration and animosity is a reluctance by the Coalition to publicly comment on the details of the incident, citing ongoing investigations.

While thorough investigations are required to establish facts, they are necessarily a long process, and this allows the Taliban the time to sensationalise the incident with inflammatory language and manipulate the public messaging.

While the drone strikes may win the tactical military fight, the Taliban win the strategic communications fight.   

The same applies to raids by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) on suspected insurgent hideouts. During a raid on a warehouse in Helmand on 23 September, a nearby wedding party was hit by the gunfire and a suicide bomb attack - at least 35 civilians at the party were killed and 13 were wounded. Again, the tragic incident was quickly leveraged by the Taliban and injected into the media.

Weaponised propaganda

While the loss of civilian lives is deplorable and tragic, conflating the collateral damage resulting from US or Afghan military operations unintentionally gone astray to Taliban attacks which intentionally target civilians is both unreasonable and counterproductive.

While the drone strikes may win the tactical military fight, the Taliban win the strategic communications fight

It is regrettable that a group such as the Taliban, which has mastered terror as a weapon of war, has now weaponised propaganda as an equally effective means of influence and intimidation.

Since US President Donald Trump called off talks with the Taliban on 8 September, the Taliban has aggressively pursued a strategy of voter intimidation and suppression against the 9 million registered voters.

On 17 September, an attack on an election rally for President Ashraf Ghani in
Parwan province killed 26 people and injured more than 40 others, and a second one near the Afghan Defense Ministry in Kabul killed 22 people and injured more than 30 others.

Two days later, the Taliban targeted the
only hospital in Zabul province, leaving at least 20 dead and more than 90 injured, including many women and children.

While the "intentionality" argument is a distinction that may matter more to pundits than to average Afghans, the source of the gunfire may no longer be relevant as they pine for an end to the fighting.

Hijacking the narrative

It is telling that despite the climate of insecurity and daily violence, thousands of Afghans continue to gather around at least a dozen candidates in rallies from Helmand to Herat. Still, the Taliban has achieved a measure of success in hijacking the narrative during what should have been a routine Afghan democratic exercise to elect a president.

The Taliban's claim that US drones and Afghan government raids are victimizing innocent civilians has overshadowed campaigning, wrenching voters' attention away from much-needed discussion of the other challenges facing the country such as poverty, unemployment and the general sluggishness of the economy.

Many among the dozen or so candidates running for the top job have built their campaigns around the Taliban messaging rather than viable programmes or policies for the country's future.

In so doing, these candidates have become unwitting accomplices, inadvertently pushing the Taliban's message at home and ironically validating their call to cancel elections and install an interim government, which would mean dismantling the entire post-Taliban democratic system of governance devised at Bonn, Germany in 2001.

Also furthering Taliban messaging are opposition leaders such as former President Hamid Karzai who said in an interview on 24 September that "
instead of an election we must begin peace talks."

By contrast, while the communications strategy of the Taliban is strong and straightforward, the public messaging of the Ghani administration has been weak.

Despite foundational work on Afghanistan's water management, legal and procedural reforms, and plans to turn the landlocked country into a "roundabout" of central and south Asian trade, messaging on those accomplishments is drowned out by Taliban messages of drone strikes, ANSDF "atrocities" and warnings to voters. 

A present and future challenge

As asymmetrical warfare becomes the preferred tactic of terrorists and insurgents, defending against it is made harder when the enemy is skilled in strategic communications. The Taliban shows this skill, cleverly masking their own atrocities and leveraging a growing reliance upon drones into an effective campaign slogan and recruiting tool.

And among the candidates running in the election there is a clear divide between those who are unwilling to compromise the current democratic system and those who are.

The Taliban has aggressively pursued a strategy of voter intimidation and suppression

The former group includes all those who have benefitted from the current system, especially women. By focusing their campaign platforms on criticism of Ashraf Ghani without offering alternative programmes, mainstream media coverage, as well as Afghans themselves, may be falling for the Taliban's ruse.

Yet, any comparison between accidental civilian deaths resulting from drone targeting or ANSDF mistakes and intentional Taliban targeting of civilians is absurd. Equating them is inaccurate and intellectually lazy.

Yet, to be able to twist those facts through
clever strategic communications programmes as the Taliban have done, shows real political skill. While it may be too late for the government to blunt this Taliban advantage with stronger or counter-messaging before the upcoming elections, if ignored or disregarded the Taliban strategic communications offensive will undoubtedly have a major impact in the soon-to-resume peace talks and well into the future.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for over 15 years. She is former Opinion editor of Al Jazeera English Online. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.