The Taliban spin machine

Yesterday, the Taliban held a press conference in Kabul. While many of the journalists who cover Afghanistan were familiar with the official who led the briefing—Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s top spokesperson—they had never before seen him in the flesh. Sharif Hassan, a New York Times reporter in Kabul, noted that, for over a decade, Mujahid has been “more responsive and active” than the entire press team of Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, who just fled the country. “I have spoken with him and texted him a lot,” Hassan said, of Mujahid. “But this is the first time I am seeing his face.” Not that we should necessarily talk in the singular here. Reporters have long speculated that “Zabihullah Mujahid” is a pseudonym used by a group of Taliban representatives; some felt that the man on stage in Kabul looked suspiciously young for a longstanding fixture of the Taliban leadership. “We are all accepting this is THE Zabihullah Mujahid,” Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s chief international correspondent, said. “Maybe he isn’t?”

At the press conference, the Taliban sought to present a new face to the world, metaphorically as well as literally, even if caveats and uncertainties abounded. Mujahid insisted that the new government intends to respect women’s rights (within the framework of “Islamic laws”), allow for freedom of the press (within the framework of “Islamic values” and “national unity”), and forgive those who worked with international forces and the prior government. In one exchange that went viral online, a reporter raised freedom of speech, and Mujahid replied that they should ask their question of Facebook (which had earlier confirmed that the Taliban will remain banned across its platforms). “LOL,” Donald Trump, Jr., tweeted. “Also not wrong.” Ronna McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted that “the Taliban spokesperson has taken more questions from US media in recent days than the President of the United States.” Other international observers described the presser as “savvy.” Major Western news outlets carried Mujahid’s assurances in banner headlines (which struck some critics as credulous). The Associated Press situated the briefing within the Taliban’s broader push to “reassure world powers and a fearful population.” Politico Playbook declared: “The Taliban PR blitz begins.”

Related: A dark time for Afghanistan’s journalists

In fact, the Taliban PR blitz began a long time ago. “The Taliban has created a sophisticated communications apparatus that projects an increasingly confident movement,” an International Crisis Group report concluded, in 2008. “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 Taliban’s propaganda tools have included pamphlets, cassette tapes, sermons in mosques, and DVDs; as time passed (and in spite of its reputation for Luddism), the group honed its digital output—updating a website with statements in various languages, posting tweets from the battlefield, and using social media as a recruitment tool, not just in Afghanistan but in the wider region, too. (It even tried to launch an Android app, but Google refused to host it.) As far back as 2010, the Taliban was using its messaging to portray itself as a government in waiting, including by making reassuring noises about women’s rights, while undermining the US-backed administration. “There is such a thing as a good story, not in the moral sense, but in the sense that a story grips you and pulls you along, that it has a dramatic climax, that it paints good and evil in clear terms, that it satisfies some deep craving in the listener,” Vanessa M. Gezari wrote for CJR, in 2011. “The Taliban know how to tell a good story.” (The story grew so strong that the US eventually created a psyops unit to counter it.)

The Taliban’s media footprint has only grown since last year, when the Trump administration struck a withdrawal agreement with the group. Experts told the Times that the deal helped legitimize the Taliban on the international stage—the same paper even published a conciliatory op-ed by its deputy leader—even though, in reality, the group was speaking from both sides of its mouth, emphasizing peace in some of its communications and militarism in others. During peace talks in Doha, Qatar, a Taliban negotiator visited the hotel room of a Times correspondent to talk, and share cookies and dried fruit. The Taliban also granted access to women journalists in Doha, including some from Afghanistan. Yesterday, Beheshta Arghand, a female anchor on TOLOnews, in Kabul, interviewed a Taliban official on air. Women journalists—from both domestic and international media—were also allowed to ask questions at Mujahid’s briefing.

The reality of the Taliban, of course, belies this softening of the group’s media presentation. As NBC’s Richard Engel has noted, the group has so far been relatively tolerant of international journalists in Kabul because it has a victorious story to tell; it also wants to avoid, to the extent possible, international pariah status as it sets up a government. But the group’s repressive tactics are already amply on display. Female journalists may be allowed on TOLOnews for now, but the Taliban already suspended women who work for Afghanistan’s state media. “The Taliban is the Taliban,” Khadija Amin, one of the journalists affected, said yesterday. “They have not changed.” As I’ve written recently, the group brutally laid waste to press freedom as it advanced across Afghanistan during the early stages of the US pullout. The Taliban may be “telling the world what it wants to hear,” but “outside Kabul, the situation is starkly different,” Frud Bezhan, who covers Afghanistan for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wrote yesterday. “When the world’s focus shifts, that’s when Afghans will see the real Taliban— the one committing rights abuses and rolling back freedoms in cities/provinces outside Kabul.”

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This is not to say that the Taliban is a monolith—the group’s orientation is more complicated than Western media coverage often portrays, and different leaders and factions have different priorities. There is legitimate uncertainty as to just how repressive the new Taliban regime intends to be, and there’s room for nuanced reporting that teases that out. But the question, ultimately, is one of shades of terrible, no matter what the Taliban’s spinners might say. As the BBC’s Yalda Hakim put it yesterday, creating mystery around the character of Mujahid then presenting a face, and moderate voice, to the press was doubtless part of the Taliban’s script—and yet she found it “hard to reconcile” yesterday’s rhetoric with the “bloodthirsty” texts she’s received in Mujahid’s name in the past. At yesterday’s briefing, Mujahid sat in a seat occupied, until recently, by Dawa Khan Menapal, the head of press relations for the fallen government. Two weeks ago, Taliban fighters assassinated Menapal; Mujahid himself confirmed the killing. A journalist pointed out to Mujahid that he was in Menapal’s seat. Mujahid responded that the previous government had started the fighting.

“The real takeaway from the Taliban presser was the courage of Afghan journalists,” Yogita Limaye, also of the BBC, observed afterward—“asking tough, direct questions of a group known to target people from the profession, rebutting when answers were evasive, asking more pointed questions when answers were vague.” Unlike Mujahid, the Afghan reporters standing up to ask tough questions won’t have the luxury of obscuring their identity when it suits them to do so.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.