Opinion | How the Taliban Turned Smartphones Into Weapons

On Aug. 14, a day before armed fighters swarmed into Kabul, a Twitter account for one of the Taliban’s magazine posted a video of six nervous Afghan government soldiers sitting in a truck surrounded by Taliban warriors. The post included a snippet of text, in Pashto, one of the two main languages of Afghanistan: “While the mujahedeen behave generously to soldiers, the children of the village threw stones at them and called them dogs. That’s what happens in response to their atrocities.” The same day, a spokesman for the Taliban posted another Twitter message, this time in English, promising that the group would create “a secure environment” for all diplomats, embassies and nonprofits, both domestic and international. It ended with the Arabic benediction, “Inshallah,” God willing.

For months, on social media, the Taliban have sought to project an image of strength and moderation, an aura of inevitability within Afghanistan and an air of legitimacy to the outside world. Through text messages and encrypted apps, they have targeted government soldiers directly, depicting them as mercenaries and urging them to surrender or face the brutal consequences. At the same time, they have attempted to assure the international community that the Taliban of today are more enlightened than the Taliban that once staged grisly public amputations and executions in a Kabul soccer stadium. As they have racked up a string of victories over the past few weeks, they have also trumpeted their respect for women and girls, within Islamic law, of course. Have they changed? Well, they’ve changed their messaging. It’s too early to know whether that’s just better marketing.

Americans have questioned how roughly 70,000 Taliban soldiers can seemingly demolish a well-funded, U.S.-trained government security force listed at 300,000 on paper. The answer is not about training or firepower, but hearts and minds. The Taliban understand Sun Tzu’s familiar dictum that every war is won or lost before it is fought and that the ultimate victory is to break the enemy’s resistance without fighting. That’s what they did.

For years, on social media and in analog publications, the Taliban have claimed that they are the true heirs to Afghanistan, that their fighters are martyrs, that the Americans are “invaders,” and that government soldiers are the immoral “hirelings” of foreigners. Their primary theme going back to the 1990s is that Afghanistan is a Muslim nation occupied by non-Muslims and that Allah has blessed their fight for liberation. There’s just not much the United States can do about such claims — these are Afghans talking to Afghans. They have waged the kind of modern war — an old-fashioned local insurgency coupled with a rapid-fire media strategy designed to intimidate the enemy — that the United States is not much good at fighting. As the Taliban marched through the country inviting government soldiers to surrender or die, those soldiers complied by the tens of thousands. Most never fired a shot.

What is concerning is that as effective as the Taliban’s social media strategy has been, it is still awfully clumsy. Remember, they started from zero. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they banned the use of the internet, not to mention television and music. Since then, like savvy military strategists, they adapted to a new terrain. The media environment in Afghanistan has evolved since the days when the country had a single radio station: Now it has over 100 radio stations and dozens of television stations; 70 percent of people have access to a cellphone; and about a third of the population of 38 million are on social media. The Taliban understand that the information war is modern warfare. They are not trying to build a new platform — they’re trying to integrate into and dominate the existing landscape.

To that end, they have taken a digital page from the ISIS playbook. While the Taliban are less sophisticated and less prolific than ISIS was on social media — more like Hamas or Hezbollah — they have learned some basic lessons from the jihadi group. ISIS’s brand was a mixture of strength and warmth — grisly beheadings coupled with pictures of fighters riding Ferris wheels or giving candy to children. You can see echoes of that strange mix of folksiness and horror playing out in Afghanistan: Last week, a video circulated on social media of armed Taliban warriors riding colorful bumper cars at an amusement park while children watched. Now that they have a country to govern, they are less intent on inspiring fear than trust. But while ISIS saw itself as a global organization, the Taliban are hyperlocal. They care far more about Helmand Province than they care about international jihad. In 2019, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, they launched more than 60 Twitter accounts to try to undermine Afghanistan’s presidential race. For ISIS, social media was a recruitment tool. For the Taliban, social media is primarily about winning over their domestic audience — and not alienating their international one.

The real insight into their strategy is revealed not by what they have done but by what they haven’t. They haven’t posted images of the many assassinations people believe they committed over the last six months. They haven’t posted pictures of reprisal killings or stern enforcement of Shariah law. They don’t want social media companies to ban them completely; after all, they will soon be the official government of Afghanistan. (Facebook and YouTube have already banned the group, though the Taliban have found ways around those restrictions.) Nor do they want to alarm international donors; more than 70 percent of Afghanistan’s state budget comes from governments in the West.

What they are doing now is something familiar in history: They are trying to execute a tricky transition from a rebel force to a governing coalition. Taliban spokespeople have tweeted out promises that they will protect government technocrats and civil servants. Come back to work, they say; Afghanistan needs you. They have also been tweeting out happy images and videos of girls in school, women walking to work. One tweet from a Taliban spokesman shows a middle-aged burqa-wearing woman in Kabul saying, “This system is much better than before.”

When I worked in the Obama administration, I helped start an entity at the State Department called the Global Engagement Center that monitors and responds to the rise of disinformation around the world. But the Taliban, unlike the Russians, are not so much in the disinformation business as they are in the propaganda and self-promotion business. Their efforts until now have revolved around touting their victories and taunting their enemies. Their goal is to change the narrative.

Going forward, is there a role for the United States to respond when the Taliban, for example, say they are not mistreating women? The answer is, yes, if the Taliban return to their medieval oppression of women and we can document it. We should continue to support human rights, like the right of girls to go to school. But the United States should not make it a habit, as we sometimes did with ISIS, of debating the finer points of Muslim theology or whether the Taliban are really doing Allah’s will. That’s not exactly one of our core competencies.

Meanwhile, the Taliban will continue to target one particular audience: global elites. They attend conferences, visit capitals, publish op-eds and hold news conferences. A tweet last week from a Taliban spokesman shows a Taliban official responding to a question about free speech in Afghanistan. His reply was, “This question should be asked to those people who are claiming to be promoters of freedom of speech.” The question, he said, should be asked of Facebook.

That should get a few likes.

Richard Stengel (@stengel) served as President Obama’s under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. He is the former editor of Time magazine and the author, most recently, of “Information Wars: How We Lost the Global Battle Against Disinformation and What We Can Do About It.”

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