Taliban And NATO War on Twitter

As NATO forces prepare to leave Afghanistan, the group is waging a battle for the hearts and minds of Afghan youth—and it’s spilling onto social media.

The Taliban are avid tweeters.

This may come as a surprise, given that the group’s reign in the 1990s has often been described as “medieval,” with the outlawing of modern technology just one item on a laundry list of brutal policies informed by its austere brand of Islam. Yet tweet it does—and, in what’s likely to come as less of a surprise, the Taliban is engaged in a longstanding Twitter feud with NATO.

The microblogging hostilities began in September 2011, after a Taliban attack on a foreign diplomat neighborhood in Kabul. Following comments from a self-described Taliban spokesman on the incident, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) retorted: “Re: Taliban spox on #Kabul attack: the outcome is inevitable. Question is how much longer will terrorist put innocent Afghans in harm’s way?” The Taliban launched a counterattack evincing the work of a chat room veteran: “@ISAFmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ fr da pst 10 yrs. Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout ‘harm’s way”

I recently sifted through some of tweets of self-identified Taliban spokespeople, along with those of ISAF, and the gems of dialogue between them.

Though amusing in a this-can’t-be-real kind of way, it became clear that the conspicuous cyber-warfare had something more to offer than just a potential reference on The Daily Show.

There are many sources of insight into the situation in Afghanistan—from World Bank-style indicators on GDP and life expectancy rates to less traditional ones like the resurgence of soccer and the proliferation of Western-style kids’ television shows. In this case, a cull of the Taliban and ISAF tweets yields a unique view into the current state of Afghan affairs.

For ISAF, which tweets from @ISAFmedia and @IJC_Press, Twitter is primarily a platform for promoting the perception of progress. The ISAF Twitter machine pumps out on average 10 tweets a day, varying among article links, pictures, and videos, as well as a few prosaic announcements. Around half are related in one way or another to security and combat. There are announcements about specific battle victories, stats on the number of suicide attackers neutralized or insurgents apprehended, and, wherever possible, plugs for the Afghan security forces.

Whether talking about Russian-made helicopter donations to the Afghan air force or boasting about the Afghan Special Forces improving security in Helmand, ISAF’s Twitter is effectively the Afghan security forces’ publicist. This trope tells a great deal about NATO’s priorities just over a year before it withdraws, and in the context of growing anxiety about what the country will look like post-2014, it also makes a lot of sense. NATO’s raison d’etre in Afghanistan is no longer to defeat the Taliban but to fill a training, advising, and assisting role for the Afghan forces in hopes that they can fend for themselves once they are on their own. And the relative success of the Afghan forces this year, which saw them take the lead on operations around the country, has provided good promotional material.

Although every now and then there is a somber announcement of the death of an unnamed service member, ISAF tweets usually strive for a certain level of joviality. “Kabul Feels the BASS!@ISAFmedia tweeted on October 22 with a link to an article about a concert of electronic, hip-hop, and rock music held in the city’s historic Babur Gardens. In addition to women’s empowerment, sports are a major theme, with tweets about the growth of rugby in Afghanistan and celebrations after the national cricket team qualified for the World Cup and national soccer team won its first international title. Progress in the Afghan business and education sectors are also frequent subjects.

ISAF’s Twitter treats these indicators of improved civilian life as important as victories on the battlefield, which says a lot about the coalition’s tactics. In fighting insurgencies like the Taliban, where victory means not just overcoming an armed adversary but also an embedded sect of society, eliminating targets and securing assets is not enough. ISAF’s Twitter revitalizes the age-old strategy of “winning hearts and minds” with a young face for a young country.

The flip side of ISAF’s progress narrative, of course, is that news of stagnation or regress is avoided like the plague. One can discern nearly as much about ISAF and the motivations behind its tweets by noting what it doesn’t choose to discuss as what it does. @ISAFmedia is not where one would go for news on successful insurgent attacks, Afghanistan’s rising rates of violence against women, its world-leading opium industry, or pervasive corruption.

Similarly, what the Pashto and English tweets of self-proclaimed Taliban spokesmen Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi), Zabiullah Mujahid (@zabihmujahid) and Mostafa Ahmedi (@alemarahweb) omit says a lot about the current position the insurgency finds itself in.

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Despite the United Nations identifying the militants as the source of 74 percent of all civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2013, the Taliban-linked tweeters make no mention of non-combatant deaths even when claiming responsibility for attacks that have documented proof of them. More often, they remain silent on incidents with loss of civilian life, commonly in cases of roadside bombs. The Taliban’s official line is that it fights for Afghans and against the “infidel invaders” (i.e., coalition troops) and “hirelings” or “puppets” (i.e., Afghan security forces). To acknowledge that civilian casualties result from militant operations would be to undermine the Taliban’s desired public image as freedom fighters, like the mujahidin during the Russian invasion of the 1980s.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking the Taliban tweeters are unaware that times have changed, and along with them, Afghans have changed, too. The Taliban Twitter feeds carefully avoid social, cultural, or economic topics. After years of puritanical rule that saw women locked away at home, music and dancing banned, and the economy tanked, the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” brand of social engineering doesn’t exactly conjure happy thoughts for most Afghans, least of all for the 60 percent of them under the age of 20.

Nevertheless, the Taliban does like to promote its “shadow” government that exists in various parts of the country. One of the top concerns for many experts when they consider Afghanistan’s future, especially with its history of resistance to centralized authority, is the proliferation of insurgent rule of law in communities out of Kabul’s reach. In September, @ABalkhi tweeted a link to an interview with the Taliban’s “Governor of Nangarhar.” Although things are likely not as out of control as the Taliban wants them to seem, the Ministry of the Interior has acknowledged a handful of districts around the country where Afghan forces have no presence whatsoever.

Most of the Taliban’s tweets are combat related. Some are quite amusing, like @ABalkhi’s casual response to a CNN article quoting Pentagon officials as saying the insurgency had been less effective in 2011: “lol at the article. These people have no shame do they?” Many are just over the top, like the “166 tanks, 94 supply vehicles eliminated in Torkham operation” announcement in early September of this year, which if true would have meant the scene that day looked like something out of the Battle of the Bulge. Still others are more believable, and shed sobering light on realities that officials in Kabul often prefer to avoid. For example, while numbers may be debated, the Afghan forces suffered devastating casualties this year, the desertion of Afghan forces to the Taliban is not unheard of, and “insider attacks,” where members of the Afghan forces turn on their foreign mentors, are not uncommon.

On the surface, the juxtaposition of the two rivaling accounts of the war leads one to the unsettling conclusion that no side is clearly winning or losing. Both keep up the appearance of gaining ground, often omitting or altering facts. And even with all the additional independent data at our fingertips, the current status of the war in Afghanistan and the forecast for the country’s future remain for the most part ambiguous.

However, the Twitter accounts of the Taliban and ISAF reveal another war that is not so undecided— the struggle for the support and confidence of the Afghan people. The theater of battle for combatants may remain in the poppy fields of Helmand and mountains of Kunar, but another has opened up online. Whether it is ISAF promoting social progress and calling out the Taliban for killing civilians, or the Taliban trumpeting battlefield victories and accusing ISAF of the same, the two sides chose to start a Twitter beef, and like celebrities’ social media feuds back in the U.S., it is all about image.

By most measures, the NATO alliance appears to be winning its PR campaign, which is all the more important as Afghans decide whether to extend a military partnership with the U.S. post-2014. The general Afghan public has embraced the changes that have occurred since the Taliban regime was ousted, the same ones ISAF touts on Twitter, and the majority of them say the country is going in the right direction. While the Western powers may not be seen as knights in shining armor, they are associated with the positive progress recognized by the general population. Perhaps more significantly, Afghans associate the Taliban with the opposite. Recent polls (PDF) indicate insurgents’ approval ratings hover around 10 percent nationally and only 30 percent in the Taliban’s southern Pashtun heartlands.

Insurgents may still be able to recruit from the illiterate, unemployed youth pool of Afghanistan’s many underserved communities, but they are confronted by an inconvenient truth: That segment of Afghan society is shrinking. Between economic growth, improvements in health care, educational development, and the meteoric rise of the media and telecommunications industry, increasing numbers of Afghans live better, longer, more informed, and more connected lives than ever before. The revolution in access to information, facilitated by the spread of cell phones and social media use, is why the Taliban’s luddites have been forced to join Twitter, build a website, and compete for favor beyond the confines of the village.

But there is an elephant in the room. No deluge of self-promoting tweets, text slang, or acerbic jabs at ISAF can mask how irreconcilable the Taliban, a group that represses, is with Twitter, a platform that empowers. The rift is fundamental, and it points to the broader gulf that has come between the insurgents and the rest of Afghanistan in the past 12 years.

So what does this all mean for the future? Well, at the very least, when coalition troops depart next December and the ISAF Twitter closes up shop, they won’t leave the same country they entered in 2001. For the Afghan people, more important, it means they and their opinions, not just the person with the biggest stick, have more power to shape the country’s future than at any other point in Afghan history. And that is something worth tweeting about.