The Afghan leaders’ marginal spokesman in the war of disinformation is escalating

KABUL, Afghanistan – After Ahmad Jawad Hijri saw the injured children in the hospital and learned of the Afghan airstrikes that left them there, killing 9 others around their age in northern Afghanistan, he never expected that his reaction would put him in jail.

But Mr. Hijri, then the Takhar governor’s spokesperson, was arrested, jailed for three days and then fired after telling the press what happened – a standard part in the role game that he performed many times before. Top Kabul officials insisted only the Taliban fighters were killed in the attack, not the children, and anyone who said otherwise was indicted.

“At the hospital, I saw injured children,” Mr. Hijri said. “I didn’t make a mistake.”

The war in Afghanistan has long been one of the tales of competition. But the government’s response to the October 22 strike in Takhar province signaled a change in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani’s administration: a public declaration of its readiness to suppress and deny information about death of innocent people. It also highlights the changing political landscape as peace talks continue in Qatar and the Taliban move to capitalize on the attention they are attracting on the world stage.

The first years of the war as both sides raced for the hearts and minds of the Afghans were almost gone, press conferences reported. That leaves its main players – the United States, the Taliban, and the government – all experimenting with different communication strategies to achieve its desired purpose.

But with Americans possibly withdrawing from the country in the coming months, the Afghan government – engulfed in Taliban attacks, morale worsened in security forces and a wave of deliberate homicides across the land water – only how to describe yourself as a fortress. of democratic values.

Experts say the October airstrike was a turning point for the Afghan government. Even pretending to be accountable turned to blunt condemnation of people who went against important lines of government, perhaps out of fear of losing the public’s standing even more.

The persecution only excites the Taliban, wanting to prove itself more capable of leading Afghanistan than the current leaders, who are increasingly discredited.

Patricia Gossman, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Afghan government is afraid of criticism, they don’t want to admit mistakes or take responsibility. “In the end it was self-destructive behavior, but they were desperate to control information.”

Earlier during the war, the Afghan government was very quiet about the civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition or Afghan forces, often committing to an investigation but giving out results rarely made public. But at least the details were acknowledged, and local officials from areas where civilians were injured or killed were allowed to freely speak about them.

The Taliban used civilian deaths as a propaganda tool for the entire war, seeing US and NATO night raids and air raids as punitive crimes against the people of Afghanistan. But as the Western military narrowed its presence, and the Afghan forces armed themselves with their own weapons against the rebel group, the subsequent false airstrikes and mistaken artillery fire wound. and killing innocent people has become an ever more powerful propaganda tool, this time leveled directly at the Afghan Government.

One such example involves photos of dead civilians and destroyed property posted to Twitter last week by a Taliban spokesperson who highlighted them as war crimes by the Afghan military. and America. Such images are often the catalyst for outcry from the public in both directions: blaming the government for its inability to protect the people and the Taliban for their steadfast commitment to fighting violence. .

As the Taliban expanded its propaganda, the Afghan government tightened official dialogue relations with the public. Since October, the Ghani administration has banned provincial spokespersons and district governors, asking them to stop forwarding information to the media, some Afghan officials from multiple provinces told The Times, specifically especially regarding civilian casualties.

The crackdown has caused provincial spokesmen to fear they could lose their jobs or face arrest. An unnamed spokesman said that journalists often have to wait hours or days to listen to provincial governors because their spokesperson is not allowed to respond.

US officials and members of Ghani’s administration said the crackdown was due to a lack of coordination between local and national agencies, and said that provincial spokespersons were banned from talking only about security issues.

Sediq Seddiq, Ghani’s spokesperson, denied that the government is trying to limit information, saying that the Afghan government “is a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and realism. law competition to access information never before in the region ”.

Ultimately, the Afghan government’s decision to limit information at the local level means that the Taliban have more space to control narrative in the counties where they are present, but Afghan officials have higher command over the world. with the national report, a former US official said.

This dynamic takes place on Sunday in southern Afghanistan. Local officials in Nimruz province claimed an Afghan airstrike there had killed at least a dozen civilians a day earlier, but then the governor said 12 Taliban were killed and a report of Civilian casualties are under investigation. On the same day, protesters brought the remains of the killed to the provincial capital, saying women and children were among the dead.

The suppression of information is a boon for the Taliban, a rebel group that once banned television and rarely spoke to reporters. Experts say their February 29 agreement with the United States on a withdrawal timetable helped legitimize the group on an international level, boosting the Taliban’s public relations apparatus significantly.

Taliban comments written in English are now often posted on the group’s website, Voice of Jihad, and occasionally in international media, including The New’s Op-Ed page. York Times. Afghanistan’s local news agencies post the Taliban spokesperson’s statements on social media, much like Afghan officials. It is a far cry from a decade ago, when the Taliban message was often viewed as a lie.

The Taliban often lie about the death tolls in their attacks, deny civilian casualties and sometimes blame coalition forces on them. The group has denied any role in the recent chain of intentional homicides across the country, despite being directly involved by the US military and Afghan security officials.

Zabihullah Mujahid, Taliban’s chief spokesperson, says their communication strategy focuses on “sharing the truth with the people”. In fact, the group has two directions of effort: one to support peace talks and the other to discredit the Afghan government on the battlefield and support the Taliban fighters.

To help counter the Taliban narrative, the United States has created a small psychological operations unit called the Afghan Information-Warfare Task Force, according to US military officials. The dark outfit was established at the request of General Austin S. Miller, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, following the killing of General Abdul Raziq, chief of Kandahar in 2018. After his death in an incident Insider attacks, rumors quickly claimed that he killed instead of the Americans.

Officials say, by combining tools for network control, blocked communications and social media, the unit acts as an immediate adversary to disrupting communications and messaging channels. Taliban and terrorist groups in the country.

Mr. Hijri, a former spokesman for the province, still refused to cover up the civil casualties he saw on October 22. A report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission supported his claims of This section states that an Afghan government airstrike killed 9 children, aged 7 to 13, and injured more than 14 others. Taliban warriors were also wounded.

“I’m in the middle of two rocks: One side is the Taliban and the other is the government,” said Hijri. “Now my fate is not clear.”

Taimoor Shah contributes reports from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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