Afghan Leaders Sideline Spokesmen in an Escalating Misinformation War

KABUL, Afghanistan — After Ahmad Jawad Hijri noticed the wounded kids within the hospital and discovered of the Afghan airstrike that put them there, killing 9 others round their age in northern Afghanistan, he by no means anticipated that his response would land him in jail.

However Mr. Hijri, then the spokesman for the governor of Takhar Province, was arrested, imprisoned for 3 days after which fired after telling the information media what had occurred — a typical a part of his position which he had carried out many occasions earlier than. Prime officers in Kabul insisted that solely Taliban fighters had been killed within the strike, not kids, and that anybody who mentioned in any other case was to be prosecuted.

“On the hospital I noticed the wounded kids,” Mr. Hijri mentioned. “I didn’t make a mistake.”

The warfare in Afghanistan has lengthy been one in all competing narratives. However the authorities’s response to the Oct. 22 strike in Takhar Province signaled a shift in techniques by President Ashraf Ghani’s administration: an overt declaration of its willingness to suppress and deny info on the deaths of harmless folks. It additionally highlighted the altering political panorama as peace negotiations proceed in Qatar and the Taliban transfer to benefit from the eye they’re attracting on the world stage.

The information briefings that outlined the early years of the warfare as each side jockeyed to win Afghan hearts and minds have practically ceased. That leaves its essential gamers — the US, the Taliban and the federal government — all testing totally different communication methods to realize their desired ends.

However with the Individuals set to presumably withdraw from the nation within the coming months, the Afghan authorities — inundated by Taliban assaults, slumping morale amongst its safety forces and waves of focused killings throughout the nation — has solely shrunk away from portraying itself as a bastion of democratic values.

The October airstrike, specialists mentioned, was a turning level for the Afghan authorities. Even the pretense of accountability shifted to outright condemnation of these going towards the federal government’s backside line, most likely due to a concern of shedding public standing additional.

The clampdown has solely emboldened the Taliban, desirous to show themselves able to main Afghanistan higher than the present leaders, who’re more and more shedding credibility.

The Afghan authorities is “so afraid of criticism, they’re unwilling to confess to errors or maintain themselves accountable,” mentioned Patricia Gossman, the affiliate Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s in the end self-destructive, however they’re determined to manage info.”

Earlier within the warfare, the Afghan authorities was reticent about civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition or by Afghan forces, typically pledging to research however providing outcomes that had been not often publicized. However at least the episodes had been acknowledged, and native officers from areas the place civilians had been wounded or killed had been allowed to discuss them freely.

The Taliban have used civilian deaths as a propaganda software for the whole lot of the warfare, pointing to U.S. and NATO airstrikes and evening raids as obtrusive crimes towards the Afghan folks. However as Western troops scaled again their presence, and Afghan forces leveled their very own weapons towards the rebel group, the following errant airstrikes and misguided artillery fireplace which have wounded and killed innocents have develop into an ever extra highly effective propaganda software, this time leveled immediately on the Afghan authorities.

One such instance concerned images of useless civilians and destroyed property posted to Twitter final week by a Taliban spokesman who highlighted them as warfare crimes dedicated by the Afghan and U.S. militaries. Such pictures are sometimes catalysts for public outcry that goals each methods: blaming the federal government for an incapacity to guard its folks and the Taliban for his or her unwavering dedication to violence.

Because the Taliban have scaled up their propaganda distribution, the Afghan authorities has tightened the reins on official dialogue with the general public. Since October, the Ghani administration has muzzled provincial spokesmen and district governors, demanding that they cease relaying info to the information media, a number of Afghan officers from a number of provinces advised The Occasions, particularly regarding civilian casualties.

The crackdown has prompted fears amongst provincial spokesmen that they may lose their jobs or face arrest. One spokesman, who spoke on the situation of anonymity, mentioned that journalists typically needed to wait hours or days to listen to from the provincial governors as a result of their spokesmen weren’t allowed to reply.

American officers and members of Mr. Ghani’s administration attributed the clampdown to a scarcity of coordination between native and nationwide companies and mentioned that the provincial spokesmen had been barred from speaking solely about safety points.

Sediq Seddiq, Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, denied that the federal government was attempting to restrict info, saying that the Afghan authorities has “been a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and the enforcement of entry to info legal guidelines that are unprecedented within the area.”

In the end, the Afghan authorities’s choice to stifle info on the native stage implies that the Taliban have more room to manage the narrative within the nation’s districts the place they’re current however that Afghan officers have better command over the nationwide narrative, a former U.S. official mentioned.

This dynamic performed out on Sunday in southern Afghanistan. Native officers in Nimruz Province claimed an Afghan airstrike there killed a minimum of a dozen civilians a day earlier, solely to have the governor later say that 12 Taliban had been killed and {that a} report of civilian casualties was being investigated. That very same day, protesters took the stays of these killedto the provincial capital, saying ladies and kids had been among the many useless.

The repression of knowledge has been a boon for the Taliban, an rebel group that when banned televisions and barely talked to reporters. Their Feb. 29 settlement with the US on a timetable for withdrawal, specialists say, helped legitimize the group on a world stage, prompting the Taliban’s public relation equipment to develop significantly.

Taliban opinion items written in English are sometimes posted now on the group’s web site, Voice of Jihad, and generally seem in worldwide information media shops, together with the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Native Afghan information shops publish statements from Taliban spokesmen on social media, a lot as they’d Afghan officers. It’s a far cry from a decade in the past, when the Taliban’s messaging was typically dismissed as lies.

The Taliban typically lie about dying tolls of their assaults, denying civilian casualties and at occasions blaming coalition forces for them. The group has denied taking any position within the latest string of focused killings throughout the nation, regardless of being immediately implicated by the U.S. army and Afghan safety officers.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, mentioned that their media technique was centered on “sharing the reality for the folks.” In actuality, the group has two traces of effort: one supporting the peace talks and the opposite discrediting the Afghan authorities on the battlefield and supporting Taliban fighters.

To assist counter the Taliban’s narrative, the US began a small psychological operations unit known as the Info Warfare Activity Power-Afghanistan, in line with U.S. army officers. The shadowy outfit was shaped on the request of Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, within the wake of the 2018 killing of Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar. After his dying in an insider assault, rumors rapidly attributed his killing as a substitute to the Individuals.

By combining cybertools, intercepted communications and social media, the unit acts as a direct counter to disrupt messaging and knowledge channels of the Taliban and terrorist teams within the nation, officers mentioned.

Mr. Hijri, the previous provincial spokesman, nonetheless refuses to cowl up the civilian casualties he noticed on Oct. 22. An Afghan Impartial Human Rights fee report backed up his assertions on the episode, saying that an Afghan authorities airstrike had killed 9 kids, aged 7 to 13, and wounded greater than 14 others. Taliban fighters had been additionally harm.

“I’m amid two stones: One facet is the Taliban and from one other facet is the federal government,” Mr. Hijri mentioned. “Now my destiny will not be clear.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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