Afghan Taleban Use Misinformation as Weapon of War

Officials and media lack ability to counter rumours designed to sow confusion and despair.

As the Taleban grow more sophisticated in using misinformation to confuse and undermine their enemies, government agencies are unable to correct the record and disprove obvious lies. Nor are there enough journalists with the skills to tell fact from fiction.

“About two months ago, there was heavy fighting with the Taleban in [Kunduz province’s] Chardara district, and some people spread rumours that officials had fled Kunduz city and gone to the airport,” local police spokesman Sayed Sarwar Hosseini told the audience at a public debate this month. “Instead, the military authorities had gone to the front line of the battle. The enemy used false propaganda in a bid to show that Kunduz city was on the verge of collapse, and hence to weaken the spirit of the security forces.”

Hosseini was speaking at one of three public debates which IWPR hosted this month to discuss the insurgents’ use of misinformation in their war on the Afghan government.

Many of the speakers in the discussion held in the northeastern Kunduz province agreed that government agencies were ill-equipped to respond with accurate information.

“Our enemies are strong on spreading rumours in those areas where they wield the most influence. They go to the mosques and use the pulpits there,” said Abdul Ghafur Hotak, head of the provincial department for youth affairs in Kunduz. “The [local] government, with limited resources and only one spokesperson, is unable to stop them.”

Sunnatullah Taimur, spokesman for the provincial governor of Takhar, also in the northeast, added that the Taleban often used Islamic scholars to convey their messages.

“In a traditional society, religious scholars get listened to. And those opposed to the state have sought to take advantage of this,” he said.

A reporter in Kunduz, Mohammad Najim Rahim, said the Taleban were exploiting a vacuum created by government agencies that did not make information public or even coordinate with one another about what they knew.

Kubra Rustami, a civil society activist from the same province, agreed, adding that people only listened to rumours because they were starved of information.

“People don’t hear a word from the government. So in fact it’s the government that has created the space for rumours,” she said.

Hotak said the solution was to invest in better public relations.

“The government’s media capacity needs to be beefed up, and government offices should acquire the ability to dispel these rumours,” he said.

Hotak also said that parts of the media were to blame for reporting mere rumour as verified fact. Media outlets were in constant crisis mode and short on in-depth reporting capacity, and they just published whatever information they got hold of, he said.

Similar points were made at a debate in the northern Samangan province, where one audience member called Gulsum said that “if rumours are not [factual] news, then reporters and media should not publish them, and doing so should be made a criminal offence”.

Kubra Ghafuri, head of a secondary school in Aybak, Samangan’s administrative centre, pointed out that journalists were often able to travel out on reporting assignments due to the security situation.

“Not going to a location sometimes means that facts and rumours get mixed up,” she said.

Islamic scholar Maulavi Abdulhai Hakim said local civilians could help fill in the gaps for journalists.

“When our opponents claim to have captured areas in Samangan, the people there know whether they really hold that kind of power,” he explained.

In the Takhar debate, some speakers said that efforts to counter misinformation had been successful.

“The enemy recently spread a rumour that Khwaja Ghar district had collapsed, and people got confused about what to do,” said Mohammad Yasin Dehzad, head of the Takhar journalists’ union. “But journalists in Takhar reported the real state of affairs in the national and international media, and that helped dispel people’s concerns.”

 Representing the provincial government, Mustafa Rasuli argued that people were becoming more discerning consumers of information.

“Levels of public awareness in Takhar have risen in recent years and people have interact positively with the media and with social media. Their understanding is at a far higher level than the rumour-mongering and propaganda policies of the enemy,” Rasuli said.

This report is based on an ongoing series of debates conducted as part of the IWPR programme Afghan Reconciliation: Promoting Peace and Building Trust by Engaging Civil Society.