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Saturday 23 September 2017

A map of Pakistan prepared by the Bolo Bhi advocacy group shows the lack of Internet coverage in FATA.

A Pakistani media watchdog has urged authorities to immediately restore Internet access in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where millions of residents have been barred from going online for more than a year.

A Pakistani media watchdog has urged authorities to immediately restore Internet access in the country’s northwestern tribal areas, where millions of residents have been barred from going online for more than a year.

In a statement, Bolo Bhi, a nonprofit advocacy group promoting Internet access, said a government suspension of Internet access in June last year has deprived more than 5 million residents of seven tribal districts that form an arch along the country’s western border with Afghanistan and are collectively called the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

“Security is often the reason cited for taking these measures, but the threat is rarely defined clearly,” the September 19 statement noted. “The authorities have not cited any evidence of how the ban of Internet improves security.”

Bolo Bhi, Urdu for “speaking up,” said the Internet access in FATA was suspended after Pakistani and Afghan forces clashed near the Torkham border crossing in FATA’s Khyber tribal district last June.

“Since the introduction of broadband services in FATA in 2005, the government has regularly restricted access to the Internet or blocked it altogether,” the organization said.

Bolo Bhi’s findings suggest that FATA’s North and South Waziristan agencies or tribal districts currently lack any broadband connectivity. In the more northern tribal districts of Khyber, Bajaur, and Kurram, broadband connections are limited to larger towns.

“The bigger problem is that mobile Internet services are unavailable to users in FATA,” it said.

In recent decades, Pakistan has undergone a telecommunications revolution. With the growth of cellular telephone connections, the number of mobile Internet users is expected to grow from the current 43 million. A recent census established that Pakistan’s population now stands at more than 200 million people.

In a sign that Islamabad is relenting, FATA Secretariat, a government organization tasked with overseeing service delivery and development projects in the region, approved the restoration of Internet to Khyber, Bajaur, and Mohmand tribal districts. Internet users in Bajaur reported that they can now access 2G services.

“This is a welcome step and should be extended to the other four agencies of FATA, namely Orakzai, Kurram, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan, immediately,” Bolo Bhi’s statement said.

For more than a decade, FATA has been a central front in the global war on terror. More than 50,000 FATA residents were killed in militant attacks and Pakistani counterterrorism sweeps, which also displaced nearly 3 million residents. While a tenuous peace has returned to FATA, with most of its displaced residents returning to their homes, the region is still being run under an archaic colonial-era law, the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR).

“Inhabitants of FATA are thus denied their fundamental human rights and have no legal or political avenue to challenge their oppression,” the statement said.

Suspected Taliban militants patrol after they reportedly took control of a rural district in Afghanistan's central Ghazni's province in May.

During their rule in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban banned photography, television, and the Internet by declaring that taking pictures of living things was forbidden in Islam.

During their rule in the 1990s, Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban banned photography, television, and the Internet by declaring that taking pictures of living things was forbidden in Islam.

But two decades later, the Taliban are savvy about using modern communication technologies, social media, and smartphone applications to win the war for Afghan hearts and minds through a relentless propaganda campaign.

Tweeting frontline photos, posting attack videos on Facebook, and widely circulating leadership pronouncements and viewpoints are now central to the Taliban’s military and political strategy to recapture power through frontline advances, winning over public opinion, and altering perceptions.

Over the past 15 years, the Taliban propaganda machine has evolved from handwritten shabnamans, or threatening letters delivered at night, and chants on audio cassettes to a robust social media presence, a network of multilingual websites, and an informal android app after a botched attempt to launch a formal one.

An Taliban application for smartphones using the android operating system.
An Taliban application for smartphones using the android operating system.

Majeed Qarar, a writer currently serving as a cultural attaché at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, has followed the Taliban’s online presence for years. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that in addition to propaganda the Taliban are using social media as a recruitment tool.

He says the Taliban are effectively using Facebook to identify and neutralize opponents among the closely knit Pashtun clans of his native Ghazni Province in central Afghanistan.

“They know everyone in our area. They know who is related to whom and where one works,” he said. “They follow that person on Facebook and send messages to ask him to surrender to [their authority] and cooperate with them.”

Kabul-based researcher Hekmatullah Azamy says most Taliban propaganda focuses on provoking emotions to brainwash people.

He says the insurgents increasingly rely on social media to attract Afghans to extremism.

“In areas outside the government control, the Taliban go to mosques to find recruits,” he said. “But in cities where the Taliban cannot approach people face to face, they use social media to either spread their message or find potential recruits.”

During their regime, the Taliban ran only one radio station and two newspapers, but now they have a host of multimedia platforms. Their formal website, Voice Of Jihad, relays insurgent messages in English, Urdu, Arabic, and the two major Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari. Other websites such as the Pashto-language Nun Asia, or Asia Today, serve as Taliban surrogates while claiming to be independent and impartial.

A pro-Taliban account on Twitter
A pro-Taliban account on Twitter

In 2011, Abdul Sattar Mawandi, an administrator for Taliban websites, said their information campaign aimed to win over Afghan hearts and minds.

“Wars today cannot be won without media. (Media) is directed to the heart rather than the body, while the weapon is directed to the body,” he told the Taliban’s Al-Samood magazine. “If the heart is defeated, the battle is won and the body is defeated.”

Azamy says the Taliban have allocated a separate budget for media aimed not only at sharing information about their war efforts but attracting people’s sympathies.

Over the years, the Taliban propaganda efforts have grown. The group has a commission for “media and culture” while two purported Taliban spokespersons appear to be available round-the-clock.

Taliban messages are quickly disseminated online by a network of social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook and a host of groups on smartphone messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram. Most journalists working in Afghanistan or covering the country receive insurgent statements directly to their inboxes.

“The Taliban have secret groups on social media. They first discuss issues in these groups and then propagate their messages in a coordinated way [through fake accounts],” Qarar said of how the Taliban choreograph messages. “[Sometimes] they go after a specific targeted [individual] with fake accounts to pressure and campaign [against that person]. The people involved in this effort have an office with computers.”

The Taliban use smartphones to frequently share audio and video messages. Azamy, who has seen some of these videos, describes them as a propaganda tool.

“They show people videos of concerts, especially women at concerts, and tell them, ‘See these videos. There is no Islam in Kabul,’ ” he said, noting that most such videos are not of actual parties in Afghanistan but a thinly veiled effort to instigate hatred against the Afghan government among the country’s conservative population.

Changing Tactics

After the demise of their regime in late 2001, the Taliban centered its propaganda efforts on showing that Afghanistan was occupied by the United States and its allies. But in recent years, when former U.S. President Barack Obama ended major combat operations and withdrew most troops, the Taliban’s propaganda efforts turned their focus to ethical issues.

“They focused on local police and local issues because they were afraid of the effectiveness of [the local police],” Qarar noted. “They focused on criminal cases because they wanted to malign the face of the current political system. [In order to legitimize] their violence, in the absence of claims of foreign occupation, they magnified criminal offenses [by individuals].”

Another pro-Taliban account on Twitter.
Another pro-Taliban account on Twitter.

Critics fear that Kabul is losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds in the absence of a comprehensive information and media strategy.

Dawlat Waziri, an Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman, acknowledged their vulnerabilities.

“We have been working on this problem. The communications ministry has shut down many of their accounts, but it is an ongoing effort,” he said.

Bureaucratic lethargy often prevents Afghan officials from issuing timely responses to Taliban claims. Unlike the insurgents, government forces cannot publish photos and videos from the battlefield, which limits their ability to contest Taliban claims.

Ahmad Shah Sadat, Afghanistan’s acting communications and information technology minister, says Kabul is trying to control the extremist propaganda over the Internet by recently adopting a new law.

“All organizations have agreed to ban websites and social media accounts in Afghanistan that are active against the state and promote terrorist propaganda,” he said.

So far, the insurgent propaganda campaign appears to be unaffected by government efforts.

Malali Bashir is a correspondent for Radio Free Afghanistan

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