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The Public Relations of the Taliban: Then and Now

17 Sep 2021
Short Read by William Maley

On 20 February 2020, a remarkable article by Sirajuddin Haqqani appeared in The New York Times. Coming just days before the signing by the United States and the Taliban movement of a bilateral ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’, the essay was full of beautiful thoughts:

‘Everyone has lost somebody they loved. Everyone is tired of war. I am convinced that the killing and the maiming must stop … We are committed to working with other parties in a consultative manner of genuine respect to agree on a new, inclusive political system in which the voice of every Afghan is reflected and where no Afghan feels excluded’.

Two things, however, made the article particularly striking. One was its language, which seemed far more like that of a western think-tanker than a Talib – even though the author was identified as being deputy leader of the Taliban. But the other was the specific background of the author. Haqqani, at the time the article appeared, was also identified on the website of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a ‘specially designated global terrorist’, with a US$10 million reward on offer for information leading directly to his arrest. That the Taliban movement succeeded in placing a propaganda article by a wanted terrorist on the opinion page of one of the most reputable news outlets in the US pointed to an approach to public relations that in its sophistication and guile far exceeded anything that the movement had been capable of achieving when it occupied Kabul from 1996-2001. The following remarks seek to trace some of the key contours of this shift, noting that the principal achievement of the Taliban’s public relations activity was to promote a spurious image of Taliban ‘moderation’ in some Western policy circles, with PR to mobilise elements of the Afghan population proving less demonstrably effective.

The Taliban and public relations before 2001

When the Taliban originally emerged in 1994, they hardly had a public relations strategy of any kind. If anything, they thrived on secrecy, and even observers who were highly experienced found them deeply opaque. They did, however, rather rapidly produce what one might call a ‘foundational mythology’. At the heart of this mythology were young Afghan religious students (taliban), innocent and pure, who, horrified by the corruption and misbehaviour of the Mujahideen groups that had taken power in 1992, decided that they had a duty to put things right. The interest of these students was not to attain power, but to restore morality to Afghan society. Having done so, they would readily return to their madrassas (colleges) and resume their studies. Welcomed by the populace, so the story went, they succeeded in taking over Kandahar in 1994, Herat in 1995, and finally the Afghan capital Kabul in 1996. In reality, there was little, if any truth, in this mythology. From the outset, as Anthony Davis demonstrated in 1998, the Taliban were above all a military force who fought their way into Herat and Kabul. Their ‘godfather’ was the Pakistani interior minister of the time, retired Major-General Naseerullah Babar, who infuriated his counterparts in the Pakistan Foreign Ministry by referring to the Taliban as ‘our boys’. Furthermore, the author Ahmed Rashid estimated that between 1994 and 1999, some ‘80,000 to100,000 Pakistanis trained and fought in Afghanistan’. In public, however, Pakistani officials sought to promote the mythology – and lacking much understanding of the new movement, some Western observers gave voice to it too.

After occupying Kabul in 1996, the Taliban took some steps to expand their media footprint, with their ‘Voice of Sharia Radio’ being one outlet for projecting their decrees to the Afghan population. But it would be hard to say that they pursued any kind of coherent public relations strategy. They certainly had some immediate political objectives, notably the securing of international recognition, but in this, they had limited success, eventually securing recognition only from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. The explanation was not a defective public relations strategy, but the lack of a marketable product to sell given the sheer unacceptability internationally of the policies that they set out to pursue, notably the segregating of Afghan women.

Pakistan, the Taliban’s main backer, sought to protect Taliban interests using its own diplomats to do so, but with very little success. There was hardly a regime in modern history which had been as deaf to the concerns of the wider world as the Taliban regime proved to be. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar stated that the holy Koran ‘cannot adjust itself to other people’s requirements; people should adjust themselves to the requirements of the holy Koran’. Mullah Hassan, a high-ranking Taliban official subsequently named in 2021 to be the Taliban regime’s ‘Prime Minister’, remarked that ‘we do not care about anybody as long as the religion of Allah is maintained’. Defiance on this scale was to cost the Taliban dearly, and when the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred, with the al-Qaida perpetrators enjoying hospitality from the Taliban at the time, the abject failure of the Taliban to build bridges to the wider world meant that there was literally no one disposed to come to their aid. Even Pakistan abandoned them, at least for a while.

Public relations after 9/11

For several years following the overthrow of the Taliban regime, the Taliban were themselves in a state of considerable disarray, scattered and impotent. This militated against their being in a position to achieve much through a public relations strategy. But with the US invasion of Iraq, new opportunities presented themselves, not only for the Taliban but for their backers in Pakistan, to which key Taliban leaders had fled. Antonio Giustozzi, in his 2019 book The Taliban at War: 2001-2018, recorded that one senior Taliban leader stated that in 2005 ‘Pakistan removed all the restrictions and we told all Taliban members that Pakistan does not want to arrest us, they want to support us’.

One area where Pakistan was well-placed to support the Taliban was in the area of public relations, and thereafter, the Taliban produced a set of increasingly sophisticated propaganda lines for internal consumption in Afghanistan that were noted by the International Crisis Group in 2008 and carefully documented by Thomas H. Johnson in his 2017 book Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. These propaganda lines, Johnson demonstrated, had religious, political and cultural dimensions, were strongly grounded in culturally-resonant themes, and varied according to whether the target audiences in Afghanistan were seen as sympathetic, unaligned or unsympathetic. As time went by, the Taliban also sought increasingly to pitch their messages to the wider world, although their ability to do so was significantly constrained by ongoing sanctions regimes. This, however, changed from 2018 when the US moved to engage with the Taliban, and from that point, Western elite audiences figured much more prominently on the list of those targeted by Taliban propaganda.

Taliban public relations in the post-2001 era employed a much more diverse range of techniques than one might have expected. These included magazines and hardcopy publications; ‘night letters’ (that is, texts posted or circulated surreptitiously, often containing warnings or threats); and even a propagandistic ‘code of conduct’ that allegedly disposed Taliban combatants to follow a set of rules in the context of armed conflict. But beyond these, the Taliban ventured actively into the evolving world of electronic communications. As Johnson’s study has documented, mobile radio stations broadcasting in Pushto and Dari provided one outlet. Mehran, Al Bayati, Mottet and Lemieux have also noted the Taliban’s highly-sophisticated use of videos, where ‘multimodal and cinematographic techniques and use of sounds and visual modes vary depending on the strategic theme’. Even more important was the development of the Taliban’s online presence, which exploited opportunities to communicate with audiences far beyond Afghanistan, although the eventual spread of internet connectivity as mobile phones were acquired by Afghans old and young also expanded the Taliban’s propaganda reach within Afghanistan itself. Outlets included the website Alemarah, a Facebook book and a range of Twitter accounts, and access to these latter social media venues was doubtless made easier by the failure of the United States and its allies formally to list the Taliban as a terrorist entity. This use of the internet was not a trivial pursuit. In his 2016 book, The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community, Neil Krishan Aggarwal argued that the Taliban used the internet to great advantage ‘in transforming individual and community identities through deliberate ways of self-presentation, social positioning, and relating to others that realize and reflect cultural change’. The resonances with similar transformative projects in 1930s Germany, in the Soviet Union, and in Maoist China are rather striking.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the success of the Taliban was predominantly a matter of propaganda and public relations. Rather, it achieved its objectives because of its relentless military attacks. These took the form not only of attacks on western forces – before the bulk of those forces were withdrawn by the end of 2014 – but even more on the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Afghan civilian casualties were also high, with the UN calculating that between 2007 and 2019 there were 39,039 war-related civilian deaths, with the Taliban responsible for 66% of them. There is some evidence that popular reaction to these Taliban-caused deaths was less intense than to those resulting from the activities of international forces, but there is little evidence to suggest that this asymmetry flowed from Taliban public relations efforts, as opposed to individuals’ broad senses of identity and direct experiences.

The seeming intractability of the conflict finally disposed western powers, above all the US, to look for a way of exiting Afghanistan altogether, and where Taliban public relations then became critical in persuading some key western players that the Taliban had ‘moderated’, and could therefore be potential partners in a diplomatic process to hasten the US’s departure. It was thus essential for the Taliban to create an image of themselves as actors who could be trusted to respect freedom and human rights, negotiate in ‘good faith’, and commit to honouring their promises in letter and spirit. The February 2020 article by Sirajuddin Haqqani was the culmination of this process. The critical target here was not a mass public, but rather US President Trump and his advisors, as well as opinion leaders in Western countries who might advocate in favour of a ‘peace process’. Meetings in Doha attended by Taliban figures and the controversial US Special Representative Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad were the occasions for the projection of this image, which unfortunately found a receptive audience in both policy and academic circles. The results, as rapidly became clear, were catastrophic: a profoundly defective and dangerous US exit agreement, a sham peace process, and mounting violence.

Like purchasers of a fake Rembrandt, those who had fallen for the Taliban’s propaganda proved slow to concede the point, and one result was the development of what Kate Clark of the respected Afghanistan Analysts Network dubbed ‘fantasy castles of research, advocacy and new institutions’. Yet when crunch-time came, Haqqani’s soothing words counted for nothing, and with new US President Biden ignoring even the expert advice of a bipartisan, congressionally-mandated study group to re-set course, August 2021 witnessed an internal collapse in Afghanistan, with the Taliban returning to power. This was a stunning achievement for what one experienced observer has called a ‘multinational criminal cartel’.

Taliban 2.0?

Since the Taliban overran Kabul, those who accepted propaganda about a more moderate ‘Taliban 2.0’ have had a hard encounter with reality. Reports have mounted of Taliban war crimes and atrocities. The policies of the Taliban towards women have been as repressive as those that won them opprobrium in the 1990s. It has become clear that a central objective of the Taliban is the suppression of free media. And in their choice of cabinet members, the Taliban have opted for hardliners, typically close to Pakistan, with not even lip-service to inclusivity: the new ministry, as one observer put it, is ‘all-male, almost all-Pashtun, all clerical and all-Taleban’. With Sirajuddin Haqqani named ‘Interior Minister’ while still on the FBI ‘Most Wanted’ list, it is hard to imagine a plainer display of scorn for the United States, or indifference to the concerns of the wider world. Having secured power, the Taliban may deem it now safe to be brazen. The Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero once remarked that ‘a legitimate government has no need of propaganda’. One could add that a police state might conclude that it has no need of it either.

The preceding discussion suggests that the effects of Taliban propaganda have been decidedly mixed. In analysing propaganda, one needs to be wary of simply assuming cause and effect, and of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The Taliban’s efforts may indeed have been effective in energising their combatants, although major questions remain as to exactly what factors led different Taliban foot-soldiers to fight, and how significant the role of Pakistan was in the final Taliban success, with evidence pointing to a greater role than early reports mentioned. The Taliban’s success in persuading Western policymakers and observers that the earlier Taliban had been succeeded by a ‘Taliban 2.0’ was also quite an achievement, although it may have been more a matter of telling the audience something it was already desperate to hear. There is also evidence that the Taliban’s social media campaigns were very successful in sapping morale in Afghanistan after the US-Taliban agreement. But their success in building wider mass support is another story altogether.

What the historian Carter Malkasian has called ‘the most respected survey of the Afghan people’, namely that conducted by the Asia Foundation, lends little support to the notion that Taliban propaganda about the presence of foreign forces secured much traction in the broader Afghan population. The 2019 survey, the last full survey conducted before the onset of COVID-19, found that 85.1% of respondents had no sympathy at all for the Taliban, and of those who considered that the country was moving the wrong direction, only 6.6% identified foreign intervention as the reason. Furthermore, among those Afghans who did express some sympathy for the Taliban, 47% voiced sympathy simply because the Taliban were Afghan, and only 2% because ‘they fight against foreign forces’. This suggests that the Taliban, to exercise power, are unlikely to be able to rely on generalized normative support – that is, legitimacy – and may instead resort to coercion. Whether they could mobilise sufficient coercive capacity to survive in the face of any kind of general uprising remains to be seen, but it certainly should not be taken for granted.