Afghan Radio Wars: Combating the Taliban's Message Machine

To combat the increasingly sophisticated Taliban message machine, the U.S. is employing its own band of hardy radio DJs

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Jason Motlagh for TIME

DJ Karimullah in his makeshift studio

At dusk on Friday, four Taliban mortars crashed into the ground near the district center in Miri, a small town in eastern Ghazni province, Afghanistan, where a U.S. Army company is based. Shrapnel from one of the blasts injured two children in a residential area, a 12-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy, who later died of his injuries. It was the second time in as many months that militants had killed local civilians, and the U.S. forces were not going to let it be forgotten.

Within two hours of the attack, a message was drafted by the battalion's "information operations" team to be broadcast by its new on-base radio station. In the cramped confines of a steel shipping container turned studio, Karimullah, an Afghan DJ, broke the news that the children were taken to an area hospital by American soldiers "for the best possible care, but the little boy was too badly hurt. The insurgents," he lamented, "continue to harm their fellow Afghans and kill your children needlessly."

Words are now weapons in the fight for Afghan hearts and minds — but they must be deployed faster than ever to be effective. In recent years, the Taliban-led insurgency has evolved a vast propaganda machine with a full range of tools to spread its message. The once anti-media movement now operates websites featuring updated battlefield reports and produces DVDs with raw video footage of attacks against coalition forces. Meanwhile, the Taliban's regional spokesmen communicate with domestic and foreign press via cell phone.

But no medium is as powerful as radio in this poor, largely illiterate country with limited access to TV and the Internet. On both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, Taliban-sponsored FM stations drive home the insurgents' messaging campaign, with the threat of physical punishment or worse reserved for those who don't tune in. Mobile clandestine radio stations and portable transmitters enable militants to tap and commandeer local airwaves almost at will.

Recognizing the Taliban's head start on this critical front, NATO military officials have ramped up their spin cycle in the Afghan backcountry. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, recently issued operational guidelines stressing that the "information war" must be fought aggressively to ensure that insurgent propaganda is not just promptly challenged but also beaten to the punch. "Turn our enemies' extremist ideologies, oppressive practices and indiscriminate violence against them. Hang their barbaric actions like millstones around their necks," the guidelines say. "Be first with the truth."

So when a battalion of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division arrived in Ghazni province's hostile moonscape late this past summer to build a base from scratch, it brought radio equipment and DJ Karimullah. Trained at a radio station in his native Khost province, the 25-year-old has worked on the U.S. payroll in three of the country's perennial hot spots: Khost, Paktika and now Ghazni, where Radio Andar 96.7 was launched in August. From a makeshift studio that has a mattress for a chair, he and his partner, Faruq, are on the air from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, seven days a week, broadcasting a mix of pro-government news briefs, Koranic recitations, Hindi pop songs and, when he's in the mood to spice things up, a bit of Michael Jackson. With a modest $500-a-month salary, he says it's the dynamic platform that sustains him. "In Afghanistan, radio is a kind of power," he says, beaming with wide-eyed enthusiasm. "Everybody knows me."

At work, Karimullah wears a baseball cap and a shiny brown pleather jacket over his customary shalwar kameez tunic. And while he relishes the small degree of fame, he insists that educating fellow Afghans to embrace their country is what drives him. Much of his time on air deals with themes of basic civic awareness, focusing on things like the Afghan constitution or President Hamid Karzai. He also offers a kind of traffic update: practical advice on what places to avoid because of heavy fighting. Listeners, for the time being, can reach him with questions and concerns via text message, which he will address on air. But he has plans for a call-in show that will focus on more culturally sensitive issues, like women's rights. He'll have to be careful too. His attention to women's concerns have already drawn several death threats, making it impossible for him to travel "outside the wire."

Even if he's a long way from winning over ultra-conservative Afghans, Karimullah has the full trust of his American supervisors, who give him a lot of latitude on the job. "He knows what people want and just rolls with it," says Lieutenant R.J. Peek, an information officer with the 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry. "He puts out the message in such a way that it doesn't sound American but Afghan to Afghan, with the positive spin it should have." Although their operating budget is lean, U.S. forces in Ghazni have tapped into alternative funding streams to support a wider radio effort. Ever-popular hand-cranked radios are being distributed in larger numbers at the village level to expand the audience.

The push has struck a chord. In some districts, the Taliban has responded by collecting hundreds of radios and destroying them. Elsewhere, it has targeted radio towers. The Americans, in turn, have started jamming Taliban radio frequencies and going door to door with "reverse night information papers," their version of the Taliban's notorious "night letters," turning an intimidation tactic on its head. The battalion commander, Lieut. Colonel David Fivecoat, calls it a necessary measure to stay a step ahead of the militants and the Afghan news cycle. "We are working hard to make sure the insurgents don't have the opportunity to blame us," he says. Indeed, as the fighting season winds down, the information war is still in overdrive.

Yet given the insurgency's long-standing chokehold over areas like Ghazni, old fears are proving difficult to shake. A day after the errant Taliban mortars claimed two innocent casualties, soldiers stationed in Miri went to assess the damage in the nearby neighborhood. According to Lieutenant Philip Divinski, most people had already heard that the Taliban was responsible from word of mouth or the radio. They could also assume as much, based on a previous militant mortar attack in October, which killed two people and injured at least 10 more in the bazaar. Despite the deadly reprise, Divinski was struck by how indifference exceeded anger among the victims' families and friends. "Sadly, it seems people have gotten used to this kind of thing," he says. "They understand who's at fault, but they're just too afraid to turn against them."