The Taliban’s vast propaganda machine has a new target

So far, the lion’s share of their effort has manifested in statements from and interviews with leadership figures. The overarching tone for these materials was set the very day that the Taliban took Kabul, when its deputy supreme leader Mullah ‘Abdul Ghani Baradar issued a video message addressing, among others, the Taliban’s rank and file, noting that the most pressing challenge now was to provide security and bring a peaceful and prosperous life to all Afghans.

In the week since, this message – that the Taliban has swapped its draconian policies of the nineties for a more moderate and progressive approach towards Islamic governance – has been echoed time and again. Taliban officials have been filmed liberally as they meet with female workers and students, hospital staff, business leaders and religious minorities alike, making assurances that things have changed and that the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ of 2021 does not look like the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ 20 years ago.

Moreover, in the wake of the airport attack, they were quick to blame the United States military for failing to secure the area sufficiently, insisting that the Taliban’s own counter-terrorism apparatus has a hold on the threat of ISKP terrorism.

Besides these broad policy pronouncements, it has also begun demonstrating how its new system of rule is purportedly working in practice. In one video published a few days ago, Talibs dressed up as civilians roamed the streets with expensive mobile phones, daring thieves to rob them. At around the same time, a video emerged showing a group of just-captured thieves. They had been badly beaten, but they still had their hands, meaning, implicitly, that the Taliban had opted not to implement the ‘Islamic’ punishment of amputation – at least, not yet.

This stream of ‘good governance’-focused content to one side, it is important to keep in mind that what the Taliban’s leaders and propagandists say is not necessarily going to translate into what the Taliban’s rank and file actually do, and, judging by the frequent reports of forced marriage, extra-judiciary raids, and rejection of female employees that are emerging from both Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, it would appear that some if not many are already trying to break ranks.

With the pressures of ISKP agitation, as well as renewed calls for a US counter-terrorism presence in Afghanistan, the risk of its fragmenting as a result of internal dissatisfaction is mounting. On that basis, one thing is for sure: with the capture of Kabul and its now having de facto control of Afghanistan, the job of the Taliban’s propaganda officials just became a lot more difficult.

However, while difficult, it will not necessarily be impossible: after all, they know what they are doing. Their approach to communication is the result of a concerted and years-long effort to understand and shape the narrative landscape in Afghanistan.

At base, the Taliban appears to conceptualise outreach just like any other insurgent group – that is, with a view to propagating its ideals, legitimising its actions, and intimidating its adversaries. In doing so, it has been communicating simultaneously with supporters and adversaries alike, not to mention the vast number of Afghans who feel, or have felt, ambivalent towards both it and the now-former Afghan government.

In aid of these objectives, its influence efforts have generally taken three forms: media-based communications, in-person outreach, and signalling violence. Media-based communications comprise audio-visual content such as radio programmes, videos, magazines and photo-reports that can be broadcast on- and offline. In-person outreach involves community engagement, police patrols, religious fairs, and public punishments – that is, anything that results in direct interaction between Taliban outreach units and local communities. Lastly, signalling violence comprises acts of violence intended to show power, not necessarily just for territorial or material gain.