Today’s Taliban claim to support women’s rights and to have abandoned summary executions. Simon McGee, former press secretary to two British foreign secretaries, looks at the Afghan extremists’ surprising new PR playbook.
he tragedy and catastrophe unfolding in Afghanistan have sadly provided endless surprises. The belief by an American president that the Afghan National Army could hold its own against the Taliban insurgency without US-maintained air support and US advisers was one. And the sheer ease with which one of the world’s crossroads, linking Iran to China, and her 40 million people were abandoned to Dark Age barbarism and geopolitical adversaries as the Taliban enveloped the country was another. But the greatest surprise to me, from a professional perspective, has been the new urbane, almost respectable, mask that the Taliban has worn to devastating effect. It has been so influential that one might even attribute Taliban victory to its PR offensive as much as its fighting prowess.
The most striking aspect of the Taliban PR operation is that it exists in the first place. For an extremist movement that wants to turn back the clock a thousand years, its willingness to embrace modern media management techniques is evidence of the adaptability and patience that the Taliban has been known for over the past three decades. Its leadership has come to understand the critical effect that messaging and communication can have on how foreign powers act and react to them, as well as the morale of its opponents. One senior British diplomat remarked half-jokingly to me recently that plenty of countries could learn a thing or two from how the Taliban now did communications. So what are they up to and should we believe this new Taliban 2.0?
First and foremost, the Taliban has spent the past few years pushing a narrative that it is now moderate and legitimate. Far from being a gang of men keen on killing, rape, paedophilia and amputation, it alleges it has changed with the times. We are being presented with the Coke Zero Taliban: still advocating the most extreme interpretation of Sharia law but with less of the bad stuff. Several elements have helped to present this case.
Diplomatic messaging and international recognition have been critical. The new Taliban claimed that it wanted a responsible, peaceful, political resolution in Afghanistan rather than a military takeover. This messaging led directly to the February 2020 peace agreement signed in Doha, Qatar, between the Taliban and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, where the former promised to share power with the Kabul government in exchange for US and NATO withdrawal within 14 months. As well as leveraging US domestic opinion to secure the drawdown, the agreement provided valuable international recognition of the group’s legitimacy and implicit acceptance that it was no longer the extremist movement it once was. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s welcoming to China of the head of the Taliban political commission at the end of July 2021, as fighting raged, further legitimised the Taliban and delegitimised President Ghani’s government at a critical moment.
Its quest for acceptance has also been helped by the emergence of Islamic State, joining Al Qaeda as another more extreme outlier. The Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq willingly presented its caliphate as a dystopian Mad Max-style hell on earth. But when IS’s Afghan affiliate, Islamic State Khorosan Province (ISKP), attacked a Medicins Sans Frontieres maternity hospital in May 2020 – systematically murdering mothers, three still carrying unborn babies, in their beds – the Taliban rushed to the media to deny responsibility. While it is telling that they felt the need to deny ownership of the atrocity, the fact that they did so meant they understood the damage that such an attack could have on their attempted makeover and the peace agreement with the US. More recently, the Taliban even sought to portray itself as a bulwark against the ISKP as it appeared to provide security for Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport during the NATO withdrawal.
Messaging during the recent Taliban offensive has added to this new image, seeking to soothe Western fears about the renewed subjugation of women and girls, an end to humanitarian access, and reprisal killings of those who worked for NATO forces or in the previous government. While reports emerge that killings are taking place in rural areas far from the eyes of Western media and that girls’ education is already being curtailed, the Taliban top messages are consistent and, incidentally, exactly what the West wants to hear: women will still be allowed to attend higher education and the workplace, NGOs are welcome to continue operating, embassies should remain open and will be protected, there will be no revenge killings, the Taliban are the servants of the people not their masters, and so on.
What really propels these messages is that the Taliban now has designated, trained English-speaking spokesmen who are readily available to the media. And there is a Taliban press office that keeps in regular touch with the producers and fixers of international media outlets to schedule interviews and respond to questions. As the scramble for Kabul’s airport began, the bearded men of the Taliban were out there on the international broadcast airwaves answering any and all questions. This was in stark contrast to the Taliban of the 1990s, which never engaged or explained, and even President Biden, who turned his back on reporters’ questions after addressing the media about Afghanistan on 16 August.
CNN’s International Diplomatic Editor Nic Robertson knows Afghanistan and the Taliban better than almost anyone. He first travelled to Afghanistan in September 1996, when the Taliban first took Kabul, and has since reported from every part of the country. As Kabul fell to the Taliban for a second time in August, he spoke with Taliban spokesman Sohail Shaheen and was surprised by the interview. Speaking to Diplomat magazine, he said: “The idea that there are now official Taliban spokespeople who give interviews is a remarkable change. And Shaheen knew exactly what he was doing. He knew what kinds of questions to expect, he knew his talking points – which were all about reassuring the West on issues like girls’ education – and he kept his answers short and to the point. ‘We’re new, we’re different,’ is what he was saying. This attempt to influence media reporting and portray a different Taliban is a complete sea change.”
Another weapon in the Taliban’s communications armoury is its recent use of social media for psychological warfare purposes. IS used it to terrify opponents and recruit new members, and little more. Meanwhile, the Taliban deployed a carrot and stick approach to great effect during its military campaign. On the one hand, the Taliban used social media as a stick to amplify its military gains and demoralise the enemy. On the other, it used a more subtle carrot approach to eliminate completely the Afghan National army’s willingness to fight by showing that captured colleagues were being released unharmed and allowed to go home. When the fighting stopped it continued to see social media as a net asset and did not seek to curtail internet access or access to specific social media platforms, a far cry from the policy of many other more developed regimes in the world.
The continued presence of independent Western media in Afghanistan is another facet of the new Taliban – at least for now. At the time of this article being written, most international broadcasters and more than a few newspapers were still reporting from the streets of Kabul following the NATO withdrawal. From an anti-American perspective this tolerance paid off while the withdrawal was taking place as it enabled Western media to investigate and report the deaths of ten Afghan adults and children in a US drone strike and the apparent shooting of Afghan civilians by US troops following the ISKP bomb attack on Kabul airport. It also means that the world continues to see the transformation of the Taliban – whose fighters are looking increasingly like regular soldiers and less like mujahideen guerillas – into an organisation that, in Kabul at least, has seemingly changed. Far from stifling a free media, as most would expect, the Taliban has learnt to use it cunningly and to its benefit.
So is this new Taliban anything other than a paint job and can the West trust anything it says? Robertson is hopeful but not optimistic. “In one sense that question has already been answered by the way the Taliban signed the agreement in Doha to pursue political negotiations towards power sharing alongside Ghani’s government and then, once the US began its withdrawal, tore that up and took the country by military force,” he said.
“But it’s not as simple as that; nothing in Afghanistan ever is. I certainly believe that the Taliban believe they want to change, that they want to be different this time round. They do want to keep power, to be there for a long time and not be deposed again, and to build a future based on trade with China and others. They crave stability yet that will require them to accommodate the needs of the majority of Afghans. And strict adherence to the most severe interpretations of Sharia law does not lend itself to compromise. Will we really see the end of summary hangings in sports stadiums and amputations for petty crimes, and girls still in school and women in the workplace? I can only hope so.”
Whether the new-look Taliban is a complete mirage or turns out to be genuine, one aspect is clear: that the appearance and promise of a moderate and forgiving Taliban led directly to the Doha deal that sealed Afghanistan’s fate. It’s amazing what a little makeover can accomplish.