Jason Motlagh examines the rise of the Taliban's sophisticated public relations machine and the havoc it has wreaked on U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
Excerpt: When Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office recently said it was holding peace talks with the Taliban, the Taliban countered with a press release. A spokesman for the militants dismissed Karzai's announcement as a propaganda ploy to suggest a schism within the Taliban's ranks. Not only was that not true, the press release that was subsequently sent to journalists announced the start of the Taliban's spring offensive, dubbed "Operation Victory." It was the latest exchange in a critical second front in the Afghan war - a war of words that U.S. and Kabul government officials privately concede they are losing.
The same Taliban that once banned television now boasts a sophisticated public relations machine that is shaping perceptions in Afghanistan and abroad. Although polls show the movement remains unpopular, the insurgents have readily exploited a sense of growing alienation fostered by years of broken government promises, official corruption, and the rising death toll among civilians from airstrikes and other military actions. "The result is weakening public support for nation-building, even though few actively support the Taliban," says a report from the International Crisis Group, a think tank that monitors conflicts. An American official in Afghanistan agrees: "We cannot afford to be passive [communicators] any longer if we're going to turn this around."