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Afghan Leaders Sideline Spokesmen in an Escalating Misinformation Struggle

KABUL, Afghanistan — After Ahmad Jawad Hijri noticed the wounded kids within the hospital and realized of the Afghan airstrike that put them there, killing 9 others round their age in northern Afghanistan, he by no means anticipated that his response would land him in jail.

However Mr. Hijri, then the spokesman for the governor of Takhar Province, was arrested, imprisoned for 3 days after which fired after telling the information media what had occurred — a normal a part of his position which he had carried out many instances earlier than. High officers in Kabul insisted that solely Taliban fighters had been killed within the strike, not kids, and that anybody who mentioned in any other case was to be prosecuted.

“On the hospital I noticed the wounded kids,” Mr. Hijri mentioned. “I didn’t make a mistake.”

The struggle in Afghanistan has lengthy been one among competing narratives. However the authorities’s response to the Oct. 22 strike in Takhar Province signaled a shift in techniques by President Ashraf Ghani’s administration: an overt declaration of its willingness to suppress and deny data on the deaths of harmless folks. It additionally highlighted the altering political panorama as peace negotiations proceed in Qatar and the Taliban transfer to benefit from the eye they’re attracting on the world stage.

The information briefings that outlined the early years of the struggle as each side jockeyed to win Afghan hearts and minds have almost ceased. That leaves its most important gamers — america, the Taliban and the federal government — all testing completely different communication methods to realize their desired ends.

However with the People set to presumably withdraw from the nation within the coming months, the Afghan authorities — inundated by Taliban assaults, slumping morale amongst its safety forces and waves of focused killings throughout the nation — has solely shrunk away from portraying itself as a bastion of democratic values.

The October airstrike, specialists mentioned, was a turning level for the Afghan authorities. Even the pretense of accountability shifted to outright condemnation of these going in opposition to the federal government’s backside line, most likely due to a worry of dropping public standing additional.

The clampdown has solely emboldened the Taliban, desperate to show themselves able to main Afghanistan higher than the present leaders, who’re more and more dropping credibility.

The Afghan authorities is “so afraid of criticism, they’re unwilling to confess to errors or maintain themselves accountable,” mentioned Patricia Gossman, the affiliate Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “It’s in the end self-destructive, however they’re determined to regulate data.”

Earlier within the struggle, the Afghan authorities was reticent about civilian casualties inflicted by the coalition or by Afghan forces, usually pledging to analyze however providing outcomes that had been hardly ever publicized. However in any case the episodes had been acknowledged, and native officers from areas the place civilians had been wounded or killed had been allowed to talk about them freely.

The Taliban have used civilian deaths as a propaganda device for the whole lot of the struggle, pointing to U.S. and NATO airstrikes and evening raids as evident crimes in opposition to the Afghan folks. However as Western troops scaled again their presence, and Afghan forces leveled their very own weapons in opposition to the rebel group, the following errant airstrikes and misguided artillery fireplace which have wounded and killed innocents have turn out to be an ever extra highly effective propaganda device, this time leveled straight on the Afghan authorities.

One such instance concerned pictures of lifeless civilians and destroyed property posted to Twitter final week by a Taliban spokesman who highlighted them as struggle crimes dedicated by the Afghan and U.S. militaries. Such photos are sometimes catalysts for public outcry that goals each methods: blaming the federal government for an incapacity to guard its folks and the Taliban for his or her unwavering dedication to violence.

Because the Taliban have scaled up their propaganda distribution, the Afghan authorities has tightened the reins on official dialogue with the general public. Since October, the Ghani administration has muzzled provincial spokesmen and district governors, demanding that they cease relaying data to the information media, a number of Afghan officers from a number of provinces advised The Instances, particularly regarding civilian casualties.

The crackdown has prompted fears amongst provincial spokesmen that they may lose their jobs or face arrest. One spokesman, who spoke on the situation of anonymity, mentioned that journalists usually needed to wait hours or days to listen to from the provincial governors as a result of their spokesmen weren’t allowed to reply.

American officers and members of Mr. Ghani’s administration attributed the clampdown to a scarcity of coordination between native and nationwide businesses and mentioned that the provincial spokesmen had been barred from speaking solely about safety points.

Sediq Seddiq, Mr. Ghani’s spokesman, denied that the federal government was making an attempt to restrict data, saying that the Afghan authorities has “been a pioneer in supporting our vibrant media and the enforcement of entry to data legal guidelines that are unprecedented within the area.”

In the end, the Afghan authorities’s determination to stifle data on the native stage signifies that the Taliban have more room to regulate the narrative within the nation’s districts the place they’re current however that Afghan officers have better command over the nationwide narrative, a former U.S. official mentioned.

This dynamic performed out on Sunday in southern Afghanistan. Native officers in Nimruz Province claimed an Afghan airstrike there killed a minimum of a dozen civilians a day earlier, solely to have the governor later say that 12 Taliban had been killed and that a report of civilian casualties was being investigated. That very same day, protesters took the stays of these killedto the provincial capital, saying ladies and youngsters had been among the many lifeless.

The repression of data has been a boon for the Taliban, an rebel group that when banned televisions and barely talked to reporters. Their Feb. 29 settlement with america on a timetable for withdrawal, specialists say, helped legitimize the group on a global stage, prompting the Taliban’s public relation equipment to develop significantly.

Taliban opinion items written in English are sometimes posted now on the group’s web site, Voice of Jihad, and typically seem in worldwide information media retailers, together with the Op-Ed web page of The New York Instances. Native Afghan information retailers publish statements from Taliban spokesmen on social media, a lot as they’d Afghan officers. It’s a far cry from a decade in the past, when the Taliban’s messaging was usually dismissed as lies.

The Taliban usually lie about dying tolls of their assaults, denying civilian casualties and at instances blaming coalition forces for them. The group has denied taking any position within the latest string of focused killings throughout the nation, regardless of being straight implicated by the U.S. navy and Afghan safety officers.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the chief Taliban spokesman, mentioned that their media technique was centered on “sharing the reality for the folks.” In actuality, the group has two strains of effort: one supporting the peace talks and the opposite discrediting the Afghan authorities on the battlefield and supporting Taliban fighters.

To assist counter the Taliban’s narrative, america began a small psychological operations unit known as the Data Warfare Process Pressure-Afghanistan, based on U.S. navy officers. The shadowy outfit was fashioned on the request of Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, within the wake of the 2018 killing of Gen. Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar. After his dying in an insider assault, rumors shortly attributed his killing as a substitute to the People.

By combining cybertools, intercepted communications and social media, the unit acts as a direct counter to disrupt messaging and data channels of the Taliban and terrorist teams within the nation, officers mentioned.

Mr. Hijri, the previous provincial spokesman, nonetheless refuses to cowl up the civilian casualties he noticed on Oct. 22. An Afghan Unbiased Human Rights fee report backed up his assertions on the episode, saying that an Afghan authorities airstrike had killed 9 kids, aged 7 to 13, and wounded greater than 14 others. Taliban fighters had been additionally damage.

“I’m amid two stones: One aspect is the Taliban and from one other aspect is the federal government,” Mr. Hijri mentioned. “Now my destiny will not be clear.”

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.

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