Taliban winning Pakistan PR war

Tales of `martyrs,' battlefield victories gain hearts, minds

War On Terrorism

November 05, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Several afternoons each week, on a narrow shaded lane of stout homes, two bearded men in black turbans and white robes shuffle forth onto their veranda to face a hundred or so journalists sprawled on the front lawn.

The two men, Taliban Ambassador Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef and his interpreter, sit at a small table to offer in mumbled tones their version of the latest war news. Afghan casualties are invariably "martyred" rather than killed, witty replies are in short supply, and the most common response to follow-up questions is: "I don't have detail."

By Western standards of slick presentation, the scene is almost comical. Yet, when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld landed here last night for a brief visit, he arrived as the clear underdog in the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of Pakistan.

The quiet men from the Taliban, it seems, are defeating Rumsfeld's Pentagon briefers at every turn, so thoroughly that U.S. officials have announced that they'll start holding regular briefings of their own in Islamabad. Doubters need only listen to the likes of Qari Afzal, who lives in the town of Mansehra.

"This is a war against Muslims," said Afzal, having reached his conclusions from weighing the daily news reports. "America could stop the killings of these innocent people, but it is too interested in serving its own interests. It wants to control the region and all its resources."

Consider the case of Saturday's reports of a downed American helicopter. A Pentagon spokesman attributed the crash to bad weather, saying that only a few soldiers were injured and that a second helicopter evacuated everyone to safety.

Zaeef had a different version, saying that the Taliban shot down both helicopters, killing dozens of American soldiers. His account brought the Taliban's running total of destroyed American aircraft to seven, including a B-52 bomber.

The respected English-language daily Dawn, about as balanced as newspapers come in Pakistan, gave top billing to the Taliban's side of the story. Wedged beneath it was a two-paragraph story headlined: "Pentagon version."

Rumsfeld could at least take comfort that Dawn ignored a wire story picked up by several other local papers, such as The News, which splashed it on the top of its world news page with a headline blaming the Israeli intelligence service for terrorism: "Mossad behind U.S. attacks: Saudi paper."

Such conspiracy theories play best in crowded urban slums or in the militant Islamic madrassa schools. But even people who might be expected to side with the Americans tend to believe that the bombing campaign has been too lengthy and indiscriminate, often after they've bought into the Taliban's daily casualty totals.

At a recent conference for anti-Taliban tribal elders and village leaders from Afghanistan, one speaker after another stood to wholeheartedly oppose the U.S. military campaign, including the ones with nothing good to say about Osama bin Laden.

"Hundreds of innocent people - women, children, the sick, the elderly - are being killed by the allied attacks," said Maubin Fazal Hadi Shimwari, who once fought against the Taliban and would like to see Taliban leaders overthrown. "They are destroying our people."

How has this happened?

For one thing, Zaeef is out there almost every day of the week, easily accessible to local news media. The Pentagon's presence is mostly restricted to cable network transmissions of CNN. And that reaches only the portion of the local population that also speaks English. In addition, the Pentagon's careful news management techniques - employed so effectively in the United States - seem here merely to mirror the Taliban way of doing business. Both sides strictly control the access of reporters, so both must be hiding something.

And for all the Taliban's track record of expelling and arresting journalists, they did recently allow into Afghanistan a caravan of some 40 news media people, mostly television crews. The Pentagon has yet to allow any news media to accompany its operations into Afghanistan.

The Taliban have accomplished all this without ever taking much care with details or bothering to try to prove their claims with pictures or videos, such as the images presented by the Pentagon of missiles slamming into bunkers.

Zaeef's claim about the downing of a B-52 would, if true, have been pretty big news in Washington. He also claimed two weeks ago that some victims in Afghanistan showed signs of having been attacked with chemical weapons. He offered no details and has not repeated the charge.

But the Pentagon may have suffered some damage to its credibility this week after an account in The New Yorker magazine said that a dozen U.S. commandos had been injured - several seriously - in a raid Oct. 20. The Pentagon had characterized the raid as a virtually trouble-free excursion.

Yesterday, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces, tried to reconcile the two versions: "We had a bunch of these young people who had scratches and bumps and knocks from rocks. ... So, it's probably accurate to say that maybe five or maybe 25 people were `wounded,'" he said. "We had no one wounded by enemy fire, and I think that is probably worthwhile noting."

The New Yorker's account sounded more like the Taliban's initial report. If so, chalk up another small public relations victory for the quiet Mr. Zaeef.

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