x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Taliban shows its true face in bid to ban polio vaccines

By playing with the lives of innocent Pakistanis and targeting a national polio vaccination campaign, the Taliban proves once again the hollowness of its propaganda.

The Taliban has announced a war on Pakistan's media for not giving adequate coverage to its point of view. Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) recently claimed responsibility for an attack on the office of Aaj News, a private television news channel in Karachi on June 25 that injured two people.

But at the same time that Taliban leaders make these threats they also call on the media to report on their radical interpretation of Islam and anti-state activities - like banning groups administering polio vaccines, as they did yesterday in the country's tribal areas. They can't have it both ways.

Through propaganda tactics, radical Taliban elements look to exploit different events and issues with the aim of winning the support of local people, in part to provoke a backlash against western forces. But in this way the Taliban is playing with the lives of innocent Pakistanis.

The anti-polio campaign is the most egregious example of this. Pakistani health authorities estimate that 160,000 children in North Waziristan and 80,000 in South Waziristan will be at risk if polio vaccinations are not administered. But Taliban propagandists have presented the polio campaign, launched this week, as a cover for espionage.

Taliban leaders are fighting their propaganda war on two fronts - external and internal.

Externally, Taliban propagandists are trying to weaken public support for the West's antiterrorism campaign, shaping the perception that there is no end to this conflict.

Internally, the Taliban tries to win the sympathies and support of local populations in Afghanistan and border areas of Pakistan by portraying the war on terror as a war on Islam - no matter the cost.

Anti-polio drives are just one way in which the Taliban is waging its campaigns. They are also using radio stations, websites, emails, cell phones and DVDs to get their message out. They make use of email as an effective communication tool to send their statements, and deliver press releases to the print and electronic media. The Taliban even distributes leaflets.

In a traditional Pashtu or Afghan society both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the masjid, madrassah and mullah are of key social importance. The people have great respect for them. The masjid and madrassah have been the most effective forums for Taliban propagandists to preach anti-western stances and recruit local youth for the purpose of jihad.

Poetry, a valuable cultural heritage of Afghan youth, is also being used by the Taliban as a propaganda tool to win public support and attract new recruits. A quotation from The Message of a Devoted Mujahed, as reported by The National on June 23, is one example of this:

"We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour; That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists. We have properly identified the puppets and servants of the foreigners; we circle their names in red on our lists."

Today, mobile phones in Afghanistan have become effective propaganda tools for Taliban recruiters. SMS or mobile phone messages sent by the Taliban are openly propagandist. For example, a Pashto SMS aimed at pulling Afghan youth to jihad through suicide bombing has been in circulation on both sides of the Afghan border. It reads in part: "The shortest and fastest path to heaven (suicide bombing) is on one click; just press a button (in a suicide bomb jacket) and reach heaven within moments."

The US war strategy - and some unfortunate and unacceptable acts committed by elements within the ranks of coalition forces - have helped Taliban propagandists portray foreign forces as enemies of Islam and of Muslims. The burning of a Quran in February at a US-run prison at Bagram military base in Afghanistan was a provocative act by US forces.

Many Pakistani and Afghans are angered by these acts. But why is the Pakistani media being threatened by the Taliban so viciously, especially as it looks to have its radical views aired more widely?

Like Nato and American soldiers, and portions of the Pakistan government, the Pakistani media is at war against the Talibanisation trends. The media has played a significant role in containing Taliban influence in settled areas of the country. It reported on the bold initiative against the Taliban in 2009, when Pakistan's army launched a full-fledged military operation against insurgents in Swat and Malakand in the country's north-west.

Pakistan's media has also widely covered the incidents of bombing of girls' schools, whipping of women in public and suicide attacks in mosques by the Taliban.

Many journalists have sacrificed their lives for exposing the Taliban's real face. Then again, barbaric acts and ill-conceived campaigns targeting innocent children - like the ban on polio vaccinations - do that for them.


Syed Fazl-e-Haider (www.syedfazlehaider.com), a development analyst in Pakistan, has written many books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan