The Taliban didn't change — it adapted to the (dis)information age

The Taliban didn't change — it adapted to the (dis)information age
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In the wake of Kabul’s fall to the Taliban last month, U.S. officials placed the blame on everything from faulty intelligence to corruption in the Afghan government. Although each of these claims is valid, there were other forces at work leading up to the coup that gave the Taliban control over Afghanistan for the first time in 20 years. 

Taliban fighters had been using the internet to connect with local followers since the early 2000s, but their strategy changed once America’s exit became imminent. In February 2020, then-Taliban deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote a New York Times op-ed that sparked a wave of fresh Taliban Twitter accounts. A BBC report revealed that many of those accounts were created explicitly for promoting Haqqani’s article to an international audience. 

Haqqani, now Afghanistan’s minister of interior, pledged that any future government would be decided by a “consensus among Afghans” with “equal rights.” To maximize its influence, the article was published during high-visibility peace negotiations between Taliban leaders and President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new social media network called 'TRUTH Social' Virginia State Police investigating death threat against McAuliffe Meadows hires former deputy AG to represent him in Jan. 6 probe: report MORE’s administration.

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By May 2021, Taliban members who once banned the internet had begun using hashtags, viral promotion techniques and English-language Twitter posts to influence international opinion. “We want to change the [the world’s] perception of the Taliban.” This comment, made by a member of the group’s social media team in early September, embodies the spirit of a sophisticated public relations campaign waged in conjunction with NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The underlying theme of their message portrayed a moderate Taliban prepared to share power. It was a ploy. 

More recent photos of severely beaten Kabul journalists depict a grim future for information exchange under the Taliban’s newly-formed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They might be the same despots they were in 1996, but the world around them has changed drastically since they last held political power. 

When U.S. special operations teams paired with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban in late 2001, only 55 percent of adults in the United States used the internet. Today that number sits at 93 percent. Eighty-six percent of Americans now get their news in rapid flashes from a smart device, such as a phone or tablet. The numbers are no different in Kenya, where 76 percent of the adult population relies on social media to track current events. 

During the same period, there has been an explosion of online disinformation from both state and non-state actors seeking to shape mass opinion. This environment and its effects, such as truth decay, are ripe not only for spreading ideas that fuel extremism, but also for distorting an organization’s true nature.

Although there is a wealth of research on the information campaigns of ISIS and al Qaeda, until recently experts viewed the Taliban as an extremist group driven primarily by local interests. As a result, it has largely been excluded from the last two decades of studies covering the transnational information operations of violent extremist organizations. That needs to change.  

Ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda are longstanding and held together by maturing digital communities. Last week, David Cohen, the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), alleged that dispersed al Qaeda fighters might already be heading back into Afghanistan.

Yet Islamic Emirate leaders continue to push the narrative of a new and improved Taliban in glossy documentaries, undeterred by videos of the group beheading its enemies or beating women in the streets. Digital information campaigns can minimize the impact of these images because they are cheap and effective. 

By some estimates the United States spent $2.3 trillion in Afghanistan as it fought to gain the favor of the local populace. In comparison, the Taliban reaches nearly a million Twitter followers instantaneously with sleek videos depicting them as fun-loving victims of corrupt bureaucrats — and it costs them nothing. 

In the digital world, Taliban spokesmen double down on themes from Haqqani’s op-ed such as women’s rights and global warming. In the real world, the Islamic Emirate just fired all female city workers in Kabul and shuttered its groundbreaking Women’s Affairs Ministry. These are issues known to be popular not among the Taliban but throughout the western world, which is telling of the group’s intended audience.

Over the coming months, the Islamic Emirate will likely offer selective access to journalists and public officials, and publicize that access for maximum effect among its growing base of internet followers. If the Taliban can pull off the equivalent of disinformation jiu-jitsu by portraying its rule as sanctioned by the people, it will not only further discredit U.S. foreign policy in the region but also galvanize a global terrorist network. Worse even, such a ploy could mask any injustices inflicted upon the Afghan people. 

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The eyes of the world might be on the new regime now, but that won’t last forever. When Afghanistan fades from the headlines, cutting through the Taliban’s digital fog will once again become the charge of investigative journalists and niche intelligence analysts. They will have their hands full.

Capt. M. P. Ferguson is an author and U.S. military officer with decades of experience throughout Southwest Asia, Europe and Africa, including in Afghanistan. His research on national security affairs and disinformation has appeared in numerous print and online publications. 

*The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect official positions or policies of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. government.