Propaganda has existed in countless forms throughout history, as those in positions of power have tended to try to sway the public opinion one way or another in order to achieve certain goals. This facet of human nature has not changed much in the last few thousand years, only their methods.
People tend to argue over what is and isn’t quite propaganda. Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person” or “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect.” Many would argue that such things are alive and well in American society, and many would also argue that a message need not be malicious in order to be classified under “propaganda.”
However, there is still a distinct difference between what propaganda efforts exist in the United States, and the propaganda in countries where a singular group composed of only a few people control just about everything. For example, the way propaganda works in Russia is very different from how it works in the U.S. We may have serious propaganda efforts within our media, but to compare them with a completely state-sponsored media structure like the Myanmar government is a stretch from the truth.
And it’s the same with the Taliban. Writing articles about their various operations has consistently led me to countless statements and articles addressing all sorts of facets of the war. They phrase things very differently than news from other areas, and their choices in diction are quite telling.
First of all, they do not refer to themselves as the Taliban. They officially call themselves the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” This means that they are separate in many ways from the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There are undoubtedly useful logistical reasons for this — the goals of the two groups overlap in many areas, but they both have very separate overall objectives. One seeks a certain future in Pakistan, the other in Afghanistan. Logistically, this separation may provide clarity in regards to operations internal to the groups. However, it also serves to separate themselves from negative headlines pushed out by Western media — yet another step away from headlines that read: “Taliban attack women’s mosque in Pakistan, 22 killed and 70 wounded.”
Another instance: they do not refer to their own fighters as soldiers or some such military designation; instead, they call them “Mujahideen.” Mujahideen refers to those who are engaging in a holy war, and so this term paints them as heroes fighting in a battle of religiously large proportions. It also steers away from the “underdog” perception that could be gleaned from words like “guerrilla fighter.”
Conversely, they generally refer to the United States as the “enemy,” but they have some other words too. “Invader” is a common one that many in the West are familiar with hearing, and it applies to NATO forces across the board.
They refer to the Afghan government as the “puppet regime” and those in it are often called “puppets.” Even when describing their deaths: “At least 3 puppets including notorious enemy commander … were killed and a further 7 wounded amid a gunfight against Mujahideen in Sari Kala … “[sic] This report goes on to describe the deaths of the Taliban fighters in a very different way: “Reports say, enemy than bombarded the area, martyring 2 Mujahideen (May Allah accept them).”[sic] You can also note the word “martyring.”
Under the “puppet regime” are what they call the “hirelings.” When civilians are killed in fighting, and NATO or Afghan forces are responsible, they typically use the word civilian. When Taliban forces kill any civilians associated with NATO forces (aid workers, local contractors, etc.), they are referred to as “hirelings,” dehumanizing the dead, many of which were only there to help civilians, not to mention the fact that they too are civilians.
They have also been known to make claims that seem to come entirely from thin air. “Americans claim that killing and torturing civilians is a part of their military doctrine” is a headline to one of their articles they put out in May. This was followed by the statement, “The United States’ military public relations head Cristopher Gray said: ‘The American soldier will never be convicted of any crime in any court if they are accused of targeting or killing civilians in Afghanistan.’ According to him the American soldiers perform everything according to military guidlines.”[sic] Their articles and statements are chock full of assertions like this that are not rooted in any discernible truth. And yet in a culture where one might just be accessing the internet for the first time, corroborating evidence may not be a common practice in all areas, especially if you have no reason to doubt the statements in the first place. For example, an isolated farmer in Afghanistan who only rarely travels into town to find internet access, and by the way the town is under Taliban control — and therefore their narratives.
Sure, these changes in phrases and words aren’t going to sway anyone’s opinions outright. No one is going to see the word “hireling” and immediately assume all of these people are the sniveling henchmen to the evil, maniacal “invaders.”
And still, one can rarely point at a singular propaganda campaign and say it was one word or one flyer that did all the damage (though exceptions do exist). Propaganda of this nature tends to slowly change the language people use when referring to “puppets” or “invaders.” And language is very closely connected with perception — even someone sympathetic to the cause of the “invader” is going to feel a bit weird about saying it quite like that, since that is an inherently negative term. Shifts in language like this can affect the mindset of someone over an extended period, and that is where the damage is done.
No doubt the primary target audience of these words are people with access throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, particularly near the border of the two.
Featured image: In this photo taken on Aug. 5, 2012 Pakistani Taliban patrol in their stronghold of Shawal in Pakistani tribal region of South Waziristan. Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan told the Associated Press that Taliban threatened to kill a Pakistani cricket star Imran Khan who has become a major political player if he holds a planned march to their tribal stronghold along the Afghan border to protest U.S. drone attacks. Ahsan said “If he comes, our suicide bombers will target him,” | AP Photo/ Ishtiaq Mahsud