The United States government is mounting a counter-propaganda offensive in Afghanistan to combat the Taliban’s media successes. Journalist Douglas Wissing reports on the “radio war” raging in eastern Afghanistan. (Photo:Douglas Wissing)
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MARCO WERMAN: Today Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission reported that 28 civilians have been killed in the NATO offensive on Marjah that’s now underway. The commission urged allied forces to take greater care to distinguish between civilians and Taliban fighters. It’s a major concern. NATO Commander Stanley McChrystal has made protecting civilians a top priority. It’s about winning public support in Afghanistan. Another way the U.S. has been trying to do that is through the airwaves. It’s launched a radio campaign to counter the Taliban’s media message. Douglas Wissing reports from eastern Afghanistan.
DOUGLAS WISSING: The Taliban have dozens of mobile radio stations in the insurgency areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border. The stations are tiny, low power rigs. They move constantly to avoid capture. Transporting the briefcase sized transmitters by pick up, motorcycle and even donkey. The Taliban stations broadcast readings of the Koran along with diatribes against the Afghan government and their western allies. There is a good reason both the Taliban and U.S. focus on radio says Vikram Singh. He heads up the U.S. State Department’s Afghan-Pakistani counter-propaganda program.
VIKRAM SINGH: If you look at Afghanistan today it’s a highly illiterate society and radio is by far the media with the most penetration. Over 80% of Afghan households have radios.
WISSING: And the U.S. military forces are responsible for a good number of those. They distributed millions of hand cranked radios across Afghanistan. The State Department’s Jimmy Story says the durable plastic radios are perfect for the impoverished countryside where there is little electricity.
JIMMY STORY: They pretty much last forever. It’s a perpetual motion machine. If you’ve got the energy to keep turning the crank, you keep getting your radio programming.
WISSING: U.S. military helicopters transport compact 300 watt stations into remote combat outposts. The stations are called RIABS, “radios in a box”. Afghan DJs broadcast from them 16 hours a day. The government DJs feature Afghan and Pakistani music, Pashtun poetry and Koranic readings. And they run government programs on topics such as corruption and rule of law. Then there are the U.S. funded farm shows such as this one on raising potatoes. The U.S. military and civilians say the shows are extremely popular in this overwhelmingly agrarian society, as this Khost Province village elder tells a U.S. military interpreter.
INTERPRETER: He says a very surprise for our farmers because we are very poor and also we did not have an education, that’s why we got a lot of good information from that radio.
WISSING: Call in shows are also popular. Especially ones that offer prizes, says Information Officer Lieutenant Mark Handoff.
MARK HANDOFF: People want to call in for trivia contests. They want to call in to request their favorite song. They want to call in to voice their concerns to the government officials who might be running call in shows.
WISSING: And sometimes the Taliban call in to confront the DJ.
DJ: He is cussing and he says you are the servant of the Americans and the other guy to answer him say you couldn’t do anything you are really dirty people. And you are like a snake, you’re hiding in the small holes. The – - guys – - an answer if I catch you I will kill you and I will cut your head.
WISSING: Sometimes the Taliban call for other reasons. One DJ recalls a Taliban fighter phoning in a death threat. And then calling back five minutes later with a music request. For The World, I’m Douglas Wissing, Host Province, Afghanistan.
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