16 Years Later: Taliban Views on the Anniversary of the US Invasion of Afghanistan

Ariel Koch examines the Taliban's social media efforts.
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Images from Taliban activists’ Twitter and Telegram accounts on the anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan
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Images from Taliban activists’ Twitter and Telegram accounts on the anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

 

October 7 marked the 16th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan that began when then-Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar refused to turn in al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin-Laden. [1] A decade after the invasion, former US President Barack Obama declared that al-Qaeda had been defeated, and that the Taliban would never again regain control of Afghanistan.[2] In both cases, he was proven wrong. Four years later, Obama admitted the US was incapable of vanquishing the Taliban. [3] By then, the war had cost hundreds of billions of dollars, mobilized tens of thousands of US and other coalition soldiers, and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians. The Taliban remains a threat to the Afghan government and NATO forces in the country. [4] This is evident in its online propaganda as well. [5]

The roots of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Sunni movement, can be traced back to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The 1980s saw a widespread popular uprising against the ‘heretic’ secular Soviet occupation by local Mujahideen, later joined by other Muslim volunteers. The Afghan fighters evolved into the local Taliban movement, and the foreign ones produced the global al-Qaeda, whose leaders bin-Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance (bay’a) to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his successors, reflecting the tight bond the Afghan movement and the terror organization. When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988-1989, the Mujahideen perceived this as a victory. However, a civil war erupted in the wake of the withdrawal; in 1996, the Taliban seized the capital Kabul and later the entire country, and proceeded to enforce a brutally oppressive regime based on Islamic law.[6] Even today, the Taliban remains a key player in Afghanistan. [7]

Compared to other Jihadist terror groups, the Taliban were ahead of the curve in propaganda; as early as 1998 it began spreading its message online in Urdu,[8] Pashtu,[9] Arabic,[10] Dari (Afghan-Farsi),[11] as well as in English.[12] In addition to presenting its efforts against the US and its allies as successful, the organization used these websites to frame itself as a legitimate sovereign, capable of providing its subjects with all education, health, security and other needs (recalling the efforts of ISIS in this respect). From time to time, the movement also issued updates on military issues, as well as on civilian matters, such as education. [13]

Recent years have seen a shift in the Taliban’s online efforts, which like other extremists have begun supplementing their website propaganda with social media activity. This is particularly noticeable on Twitter, [14] which has become a stage for the organization’s jousting with NATO over allegedly fabricated military information reported by the Taliban. [15]  One such instance occurred when Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed that the organization had downed a US military cargo plane,[16] a report which NATO forces in Afghanistan denied on Twitter as false propaganda. [17]

The Taliban took this year’s anniversary of the US invasion as an opportunity to recap the extensive damage caused by the protracted war, and to declare its intention to regain control of Afghanistan. “We are determined to force [out] all occupying forces. This is our legal right. We must defend with our souls our liberty, our self-definition, the Islamic [governmental] system, and our people,” a statement on the Taliban website declared. The statement added that “thousands of our youth await their turn to martyr themselves and look forward to the establishment of an Islamic government.”[18] This propaganda push included a campaign on Twitter and Telegram, where the organization posted images illustrating the devastation that the US had visited upon Afghanistan during the war. [19] One such image depicted the body of a little boy with an American flag driven through his heart, with the caption “The US War in Afghanistan Since 7 Oct 2001.” Another picture bears the date October 7 in Arabic and English, calling it a “Black Day for Afghan Nation” (see images).[20]  On Twitter, Mujahid warned the Americans that their weapons would turn into double-edged swords and ultimately end up serving the organization’s interests. [21] Nearly four thousand people now follow the spokesman’s prolific account.

The Taliban’s online activity, particularly in social media networks, attests to its adaptation to the digital reality of the 21st century despite being a conservative movement. Today, the organization utilizes digital media for more than just propaganda, and skillfully employs it to brand the Taliban as a proper agent of government.  This does not, however, alter its fundamental character. Mujahid stated this clearly: “[The Americans] must bear in mind that our struggle is based on ideology, not technology.” [22]

The Afghanistan dilemma is once more at the doorstep of the American administration, and President Trump will have to confront a Taliban revival and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming the terror state it was prior to October 7, 2001. In part, this war will have to be fought online. The Taliban have been there for two decades. 

 



[1] Asaf Maliach and Shaul Shay, From Kabul to Jerusalem: al-Qaeda, The Worldwide Islamic Jihad and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Tel Aviv: Matar Publishing, 2009), pp. 240-237; of note, toppling the Taliban rule enhanced Iran’s regional standing and subsequently that of Shiites. See: Uzi Rabi (Editor), Iran Time (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2008), pp. 19-21, p. 120.

[2] Amanda Terkel, "Obama to O’Reilly: U.S. Will Defeat Al Qaeda, Taliban Won’t Retake Afghanistan", The Huffington Post, February 7, 2011. 

[3] Jim Michaels, "Decade of war, billions in U.S. aid fail to defeat Taliban", USA Today, May 18, 2015.   In 2011, Former US President Barack Obama announced his plan for ending the war in Afganistan and withdrawing US troops, as he declared he would in May 2014. In practice, he left more than 10,000 soldiers and ‘advisors’ in Afghanistan in order to prevent it from falling back into Taliban hands. See: Mark Landler, "U.S. Troops to Leave Afghanistan by End of 2016", The New York Times, May 27, 2014; The Associated Press, "A timeline of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan since 2001", Military Times, July 6, 2016. 

[4] Ken Dilanian, "Taliban Control of Afghanistan Highest Since U.S. Invasion", NBC News, January 29, 2016. 

[5] For more, see:Alia Brahimi, "The Taliban’s Evolving Ideology", LSE Global Governance, Working Paper, 2010. 

[6] An example of Taliban actions reported by international media is the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001. For more, see: Shaul Shay, The Neverending Jihad: Mujahideen, Taliban and bin-Laden (Herzliya: Interdisciplinary Center, 2002), pp 212-214

[7]  For more on the Taliban and recent changes in the organization: Auliya Atrafi, "Taliban territory: Life in Afghanistan under the militants", BBC, June 8, 2017. 

[8] alemarahurdu.com

[9] shahamat1.com

[10] alemara1.net

[11] alemarah-dari.com

[12] alemarah-english.org or shahamat-english.com.  For more on Taliban websites: Nein Krishan Aggarwal, The Taliban's Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community (USA, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016);  Also see:  Abdulhadi Hairan, "A Profile of the Taliban’s Propaganda Tactics", The Huffington Post

[13] For example, the Taliban began publishing a series of videos titled “Education and Learning.” See: Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, “Education and Learning”, Jihadology, January 21, 2017. 

[14] For more, see: Vincent Bernatis, "The Taliban and Twitter: Tactical Reporting and Strategic Messaging", Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 8, No. 6, 2014: 25-35. 

[15] Haroon Siddique, "Taliban and Nato-led forces engage in war of words on Twitter", The Guardian, September 14, 2011. ; Ali M. Latifi, "Afghanistan's online war of words", Al-Jazeera, October 17, 2012. 

[16] @ZabihullaM4, Twitter, October 11, 2017. 

[17] @ResoluteSupport, Twitter, October 11, 2017. 

[18] "Statement of Islamic Emirate concerning launch of US invasion on 15th Mizan", Alemarah-English, October 7, 2017. 

[19] Official Taliban Arabic Twitter account: @alemara_ar; additional examples of affiliated accounts include @AsadAfghan111; @Helmandii2; @balkhi_04; @QM_YousafAhmadi. Accessed October 12, 2017.

[20] In addition to Telegram, the images were posted on Twitter by Niamatullah Sabiq, a self-described “soldier of the Emir Faithful”.

[21] @ZabihullaM4, Twitter, October 15, 2017. 

[22]  @ZabihullaM4, Twitter, October 15, 2017.