Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghan Insurgents Go Viral
“I have a five year old son who doesn’t listen to music, but he asks me to play the Taleban songs for him and then sings along with them,” Dawlat Khan said.
These “Taleban songs” are stored on Dawlat Khan’s mobile phone. A resident of Nangarhar province in southeastern Afghanistan, he and his son have joined the growing band of fans of the songs and video clips produced by the insurgents.
Much of the material is propaganda designed to stir up emotional support for the insurgents’ war, especially among young people.
Passed from hand to hand even among avowed enemies of the Taleban, the songs are capturing the popular imagination in ways that more overt appeals for support – from both the insurgents and the government – have failed to do.
“I’ve got about 50 Taleban songs on my phone. They’re much better than the meaningless music, dramas and movies that are on TV,” Dawlat Khan said. “You aren’t committing a sin by listening to the Taleban songs, but you do so every second if you watch TV.”
Music might seem an odd vehicle for a movement that included a ban on listening to music among the many restrictions it enforced when it was in power prior to 2001. But unaccompanied songs about Islamic themes or Afghan patriotism were not only allowed but encouraged, and became a familiar sound on the Taleban’s Voice of Sharia radio station.
Now they are enjoying a revival, especially in parts of Afghanistan where Taleban influence is strong, thanks to new phone models that support video as well as audio formats.
Everyone offers a different reason for watching the film clips or listening to the songs, from simple enjoyment to a degree of sympathy with the Taleban cause. The clips even circulate among local government officials and members of the Afghan security forces whose job is to fight the insurgents.
A member of the Afghan National Army who comes from Nangarhar’s Khogyani district said the main reason he had material like this on his phone was that it might save him if he ever fell into the insurgents’ hands.
“The truth is that I keep these songs in my mobile phone to protect my life,” he said. “Besides, there’s nothing bad about these songs, anyway. They are all songs about the country, and Islamic poems. We too are children of this country and we are Muslims. So we listen to them.”
Asked about videos showing young people preparing to carry out suicide bombings, the soldier said, “Yes, it’s true there are songs and clips encouraging young people to fight and to prepare for suicide attacks. I don’t endorse them, and I’d even like to see them banned.”
IWPR interviewed three young men sitting in a Jalalabad bookshop, watching footage of a child’s rendition of a song urging his mother to “put a flower” in the barrel of his Kalashnikov rifle and send him off to fight for Afghan freedom.
Initially they said they just liked the singer’s voice, but when asked what effect the song’s message would have on them, one said angrily, “Why don’t you ask about the impact of music, foreign movies and [TV] dramas? They are full of immorality, they are driving society to destruction, they make young people forget their country, honour and religion, and they are destroying our culture, language and history.”
Taleban songs were “a thousand times” better than Afghan TV channels, he said, adding, “The children of this country are fighting for their country. They are our brothers and we listen to their songs unashamedly.”
Such comments suggest the Taleban have found a new way to reach out and touch people at a personal level – a tactic the Afghan government and its international allies have largely failed to master, despite the substantial resources that have gone into hearts-and-minds work.
The government struggles to counter allegations that it presides over warlordism, corruption and lawlessness, while the NATO-led troops have often aroused anger because of civilian casualties, intrusive house searches, and perceived slights on the Muslim faith.
Ahmad Zia Abdulzai, a spokesman for Nangarhar’s governor, said people were free to listen to whatever they wanted, but the authorities would try to prevent the dissemination of propaganda and incitements to fight on the insurgent side. But he admitted this was a difficult task.
“These songs and clips are produced and disseminated secretly. There isn’t an obvious centre that is doing it in Nangarhar. Our security agencies are trying to block this kind of thing,” he said.
The chief of police in Nangarhar, Alishah Paktiawal, said there had been a rise in the number of Taleban video clips and songs in circulation, but insisted his officers were taking action. They recently arrested someone in possession of 60 CDs containing audio and video propaganda.
Political expert Abdul Basir sees the exponential growth in popularity of Taleban multimedia products as a significant coup.
“Propaganda plays a very important and fundamental role in winning wars, militarily and ideologically. If you look around, you’ll see these songs are now in the pockets of almost all of Nangarhar’s residents. I believe these songs and videos constitute a major factor [in favour] of a Taleban victory. They have increased their influence among the people.”
He warned that this propaganda defeat could translate into an actual military reverse if the Taleban continued
The rise of the Taleban songs may have been facilitated by a series of bomb attacks on shops in the main provincial town Jalalabad which sold more traditional forms of Afghan music. (See Music Shops Silenced in Nangarhar for more on this story.)
Abdul Ghani, who heads the local association of music traders and has a shop himself, said the industry had suffered greatly.
“There’s no doubt that our business has reached rock bottom. People don’t buy cassettes as much as they used to, and we’re funding the rent on our shops out of our own pockets,” he said. “But I still can’t believe that many people listen to the Taleban songs instead of music. Only ten per cent of my customers ask me for Taleban songs.”
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