For years, on social media and in analog publications, the Taliban have claimed that they are the true heirs to Afghanistan, that their fighters are martyrs, that the Americans are “invaders” and that government soldiers are the immoral “hirelings” of foreigners. Their primary theme going back to the 1990s is that Afghanistan is a Muslim nation occupied by non-Muslims and that Allah has blessed their fight for liberation.
There’s just not much the United States can do about such claims; these are Afghans talking to Afghans. They have waged the kind of modern war — an old-fashioned local insurgency coupled with a rapid-fire media strategy designed to intimidate the enemy — that the United States is not much good at fighting. As the Taliban marched through the country inviting government soldiers to surrender or die, those soldiers complied by the tens of thousands. Most never fired a shot.
What is concerning is that as effective as the Taliban’s social media strategy has been, it is still awfully clumsy. Remember, they started from zero. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they banned the use of the internet, not to mention television and music. Since then, like savvy military strategists, they adapted to a new terrain. The media environment in Afghanistan has evolved since the days when the country had a single radio station: Now it has over 100 radio stations and dozens of television stations, 70 percent of people have access to a cellphone, and about a third of the population of 38 million is on social media. The Taliban understand that the information war is modern warfare. They are not trying to build a new platform; they’re trying to integrate into and dominate the existing landscape.
To that end, they have taken a digital page from the ISIS playbook. While the Taliban are less sophisticated and less prolific than ISIS was on social media — more like Hamas or Hezbollah — they have learned some basic lessons from the jihadi group. ISIS’ brand was a mixture of strength and warmth — grisly beheadings coupled with pictures of fighters riding Ferris wheels or giving candy to children. You can see echoes of that strange mix of folksiness and horror playing out in Afghanistan: Last week, a video circulated on social media of armed Taliban warriors riding colorful bumper cars at an amusement park while children watched. Now that they have a country to govern, they are less intent on inspiring fear than trust.
But while ISIS saw itself as a global organization, the Taliban are hyperlocal. They care far more about Helmand Province than they care about international jihad. For ISIS, social media was a recruitment tool. For the Taliban, social media is primarily about winning over their domestic audience — and not alienating their international one.