Why is the Taliban Murdering Journalists—Even as it's Trying to Rebrand? | Opinion

Despite ongoing peace talks, unprecedented violence in Afghanistan endures. In addition to regular attacks on Afghan police and U.S. forces, there has been a marked increase in targeted killings of Afghan journalists, intellectuals, human rights activists and government officials over recent weeks. Notably, at least 51 journalists have been killed since 1992 in Afghanistan, ten this year alone, and in the last 15 years, most were killed by Taliban militants. The continued attacks on media have been described as "an alarming pattern", and have prompted several theories, among them comparisons to the targeted assassinations by mujahideen in the early 1990s prior to the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government.

"Afghan journalists are always threatened to stop spreading 'anti-jihad' and 'anti-Taliban' sentiments or be targeted as enemies," Shahzad Aryobee, former Afghan minister of communication, told me. "Taliban consider media as anti-Taliban propaganda, so journalists are viewed as legitimate targets."

While the targeting of opposition figures, intellectuals, civil society activists and government officials is horrifying, there is a "wartime logic" to those killings. These figures remain opposed to the Taliban and as such present a threat to the group, its ideology and its narrative. Less understandable is the killing of journalists, a group the Taliban has been wooing as essential to its modern strategic communications campaign.

Rebranding strategy

Despite years of violence, coercion and intimidation, the Taliban are seen in a more positive light than in the years immediately following 9/11, with the U.S. and many in Europe pushing for reconciliation as a necessary path to peace. This view has not come about by accident, and there is little doubt that the Taliban understand the importance of strategic communications. In recent years, the Taliban has engaged in such serious "rebranding" efforts to the extent that there is a joke about the group having recruited a fancy New York PR agency. Through social media and the Internet, many have established sophisticated messaging operations and do their own PR with a large measure of success.

Since the start of the U.S.–Taliban talks in Doha, Taliban sympathizers in Kabul have been featured regularly on private Afghan TV as "independent analysts," sympathetically explaining the group's message to millions of Afghans. Last February, the New York Times featured an op-ed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban, entitled "What We the Taliban Want."

Taliban negotiators handed out "swag bags" to women delegates at the two-day Doha Intra-Afghan Peace Conference in 2018. These are not, goes the message, the efforts of a misogynistic, vicious terrorist organization but a credible partner for peace and stability, a narrative that requires a modern communications strategy to develop and worldwide media to transmit.

The Taliban is additionally demonstrating a sophisticated counter-narrative messaging by exploiting missteps of the Coalition and the Afghan government. Capitalizing on the Afghan government's failure to eradicate corruption, curb civilian casualties, and develop the economy, the Taliban are positioning themselves as a movement propelled by a just and holy cause of ousting foreign occupiers from Afghanistan. Press reports of a 330 percent increase in civilian casualties as a result of U.S. air raids and war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces, have bolstered the Taliban's claim to a moral high ground. Without the press and media routinely reporting on these shortfalls in governance and military conduct, there would be little awareness among the general population. And, without the media to bring these stories to light, government-controlled media reports on Taliban atrocities would substitute for journalism.

As such, targeted assassinations of rookie Afghan journalists is inexplicable, highly counterproductive and should certainly damage the brand. The individuals targeted worked for influential media outlets that are have a primary influence in shaping opinion and support both in Afghanistan and internationally. The killing of journalists receives widespread attention and builds support for those opposing the Taliban and challenges the declarations of the Taliban as a legitimate negotiating partner. The latter issue is critical as the Taliban has been trying to convince the international community and the Afghan government that they can control Al Qaeda and IS-K without foreign assistance. If it cannot rein in its own assassins, how can it persuade the Coalition that it can control other, more ruthless terrorist organizations outside their control?

Why damage the brand?

Unlike analysis which can explain away overall violence in the midst of peace talks, it is hard to understand the rationale for attacking journalists, whether "pro-regime" or otherwise. Why target the medium so necessary to disseminate information? Why assassinate the very journalists who are vital to broadcasting a new image? Do not the Taliban see that it discredits their own pledges at the negotiating table?

There are various theories regarding the disconnect between Taliban aspirations and Taliban actions. Some suggest that targeted assassinations of journalists are evidence of a divide between the Taliban negotiators in Doha and commanders on the ground.

"Taliban are not one group, and do not all follow orders from the Doha office or a single leader; many Taliban fighters in Afghanistan have acted contrary to Qatar's commitment to their political office," said Aryobee. "The Taliban group in Pakistan ruled against Afghanistan's free media. According to the decision, if the Afghan media does not stop broadcasting propaganda against the group, they will declare the media and all their employees as their military targets."

Another explanation may be that journalists are merely one part of an overall "good-cop, bad cop" strategy whereby continued violence and pressure in the field is a deliberate ploy to extract better terms at the negotiating table. A longstanding practice in war termination negotiations, U.S. Operation Linebacker, conducted against the North Vietnamese in 1972, is probably the most well-known historical example. In this operation, the US military dropped almost half a billion pounds of bombs on North Vietnam, leading to significant concessions at the Paris peace talks which ended US participation in the war. This would help to explain overall levels of violence, but not the targeting of journalists.

The relentless assassination campaign against journalists necessary to "enhance the brand" as well as to broadcast a harsh alternative view of the governmental narrative appears counterproductive, contradictory and incompatible with other strategic efforts. One errs by lumping together journalists with other social activists, good governance organizations and other alternative groups, unyielding in their opposition to the Taliban. By contrast, free and open media offers a platform for the Taliban to explain their views, improve their image and offer a counterfactual to the official government narrative. Perhaps it reflects a split in Taliban leadership, perhaps a deliberate strategy of terror without limits, or simply a lack of awareness of the power of the media. Whatever the larger purpose in attacking the very platform which leverages its message and burnishes its image, it would be wise for the Taliban to remember the dangers in "picking a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton."

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Canadian journalist based in Istanbul. She has covered Afghanistan since 2000.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.