As Cities Fall in Afghanistan, the Propaganda War Grows

KABUL, Afghanistan — First, a distant provincial capital in Afghanistan’s southwest fell. The subsequent day, it was a metropolis in Afghanistan’s north. By Sunday, Taliban fighters had taken captured three extra cities, together with their greatest prize but, the main provincial capital of Kunduz.

All the whereas, the Afghan central authorities has acknowledged little or no of it.

In three days, at least five provincial capitals have been seized by the Taliban, in a ruthless land offensive that has led many native officers to desert their posts and flee the cities they run.

But the nation’s authorities, nonetheless making an attempt to advertise the impression that it has the higher hand in opposition to the Taliban, has been comparatively silent on the monumental losses suffered throughout the nation. Rather than admitting that the cities have fallen, the authorities has merely mentioned that Afghanistan’s courageous safety forces have been preventing in a number of capitals round the nation, and that airstrikes have resulted in scores of lifeless Taliban fighters.

“The country’s security and defense forces are always ready to defend this land,” the Afghan Ministry of Defense tweeted Sunday as Kunduz was below siege. “The support and love of the people for these forces increases their motivation and efforts.”

With cities falling and the American navy marketing campaign principally completed, the propaganda conflict in Afghanistan has taken on outsize significance. For the Taliban, it’s an effort to speak a drumbeat of victories, massive or small, and to create an air of inevitability about their return to energy. For the authorities, it’s an all-out effort to stave off panic, enhance morale and reduce losses.

In latest days, the Taliban have shared movies of cheering crowds welcoming them into provinces (although some say Afghans are doing this solely to keep away from being harmed by the Taliban later). On social media, Taliban spokesmen have been blaming civilian casualties and infrastructure harm on the Afghan authorities, reasonably than on the group’s aggressive takeover of huge segments of the nation.

Their posts name on Afghan safety forces to give up, with guarantees that they are going to be handled humanely, accompanied by pictures of seized weapons and safety forces who’ve given up. Notably lacking from any Taliban messaging is any point out of reconciliation with the authorities.

The authorities’s info technique has sought to create the reverse impression, with typically exaggerated and generally false claims about navy victories, retaken districts and assertions of Taliban casualties.

This strategy emerged this summer time as a stand-in for one thing far more concrete: a publicly enunciated plan to defeat an enemy that appears on the verge of crushing Afghanistan’s fragile authorities establishments. Instead, Afghan leaders supply assurances, assembly often for a chic group {photograph} at the presidential palace, conveying a picture of stability and calm in the face of the violence.

But the information exterior of Kabul, the capital, has created a disconnect, significantly as alarming experiences filter in from provincial officers of Afghan safety forces — exhausted, hungry and under-resourced — being overtaken by insurgents, or surrendering altogether.

In the north, the key metropolis of Mazar-i-Sharif is now largely surrounded, as the capitals of three neighboring provinces fell to the Taliban Sunday. In the south, the financial hub of Kandahar has been below siege for a month, regardless of an escalation in U.S. airstrikes to gradual the insurgents’ advance.

By Sunday, senior authorities leaders nonetheless had not publicly acknowledged the seizure of any provincial capital; as an alternative, tweets from the Afghan Ministry of Defense touted the deaths of a whole bunch of Taliban fighters, however the authorities has inflated these casualties in the previous.

A fledgling plan to decelerate the Taliban’s string of victories does now exist, U.S. and U.N. diplomats and officers say, and it hews carefully to longstanding U.S. suggestions that the Afghans consolidate their remaining forces round essential roads and cities, in addition to key border crossings, successfully abandoning most of the dozens of districts already seized by the Taliban.

Mr. Ghani alluded to this plan in a speech to Parliament on Aug. 2: “The Afghan Army is going to focus on strategic objectives,” he mentioned. “Afghan police officers must provide cities and strategic districts with security.”

But the Ministry of Defense continues to insist that the authorities intends to retake all of the a whole bunch of Taliban-captured districts inside six months.

“Our strategy is to increase the number of airstrikes on the Taliban,” mentioned Fawad Aman, the Ministry of Defense spokesman — although in latest weeks it has been U.S. airstrikes which were taking part in a significant position in slowing down the Taliban. “First, we will recapture the districts that are very important. Then we will try to recapture all the districts in the control of the Taliban.”

That would run instantly counter to what Americans have suggested for months: to not defend the rural districts. This is in impact what has been occurring anyway, as Afghan forces, in district after district, have surrendered or fled, at occasions with out a combat.

And regardless of counter messaging from the authorities that it’s killing Taliban fighters at astonishing numbers, any casualties they’ve incurred seem to have had a restricted impact on the group’s navy marketing campaign. Since the starting of May, the Taliban have captured about 200 districts, placing them in management of greater than half of the 400-plus districts in Afghanistan.

At occasions, the authorities has claimed to have recaptured districts that by no means really fell to the Taliban — like Pashtun Kot in Faryab Province and Ahmadabad in Paktia Province. At different occasions, the authorities’s contentions seem clearly mistaken to the individuals in the supposedly reclaimed districts.

“There was no operation,” mentioned Lutfullah Mashal, a supply truck driver in Balkh district in the north, which the authorities falsely claimed to have recaptured after it was overtaken by the Taliban in June. “The Taliban are moving freely around the district. They tax people and they have implemented all their old rules.”

The driver’s remark was confirmed by an official at the provincial police headquarters who was not licensed to talk to the media.

Where the authorities fails to carry a district it has recaptured, if solely briefly, the penalties may be extreme for the residents.

On July 18, members of a pro-government militia recaptured Malistan district in the province of Ghazni, populated by Hazaras, a largely Shiite ethnic group persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. The subsequent day, the Taliban pushed the militia members out. Some 20 of the district’s Hazara civilians have been killed by the Taliban; dozens extra fled to Kabul. The authorities by no means publicly acknowledged the renewed lack of Malistan district.

The authorities’s fitful narrative seems to have satisfied few. “The government does have the capability to recapture districts,” mentioned Mirza Mohammad Yarmand, a former deputy inside minister. “But the main point is, what are they going to do after recapturing them?”

“The districts will soon collapse again,” he added.

A senior officer in the nation’s navy, who requested to not be named due to the sensitivity of the state of affairs, famous that many Taliban conquests are carried out by a small power of 10 or so fighters from whom it ought to be straightforward to take again districts. Yet even when they have been to take action, he mentioned, Afghan safety forces could be unlikely to carry them due to weak defenses, weak native leaders and a scarcity of central authorities help.

Bashir Ahmad Nemani, a neighborhood police commander in the northern province of Badakhshan, noticed these weaknesses firsthand. The province, together with his district of Khwahan, is now nearly totally in the arms of the Taliban — a bitter tablet for the authorities because it was the one space in Afghanistan that resisted the insurgents all through their reign in the late 1990s.

This time, confronted with a Taliban onslaught, Badakhshan’s provincial police chief “promised reinforcements,” mentioned Mr. Nemani. “They never came.” The native militia working with the authorities shortly collapsed.

“There was no option,” he mentioned. “Everything was destroyed. The police collapsed.” Mr. Nemani fled throughout the border to Tajikistan with six of his males.

Flown to Kabul by the Tajiks, he mentioned he needs to proceed to combat and is simply awaiting phrase from the authorities to return and take up arms once more.

“There is a lot of pain in my heart,” Mr. Nemani mentioned. “Who could be happy with this brutal situation?”

Najim Rahim contributed reporting.

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