Karzai questions Nato campaign as Taliban takes to hi-tech propaganda

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The Independent Online

Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, has attacked Britain, the US and other nations with troops in Afghanistan, calling on them to "reassess the manner in which the war on terror is conducted", as the death toll in Afghanistan passed 600 in four weeks.

The Afghan President, who has seen support for his government collapse in the violent and economically stagnant south of the country in recent months, distanced himself from the ongoing military operations there, which involve 11,000 troops including 3,300 British soldiers.

"It is not acceptable for us that in all this fighting, Afghans are dying," he told reporters at his first press conference for at least six months. "In the last three to four weeks, 500 to 600 Afghans were killed. [Even] if they are Taliban, they are sons of this land."

The Afghan President's words are a blow for US and British forces in the country. The British Armed Forces minister, Adam Ingram, defended the continued British presence in Afghanistan.

He told the Commons: "Completing this process is not simply a moral obligation to the Afghan people, success is also essential for future British security interests. If the Karzai government were to fail and Afghanistan were to be an unpoliced and impoverished black hole, there could be no greater boost for worldwide Islamist extremism and no more certain way of ensuring abundant and uninterrupted supplies of heroin on our streets."

However, political commentators remain fearful that the Afghan President has lost support across the south, with the Taliban displaying an aptitude for the sort of sophisticated propaganda campaign waged by Iraqi militants.

The Taliban now have three different press spokesmen covering three separate regions of the country. In Kandahar this summer, Taliban cassettes, DVDs and magazines are available in numbers never previously seen. Their focus is the "puppet" government of Mr Karzai and its complicity in what is portrayed as the Western military persecution of ordinary Afghans.

"This propaganda does have an effect, particularly when it is repeated again and again," Hamidullah Tarzi, a political analyst and former finance minister, said. "As Goebbels used to say, it doesn't matter whether propaganda is a lie or not, if you repeat it enough people will believe it."

Most of the Afghan population are illiterate, but there are hundreds of tapes on sale in the bazaars of the south that feature songs against the government and foreigners, eulogising the martyrs of the Taliban; typical are titles such as "The Martyrs of Showli-kot" and "Bush the Infidel".

"The buyers have increased for these tapes with all the recent fighting," a tape seller named Zalmai said. "The government banned them, but we just take the covers off."

The Taliban have also begun broadcasting a pirate station called the "Voice of Sharia" from mobile transmitters in at least two southern provinces.

On the internet, unknown in Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power, there is also a sophisticated website, www.alemarah.org. In Arabic and Pashto it offers news, poetry, messages from the Taliban's spiritual leader, Mullah Omar, and regularly updated videos of the last messages of Taliban suicide bombers.

A DVD called Lions of Islam is one of a number that is widely available. It was largely filmed in Pakistan's tribal areas and includes the beheading of an Afghan alleged to be an American spy and the execution of local criminals according to Taliban Sharia justice.

In response, Western forces in the country are extending a fledgling military funded radio channel called Radio Peace into the south to counter anti-government propaganda.

"It is perhaps something we haven't paid enough attention to in the past," a Nato military spokesman, Major Luke Knittig, said.

The Afghan government issued a directive through its intelligence service on Monday which banned Afghan journalists from filming or interviewing alleged members of the Taliban. The directive also included a ban on reports "that aim to represent that the fighting spirit in Afghanistan's armed forces is weak".

The Afghan media were also told not to lead with stories about "terrorist activities". The directive was later said to bea request by the office of Hamid Karzai reflecting "the need to help the nascent media sector in Afghanistan to approach the complex issue of terrorism and terrorist activities in a principled manner".

The Taliban tapes

One tape purchased by The Independent features two singers engaging in an imagined debate between President Hamid Karzai and the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar; in a style not dissimilar to that of American rappers.

"I have brought peace and stability, I defeated al-Qa'ida and the terrorists," sings the voice that represents Karzai. "You have killed your Muslim brothers to satisfy the Jews and the Infidels," sings back the voice representing Omar.

"I was elected president by free and fair elections," sings Karzai. Omar replies: "What kind of election is it that everywhere there are American and British tanks and infidel soldiers? The infidels have tanks, artillery and air support, but we have God's support."

It continues for half an hour with Karzai eventually admitting defeat.