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Page last updated at 12:12 GMT, Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Taliban harness power of the web

By Dawood Azami
BBC World Service, Kabul

Surrendering Taliban militant fighters stand with their weapons as they are presented to the media at a government building in Herat on March 14, 2010
The internet is also a weapon of choice for many Taliban

The Taliban banned the internet when they were in power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001 declaring it immoral and un-Islamic.

But eight years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the internet has become one of the main platforms for insurgents in the battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan.

As military operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan intensify, the Taliban are increasingly using the internet to generate popular support and undermine local governments and their international partners.

The Taliban use the internet very successfully and they have established "virtual" sanctuaries.

Their multi-lingual websites (in Arabic, English, Dari, Pashto and Urdu), "al-Emarah" and "Shahamat", are regularly updated with battlefield reports.

The websites also offer readers interviews with Taliban leaders, propaganda videos, commentaries and official statements.

The internet is certainly an important part of Taliban strategy and it is growing
Vikram Singh, adviser to US Afghan envoy

It seems that they are trying to become less dependent on other local and international media.

The Taliban also send their material to a number of other "independent" websites in an effort to make their actions seem more acceptable to audiences.

E-mails are used to issue press releases, to inform local and foreign journalists of their activities in the field and to give their own version of events.

Online race

In fact, the Taliban are generally faster than the Afghan government and its foreign allies to circulate information about a particular incident.

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''The important usage of the internet by the Taliban is they are sending the messages through e-mails to the media'', says Masoom Stanekzai, home security adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

''This way, they are quoted in daily news and news analysis. And that is why they seem to be very sophisticated in using the internet.''

The main target of the Taliban's internet activity is the educated elite who have access to the internet and more influence in the community.

''I think they have gone from using the internet first for really western audience or audiences outside of Afghanistan and Pakistan to try to do fundraising and recruitment and other things'', says Vikram Singh, a senior adviser on communications to Richard Holbrooke, the special US representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

''It [the internet] is certainly an important part of the Taliban strategy and it is growing.''

The Afghan government says they will get the necessary equipment to begin internet censorship by the end of May.

"Websites which promote terrorism, glorify violence, contain pornography or encourage gambling would be blocked," say Abdul Qadir Qalatwal, spokesman for the ministry of communication and technology.

Hearts and minds

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton,
Actually the Taliban do very well with the internet
Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton

The Afghan government and its foreign allies have mainly focused on radio and television to counteract Taliban propaganda.

But the internet is growing fast in Afghanistan and authorities say that 50% of Afghanistan's population will have access to the internet within the next three years.

"The internet is a classic example where in this modern world, in the cyber net environment, you can make positive use of the capabilities as well as threaten the use to your opponents," says Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the United Kingdom Air Staff.

''So actually they [Taliban] do very well with it.''

Both the insurgents and those fighting the insurgency are preparing for a prolonged counterinsurgency campaign in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Meanwhile, the second front in the war - the battle for winning hearts and minds - is intensifying.

Both sides are trying to dominate the air waves and the internet to post the quickest response and to challenge what is seen as misinformation.



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