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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Clockwork warfare
Afghan refugee listening to radio AP
Afghans rely on radio more than any other medium
It started as a few cogs and springs in the hands of an eccentric inventor. But now the wind-up radio is a secret weapon in America's battle for the Afghan airwaves, writes BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

It's a battle for the air and the airwaves.

As well as dropping bombs and food ration packs into Afghanistan, military strategists in Washington have a new secret weapon in their war on terrorism: the wind-up radio.

US C17 planes AP
American C17 planes have been making drops into Afghanistan
The Americans have reportedly been air-dropping hundreds of small wind-up radios into Afghanistan as the first step in what promises to be a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.

The radios are thought to be specially commissioned fixed-frequency models that will automatically tune into information broadcasts issued by the US military.

Washington is relying on the work of its renowned Commando Solo unit to reach Afghans over the airwaves, and maybe also to block out rival broadcasts by the Taleban, according to an expert.

The six EC-130 planes that make up the Air National Guard's Commando Solo fleet serve as flying radio stations. The unit has a record of operating in US conflicts such as those in Panama, Bosnia and Haiti.

Now the genie is out of the bottle, I only hope it is not used for evil

Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio
As well as efforts by the US military to air-drop radios, relief agencies are also working to supply commercial wind-up models to refugees, many of whom have fled their homes because of severe food shortages in Afghanistan.

Freeplay, the company which pioneered wind-up radio technology through British inventor Trevor Baylis, says it has recently had orders for "tens of thousands" of radios for the region.

But unlike those dropped by the Americans, these will not be locked on to a single frequency and so will be able to pick up broadcasts from independent media such as BBC's World Service and Voice of America.

Television ban

The whole thing has Mr Baylis, who struggled for years to get backing for his invention, quite overawed.

Trevor Baylis
Trevor Baylis, inventor of the wind-up radio
"To think when I was sitting there with a load of springs and cogs and wires that one day this technology would be used by the American military to help fight their wars is quite astonishing," he says.

"What a compliment. But now the genie is out of the bottle, I only hope it is not used for evil."

Radio is seen as a key weapon in the current conflict, since it is one of the few forms of media available to Afghans. The ruling Taleban forbid television, and with high levels of illiteracy, newspapers command only a select audience.

Radios few in number

By contrast, a survey carried out by the BBC before the current crisis found that on an average day more than 60% of the population listen to World Service broadcasts in Pashto and Persian.

BBC World Service:
Broadcast to Afghanistan in Persian for 60 years
And in Pashto for 20 years
Doubled hours of output to Afghanistan since start of crisis
But radios are relatively scarce and worsening poverty combined with recent disruptions mean that fresh batteries are both hard to find and expensive, says Kristine Pearson, of the Freeplay Foundation.

Hence the need for wind-up radios.

"Information is absolutely vital in a humanitarian crisis," says Ms Pearson.

"In this situation, it is even more crucial because of the disinformation and misinformation that's rife. These people need to be able to rely on balanced and reliable broadcasts."

Freeplay radio BBC
One of Freeplay's handheld wind-up and solar-powered radios
Critics say America's Commando Solo unit, which is part of the Pentagon's "Psyops" (psychological operations) effort, is thinly veiled propaganda.

But reports out of America say it will be used to publicise food drops and the message that "the people of Afghanistan are not the enemy".

Journalist Nick Grace, of the website, a respected news site about secret radio, believes the unit is also involved in jamming the Taleban-run station Voice of Shari'ah. The station has been off air since Monday.

Lesson from Africa

And he outlines why radio can be such a strategic weapon in wartime. When Hutus took control of the airwaves in Rwanda in 1994, their "hate radio" message led to widespread killings.

Afghans listen to news reports on the radio AFP
Afghans listen in
Mr Grace says the dropping of wind-up radios is a deft move by the US military, which has shown previous cunning in this arena.

During the US invasion of Haiti in 1994, Commando Solo set up a station called Radio Democrat which broadcast on the same frequency as a station called 4VEH which was popular in the 1960s and '70s before being forced to close by the Haitian dictatorship.

"It was a clever signal to the people that things would be returning to the way they were," he says.

Whether the Americans can evoke a similar sort of goodwill in Afghanistan through its command of the airwaves remains to be seen.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Media reports
Battle for Afghan airwaves
20 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans hooked on the BBC
20 Sep 01 | TV and Radio
BBC to expand services in Afghanistan
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