Inside Afghanistan’s Online Battlefield

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Inside Afghanistan’s Online Battlefield

Social media provides another front for battle between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Inside Afghanistan’s Online Battlefield

In this Friday, Feb. 12, 2016 photo, Afghan vendors selling smartphones wait for customers at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

In the early 2000s, the war in Afghanistan was largely fought in the country’s rural areas. As the war dragged on, entrepreneurs established social media companies that now drive modern politics. The world evolved into the present social media-dominated age; so did the Afghan war.

In one video circulated on social media early this year, Taliban fighters line a local judge up in front of their guns. They ask him repeatedly: Who is legitimate, the Taliban or the government? As the judge says, “I only serve the people,” the militants open fire. 

In a second video, Afghan security forces capture a man in a desert battlefield. The forces pose for a photo with the man, asking him why he fired on them, asking who he is. They drag the man around, demanding repeatedly: Tell us the truth. As the man says he is a shepherd, the Afghan security forces line him up and open fire.

The Afghan war is increasingly fought on social media, as it is on the battlefield. Social media accounts connected with the government and the Taliban often post graphic content — to push messages of strength and victory. A flood of bloodied images and videos spills across the online battlefield, raising fears of everlasting hatred.

A recent survey showed that at almost 90 percent of households in Afghanistan have at least one mobile phone, and about 40 percent have access to the internet. The government and the Taliban push their separate narratives about the war via social media pages to win the trust and confidence of people. 

In late August, the Taliban attacked the northern city of Kunduz, for the third time in four years, with a pre-dawn offensive. In the daylight, the group’s social media accounts posted videos showing the Afghan security forces laying down their guns, surrounded by and surrendering to the Taliban. 

In response, Afghan government officials put out videos of their own showing Afghan Special Forces flooding the city and hitting the Taliban positions. Government Twitter and Facebook accounts publicized Taliban casualties in back-to-back airstrikes. 

“Kabul [the Afghan government] has not taken advantage of social media in a systematic or major way to push their narrative and attack the Taliban’s narrative,” says Thomas Johnson, research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California. “Kabul has a tendency to use trolls to present their messages.”   

The Afghan government has created dozens of social media channels and exploited media through which they often exaggerate Taliban causalities. Government-sponsored accounts post in favor of the government and sometimes uncritical media pick up government narratives without additional confirmation.        

Afghan government officials often push back on Taliban narratives or promote their own anti-Taliban narratives. A Taliban car bombing in southern Zabul province near a hospital killed at least 30 people and wounded 95 others in September 2019. An Afghan service member picked up one baby, who survived the attack, and others filmed the events. The child is alive, says the police officer. The footage went viral, paired with a condemnation of the bombing.  

“We personally monitor social media pages, and we have interrogated multiple individuals who used to post social media posts in favor of terrorist groups [like the Taliban],” said an Afghan intelligence officer on condition of anonymity. “We respect freedom of expression, but when people cross our red line, we arrest them.”

The intelligence officer told The Diplomat that Afghanistan’s intelligence bodies do not have a social media center, saying that they do not systemically monitor social media pages. But they do post. The country’s intelligence agency, National Directorate Security, often posts videos of captured Taliban fighters who are dressed like women (presumably to elude capture behind a veil) or who confess they were trained in Pakistan. 

The Taliban, however, do have a coordinated social media center.

“The Taliban have become extremely active on social media and use it in a pretty sophisticated way,” says Johnson, author of Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. “I believe that the Taliban are significantly winning the propaganda war by presenting their narratives and stories.”

In 2011, The Taliban began using Twitter, posting regularly on their activities and operations. Zabihullah Mujahid and Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, two Taliban military spokesmen, post on Twitter in three languages: Pashto, Dari (Afghanistan’s two official languages), and English, in which they often exaggerate Afghan security forces causalities. 

“They [The Taliban] have created multiple accounts that spread the same video and the same photo to spread one single message,” says Ejas Malikzada, an external relations officer at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. “These social accounts are linked; they might have one coordination room, or a chat room, or one person runs all the accounts.”

Malikzada explains that the pro-Taliban social media accounts are not alive: They do not post about their daily lives, but only in support of the Taliban group. The accounts often send out posts to “justify suicide bombings and car bombs” in Afghan big cities, added Malikzada.

“They use Twitter to influence decision-makers and they use Facebook to influence ordinary Afghans,” says Malikzada, who once followed 400 twitter accounts connected with the Taliban and studied their activities. “If you are new to Afghanistan and follow their accounts, you definitely believe their narratives about the war.” 

On Facebook, accounts connected with the Taliban post videos that show the Afghans security forces surrounded, and images that show foreign troops raiding civilians and searching women — which traditional Afghan society considers extremely shameful. Civilian casualties caused in night raids and airstrikes are frequent tools for the Taliban in their online battlefield.       

In late September, a U.S.-Afghan joint night raid targeted a building believed to house Taliban and al-Qaeda members. In addition to killing dozen of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, including Asim Omar, the leader of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the raid claimed the lives of a reported 40 civilians, including women and children. The Taliban swiftly posted graphic images of the dead women and children online.

“The main complication on the battlefield is the Taliban’s ability to assimilate with the people,” says Johnson. “We have recently seen the direct implication of this dynamic as the U.S. tries to fight more of the war through Air Force operations” in which civilians are caught in targeted areas and killed and wounded.

The Taliban intensified their social media campaign in a bid to gain leverage in the peace negotiations with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar. While attacking three provincial capitals in a week, for example, the Taliban posted videos and images of their battles to boost the image of their group’s power.

“The footage exaggerates the violence and fighting [beyond the reality],” says Noorullah Navayee, a researcher at the National Center for Public Research in Kabul. “Fear of the Taliban is more than what it is in reality, and people accept the exaggerated power of the Taliban.”         

The online battlefield between the government and the Taliban devastates Afghan society in the long term. When graphic content floods online, it is everywhere. The war comes up under the fingers of countless people. The side effect of this online battlefield is a normalization of violence and killing for people, says Navayee. He adds that the online battlefield spreads hopelessness, fear, and hatred in society.  

“Social media pages make it easier to dehumanize each other,” says Navayee, who has pursued graduate studies in sociology. “The Taliban dehumanize people [ who support the government] by saying they are not Muslims. The government dehumanize the Taliban by promoting anti-Taliban narratives. When we dehumanize each other, it’s a lot easier to eliminate each other.”

A Facebook user shared images of bloodied bodies of unknown militants on the ground. In the comment section, one user wrote, “Death to Fakistan [Pakistan].” 

Another user commented: Ignorant, they were martyred.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. His work has appeared in The Diplomat Magazine, South China Morning Post, Times of Israel, and many more.