Over the past few days, TV personnel from Afghanistan’s Al-Imara studio, which produces pro-Taliban multimedia content, have been speaking to residents in the streets of Kabul with reassuring messages about life returning to normal.
“How confident are you?” Al-Imrah in the city center asked an interviewer with the microphone. “100%,” came the answer. “Security is good, there are no thieves, we are very happy.”
The message is in stark contrast to the chaos in parts of Kabul as Islamist extremists wreaked havoc last Sunday after lightning struck Afghanistan.
Thousands have gathered around the airport, fearing retaliation by the rebels and now desperate to escape amid harsh Islamic law after coming back to power.
It has presented one of the toughest tests yet for the movement’s communications strategy, which has evolved in recent years into a sophisticated operation and still struggles to quell widespread panic.
The Al-Imara interview was a small step towards trying to regain control of the message.
At the moment, al-Imarah websites in five different languages are difficult to access or have been offline since Friday, which are not clear. However, the clip could be seen on social media accounts.
On Saturday, several Taliban spokesmen took to television studios to reassure residents that the roads were safe. On the same day, the Taliban’s top political leader in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Kabul to establish a police force.
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‘it’s all lies’
Ever since the Taliban conquered Afghanistan, their message has proved difficult to deliver, as they fought an insurgency against foreign and US-backed local armed forces.
Over the years, it has often been one step ahead of the government, arming its message with a mix of multilingual social media accounts, videos, photos and responsive, well-dressed spokespersons ready to respond to journalists’ questions.
While Facebook and YouTube have banned the group, it has an active presence on Twitter and dozens of social media accounts either directly linked to the movement or those close to its message have sprung up.
Many Afghans have treated those messages with disdain. The group has been blamed for the deaths of thousands of civilians in gun attacks and suicide bombings over the past 20 years, saying the death was justified in a war against the invaders.
And with increasing turmoil in Kabul and some other cities, the movement can no longer hold back from allegations of abuse and wrongdoing by the Kabul government and its international allies.
The Taliban have tried to reassure both Afghans and the international community that they will respect the rights of the people and that their forces will not retaliate against members of the government and security forces.
The news conference hosted by Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Tuesday marked the first time a public face was put on the movement’s communications campaign.
But videos on social media of people being pulled from cars and homes beating or shoving have challenged the Taliban story, raising fear among a population still shocked by the government’s sudden fall.
Many accounts of abuse cannot be verified, but Taliban officials acknowledge widespread fears.
A senior official told Reuters he had heard of some abuses against civilians, but promised that any problems faced by people in the movement would be investigated.
Mujahid said in a tweet on Saturday that the Taliban was setting up a three-member commission to deal with media problems.
With a growing youth population in Kabul with smartphones and the Internet common anywhere in the world, the Taliban’s communications strategy will continue to evolve.
But unless they can restore order on the streets and get people back to work, that alone is unlikely to be enough to send the message.
“What they say, I don’t believe at all, it’s all lies. No one believes what they say,” said a resident of Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.