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US losing information war against Taliban, admits Holbrooke

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
May 13, 2009 10:13 IST
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The Barack Obama administration's top diplomat for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, has admitted that the United States is getting battered by the Taliban in the information war in the Federally Administered Tribal Area and the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan. He warned that the 'success' in the US-led assault on these militant groups would ring hollow if there is no propaganda victory against these extremists.

The comments were made by Holbrooke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which had convened a hearing to consider the legislation authored by Senators John F Kerry and Richard Lugar, the chairman and ranking Republican on the panel that has proposed providing Pakistan $1.5 billion annual aid in five years.

The US envoy told the committee that "concurrent with the insurgency is an information war."

"We are losing that war," he said. "The Taliban has unrestricted and unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication in an area where literacy is around 10 percent for men and less than five percent for women.'

Holbrooke explained to the lawmakers that "radio is broadcast from the backs of pick-up trucks and motorcycles. These are low-wattage FM radio stations."

"They broadcast the names of people they are going to behead and it's just like Rwanda, and for reasons that are hard to explain, we have no counter-programming efforts that existed when we took office," he said, putting the blame on the previous George W Bush administration. "We don't have jamming, we don't try to override, we don't do counter-programming."

Holbrooke thanked Kerry for writing into the legislation "a special section on this issue that's very helpful to us in our internal dialogue, which is going on as we speak."

"President Obama has personally expressed a desire to deal with this and we shall do so and I want to bring to your attention this particular issue," he added.

Holbrooke argued that "we cannot win the war, however you define win and we can't succeed, however you define success, if we cede the airways to people who present themselves as false messengers of the Prophet (Muhammed), which is what they do and we need to combat," this propaganda.

Last month, Mukhtar A Khan, an analyst with the Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation and a Pushtun journalist, spoke of how the Taliban was way ahead in the propaganda war in the FATA and NWFP, thanks to illegal FM radio stations.

Khan, who is working on a book about militancy on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and the spillover effect it has on the rest of the world, said that Taliban FM radios stations in Swat Valley, the FATA and the NWFP have "shaped the local people's thinking."

He spoke of how Maulana Fazlullah, leader of the Taliban in the SWAT was referred to as 'FM Mullah' because of the effective use of the radio "to preach to the local people."

According to him, the reason why neither the Pakistani government nor the US have jammed these illegal channels was because Islamabad "says they don't have the technology," and "jamming could interfere with their own communications systems, which is important for intelligence information," it shared with the US intelligence.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC