The unwelcome return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan raises significant concerns for regional security, terrorism, and the safety of the country’s people, especially women – as well as a whole host of other issues.
It’s therefore timely to look at how the Taliban are presenting themselves this time around, and whether that much has changed. While not the most important item on the agenda, it’s interesting from a PR perspective to see that its messaging and tactics have certainly evolved from 20 years ago, along with the technology being used.
But first the basics. The word ‘taliban’ in the Pashto language means ‘students’, and the group emerged in 1994 as a key faction in the Afghan Civil War. Formed by leader Mohammed Omar and a small group of students taken from religious schools, the Taliban initially focused on ridding Afghanistan of various warlords and criminals, before eventually taking over the country several years later.
One of the core issues with the Taliban, to Western ears at least, is the name. Although its choice is an accidental detail of history, the word in English sounds vaguely menacing, especially with the ‘The’ in front of it. ‘The Taliban’ do not sound like people you want to mess with, and suits their reputation as hardcore, brutal ideologues.
The name is also far more threatening than those of traditional revolutionary groups – let’s not forget that Pol Pot’s official organisation was the Communist Party of Kampuchea (‘Khmer Rouge’ was an unofficial nickname), while Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, who was charged with genocide, ran the seemingly innocent-sounding National Congress Party in Sudan.
If the Taliban ever want to genuinely move away from their deeply problematic heritage, they may have to change their name at some point, just as many companies have done after being mired in controversy.
And amidst the ongoing chaotic scenes in the country, it’s now clear that the Taliban have been preparing for this moment for years, and sharpening their PR approach while in exile. The Columbia Journalism Review reports that: “The Taliban’s propaganda tools have included pamphlets, cassette tapes, sermons in mosques, and DVDs; as time passed (and in spite of its reputation for Luddism), the group honed its digital output – updating a website with statements in various languages, posting tweets from the battlefield, and using social media as a recruitment tool, not just in Afghanistan but in the wider region, too”.
This is quite a change from the organisation that banned TV and the internet when it first came to prominence. And it seems to be working, at least initially, with some audiences. A recent press conference, and direct call to BBC journalist Yalda Hakim while live on air, showed that the Taliban have given their international reputation serious thought, and are making efforts to undo decades of damage.
But is it enough? One of the most important lessons in branding is to accurately reflect the thing or organisation that is being branded. There has to be some direct connection there, some authenticity and relationship, or the brand itself will be just a shadow artifice built on shaky foundations that will eventually collapse.
And therein lies the problem. The same Columbia Journalism Review article mentioned above also points out that while making the right noises about its ‘women problem’ to the international media, the Taliban have simultaneously stood down female journalists working for Afghanistan’s state media, which they now control.
Another worrying development was the fate of the fallen government’s press spokesperson Dawa Khan Menapal. He was assassinated by the Taliban a few weeks ago, marking a bloody transition that every international journalist covering the country would have been aware of.
This is a classic case of saying one thing and doing another, and thankfully many of the global social media companies are wise to it. Facebook and YouTube have banned accounts linked to the Taliban, but according to CNN, Twitter is only promising to ‘remain vigilant’ in enforcing its policies, including those that ban content that glorifies violence. A Taliban spokesman continues to have an active, unverified Twitter account with 347,000 followers.
Some people might disagree, but Donald Trump seemingly has a point when he recently highlighted this contradiction, criticizing Twitter for banning him while still president, yet now letting the Taliban publicise their takeover of the country on its platform. Given the Taliban’s record, how can Twitter defend this?
That’s a tricky situation for Twitter, but the challenge for the Taliban is much deeper. Can they really undo their dark past and present a more benign face to the outside world? Given how far their PR strategy has come over the years, they are clearly determined to make the effort. But the early reality on the ground suggests this will not be successful, simply because it does not reflect who the Taliban really are – and therein lies the real problem that no amount of spin can disguise.