Radio Free Swat Valley

I read this op-ed in the International Herald Tribune over lunch today. More important than IHT’s crisp, newly revamped layout, and more important than the snappy title of the piece,  Douglas J. Feith and Justin Polin note a missed Af-Pak  stratcom opportunity:

ON March 5, in the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, forces believed to be affiliated with the Taliban bombed the shrine of Rahman Baba (born around 1650), the most revered Pashtun poet. The attack evokes one of the grosser Taliban outrages from the pre-9/11 era: the dynamiting in 2001 of the enormous stone Buddhas in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Valley.

It’s interesting that in the reams of studies on insurgent and terrorist messaging – which have tended to privilege the web as the virtual insurgent’s platform of choice – low tech radio’s been so neglected. Event the recent Crisis Group report on Taliban propaganda, which looked at the subject in depth, missed the boat on the importance of radio to guerrilla forces operating in large, sprawling geographies where high rates of illiteracy prevail. Anyway.

Feith and Polin:

If it had the equipment and personnel for the job, the United States could broadcast radio programs for the Pashtuns commemorating Rahman Baba’s life and poetry, thus helping to revive the collective memory of Sufism and inspiring opposition to the Taliban. Other programs could highlight the cultural and physical devastation wrought by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The United States conducted impressive strategic communications during the cold war. Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and other programs conveyed information and ideas that contributed to the discrediting and ultimate defeat of Soviet communism.

Pakistan’s Islamist extremists apparently know the value of strategic communications. They preach and broadcast, understanding that every non-extremist school they close, every artist they force to move, every moderate tribal leader they kill and every Sufi shrine they destroy can increase their powers of intimidation and persuasion.

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