Northern Alliance forces seized the Afghan capital Kabul earlier
this week. In an exclusive report for PRWeek from within former
Taliban-controlled areas, American journalist Kurt Pitzer analyses the
rebel army's developing PR machinery.
JABAL-AS-SIRAJ, AFGHANISTAN, 12 NOVEMBER
In a small, mud-covered compound near the front line north of the Afghan
capital Kabul, 50 print and broadcast journalists from around the world
were packed shoulder to shoulder to hear the Northern Alliance's latest
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the Islamic State of
Afghanistan, announced the fall of the cities Taloqan and Bamian, and
other territorial gains made by northern forces against the Taliban. The
generator-powered lights flickered and died out, temporarily throwing
the news conference into darkness. When it resumed, a reporter asked
about American and Pakistani pressure on the Northern Alliance to
refrain from completely invading Kabul. 'The United Front has never
announced plans to take over Kabul,' Abdullah insisted, just days before
the capital fell to the incoming Northern Alliance armies. 'But I want
to emphasise that it is important that international policy should be
based on the realities of today, and not perceptions of the past.'
Welcome to the most strenuous rebel army PR effort so far in the 21st
century. As it was preparing to advance on the Taliban on many physical
fronts, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance had become acutely aware of the
importance of the other battle - to win over public opinion in the West,
in order to bolster military and political support.
The comms challenge is great. Although 36 governments and the United
Nations recognise it as the de facto government of Afghanistan, the
Northern Alliance lacks the credibility and trust needed to endorse its
takeover of the capital. Clearly, some image tweaking is needed.
The PR opportunity is also there for the taking. The US and UK have
completely restricted press access to their military forces, going well
beyond constraints imposed in recent conflicts in Kosovo, Bosnia or the
Arabian Gulf, leaving a major comms gap. In areas of Afghanistan under
its control, the Taliban had banned access by all media but the
Qatar-based Al-Jazeera TV network, with only a few recent
Western media access to Taliban areas was mostly limited to chaperoned
press trips to view civilian casualties. Unsatisfying coverage of the
air strikes consists of images released by the US Defense Department and
images taken from great distances. There was no access to special forces
or other ground troops.
As a result, media worldwide, hungry for war stories, flocked to the
only Afghan territory accessible to outsiders, which was held by the
Northern Alliance. Since 11 September, more than 3,000 journalists have
been given permission to enter Afghanistan through the northern border
So, with the world watching, has the Northern Alliance capitalised on
the opportunity, and is it meeting its PR challenge? Despite setting up
a complicated communication structure and hiring 30 new staff members to
its Foreign Office, the answer is: probably not.
Take as evidence the name - the Northern Alliance. Conceived in
Pakistan, the name limits the resistance to a region. 'We have always
called ourselves the United Front, because we represent all segments and
cultures of Afghanistan,' says Mohammed Nazeer Shafiay, foreign
relations officer for Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose
unpopular regime was chased out of Kabul by the Taliban in 1996.
'The name "Northern Alliance" is a term inflicted on us by the Pakistani
propaganda machine.' Yet the fact the term has stuck is a stunning comms
failure of an organisation unable to name itself.
Nor has the so-called Northern Alliance been able to build on the
goodwill of a Western press sympathetic to its cause. Part of the
problem was the loss of the charismatic leader of the United Front,
Ahmad Shah Massoud.
When assassins posing as journalists murdered Massoud two days before
the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, they eliminated a
figure portrayed by the 0global media as a romantic rebel leader with
the political skills needed to hold together a fractious coalition of
rival ethnic groups and tribal clans.
But perhaps even more damaging has been the maddening press relations
structure established by the Northern Alliance which, like much of the
force's weaponry, is borrowed from the Soviet era.
The journey into and through Afghanistan is an odyssey filled with
peril, discomfort and a corrupt bureaucracy worthy of a dystopian novel.
The first two are understandable - there's a war on. But journalists
hate bureaucracy, and the hassles imposed by an overweening and greedy
comms staff have surely not helped the tone of coverage of the United
Press contact to the Northern Alliance begins well enough. For UK
journalists, the first point of contact is the Afghanistan Embassy on
Prince's Gate in Kensington, which has been operated by Alliance staff
since 1992. There, Mr Ahmad Wali Massoud and his staff are quick to give
same-day, handwritten visas to anyone with media accreditation, handing
over maps and advice with the enthusiasm of a travel agent.
The next contact is in Dushanbe, the capital of the former Soviet
republic of Tajikistan, and for more than two months the only point of
entry into northern Afghanistan. There, journalists are shuffled between
the Afghan Embassy and the Tajik Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which
conspire to milk journalists of hundreds of US dollars in cash by
demanding payment for a series of permission letters.
Entry into Afghanistan has been restricted to military helicopter
flights or government-controlled convoys to the Afghan border north of
the dusty town of Hoja Bahoudin. At both points of entry, journalists
are met by Afghanistan Foreign Office staff, who register them and
attempt to control media movements.
In the early days of the US-led bombardment, this meant most journalists
were forced to stay in a disease-infested tent city outside the Foreign
Office compound in Hoja Bahoudin. Permission to leave the compound was
required daily from the Foreign Office, which reserved the right to
refuse access to neighbouring areas. Journalists paying the Foreign
Office $80 per night to pitch a tent, and unable to find a toilet
or drinkable water, complained that they were being held captive in
Restrictions on media have eased as the war becomes more fluid. Foreign
Office staff at its three outposts in Hoja Bahoudin, Faizabad and in the
Panjshir Valley north of Kabul made fewer demands and movement is freer
as the front line spreads outward. But the damage has been done, as much
early media coverage of the Northern Alliance ranged from scornful to
Despite a staff of about 150 people within Afghanistan, the Foreign
Office, which handles all comms efforts on behalf of the Northern
Alliance, produced little to help its cause in the eyes of most
Since 11 September, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued five
press releases. All carried the key message that 'the United Front is
the fighting force of the legitimate government of Afghanistan.' They
also made the point that the United Front has for years been fighting
the same terrorist organisation that the West wants so badly to
dismantle. But all five releases were written only in Persian and
distributed solely to NGOs and the major news wires.
For media covering events in Afghanistan, the communications failure has
been bewildering. Many of the same journalists covered the last major
international conflict, in Kosovo, where a similar rebel organisation
mounted an undoubtedly more successful comms campaign. In 1999, the
Kosovo Liberation Army wooed the international community by presenting
itself as a victim of genocide, with the clear message that its forces
wanted Nato assistance to restore peaceful living conditions in its
Although its use of modern PR tools was mostly limited to a website run
by Kosovar Albanians in exile, the KLA ran an effective grassroots
campaign implemented through its best spokespeople, the refugees. As
media were kept out of Kosovo during the Nato bombardment, more than one
journalist noted KLA activism in the refugee camps in 1999, where
fighters went tent to tent in Albania and Macedonia urging refugee
families to paint for journalists a horrifying picture of atrocities
either witnessed or heard of second hand. Significant differences
between the two conflicts cannot excuse the fact that the failure of the
Northern Alliance to convey a similar message shows a remarkable lack of
homework on the part of its comms staff.
'The problem is that we have for so long been fighting against the
Taliban, we don't have a clear message to communicate about what we are
for,' says Hashmat Moslih, an Afghan resident of Australia who has
returned to his country to fight with the Northern Alliance. 'We need to
recast ourselves in a positive light and speak in terms that the West
The results of the struggling PR effort are manifest. Top foreign
officials from Afghanistan's neighbours, plus the US and Russia, met
last week to discuss plans for political self-determination in the
country, ironically without the presence of an Afghan government
One bright spot in the Northern Alliance comms picture is the Foreign
Minister, Dr Abdullah himself. A Kabul-educated physician and former
adviser to Massoud, he charms journalists and politicians alike with his
sense of humour and deft command of the English language. Usually
dressed in button-down shirt and western-style trousers he is, for the
West, quickly becoming the acceptable face of the still fundamental
Islamic-leaning Northern Alliance.
In recent weeks, he has given almost daily press conferences, in an
effort to spread the message that, with limited Western help, the
alliance is capable of putting together a broad-based, representative
government for Afghanistan.
But as the Northern Alliance settles in Kabul, the success of its
evolving message, as well as the depth of international support it may
receive, remain to be seen.