ANALYSIS: Comms challenge as Kabul is taken

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.


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

with Tajikistan.

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

near-medieval conditions.

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

can understand.'

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.

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