Thursday 12 November 2009

Rash of propaganda stories widely believed

Stories from either side of the Durand Line illustrate the point that truth is always a matter for negotiation. Writing in the Jamestown Foundation's Global Terrorism Analysis, Andrew McGregor discusses the weird story of the "foreign helicopters" that are allegedly ferrying Taliban fighters to Baghlan, Kunduz and Samangan provinces in the north of Afghanistan. Even President Karzai has said the helicopters belong to "foreign powers" such as the United States and its allies.
Tolo TV reported Karzai saying: “We have received reliable reports from our intelligence service. We have received reliable reports from our people, and today I received a report that these efforts [to transfer Taliban fighters] are also being made mysteriously in the northwest. The issue of helicopters has also been proved. We do not make any more comments now and investigations are under way to see to whom and to which foreign country these helicopters belong.”
The story appeared in its most developed form in a statement issued in mid October by Iran's Press TV. Their story, quoting unnamed diplomats, alleged that Sultan Munadi, the Afghan journalist killed when UK special forces freed New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell from Taliban custody, was killed because he had documents and photographs verifying the British role in the chopper flights.
McGreggor also noted: "It was not long before the “mystery helicopters” were seen in Pakistan, where the “foreign allies” of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) were alleged to be rescuing Taliban militants from the government offensive in South Waziristan. An Islamabad daily reported the belief of “some experts” that the airlift was part of a deal between the Western nations and the so-called “good Taliban”."
What is remarkable is that these stories are widely believed throughout Afghanistan and that the stories have travelled so fast.
Then last week, Washington Post reporter Pamela Constable reported an equally remarkable story in Peshawar, where only a few days previously the Mina Bazaar had been hit by a massive car bomb, killing more than 100 people.
No-one has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but there is little doubt it was organised by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan in retaliation for the army offensive in South Waziristan. Car bombs went off three days in a row in and around Peshawar last week, killing dozens more people.
Constable reported that most of the outrage expressed by survivors, witnesses, religious leaders and other residents was not directed at Islamist extremist groups, but at the countries many Pakistanis see as their true enemies: India, Israel and the United States.
She said: "In part, this reaction stems from a deep popular conviction that no Muslim could perpetrate such atrocities against other Muslims. The more egregious the attack, the stronger seems the tendency to deny a domestic cause and blame other, more remote culprits. Some religious and political groups are encouraging such responses, eager to whip up xenophobic sentiment for their own ends."
She noted that the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party organized a “peace march” in central Peshawar from the Khyber Bazaar, scene of another car bomb that killed more than 30 people on 9 October, to the Mina Bazaar. "The marchers held up banners and shouted slogans denouncing the CIA, the Pentagon, the security company formerly known as Blackwater, U.S. drone attacks and American aid. There was no mention of the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
“Muslims! Muslims! We are here to protest against those wrongdoers who work for India, Israel and the United States,” a well-dressed, middle-aged rally organizer shouted through a bullhorn. “We protest against American interference and against our government, which is handing over Pakistan to the foreigners and the unbelievers.”"
A similar story could be told about the "Blackwater" fever that is also gripping Pakistan. Stories appear regularly suggesting that Xe, the company formerly known as Blackwater, is operating in secret in Pakistan. A week ago it was reported that 202 Blackwater personnel arrived in Islamabad on a flight from Heathrow. Many of them were speaking fluent Urdu, the reports said (as if!!!).
What all these stories illustrate is that the truth alone is no antidote to malicious propaganda. And the propaganda, whatever we may think of it, is very good. It achieves its fundamental goal; it is believed by many tens of thousands of people. Who is responsible for it?
Update: On Thursday, al-Qaeda's No.3 in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu Yazid, issued a recording saying that Blackwater was behind the suicide attacks in Peshawar: "Today, everyone knows what Blackwater and the criminal security contractors are doing after they came to Pakistan with the support of the criminal, corrupt government and its intelligence and security apparatus," Yazid said.
On the same day, the BBC's Orla Guerin interviewed a 14-year-old boy from Bajaur who told her how he had been beaten and forced to train as a suicide bomber by the TTP.

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