Ten years after the fall of the Taliban, who banned modern technology as un-Islamic, the use of social media in Afghanistan is booming as politicians, warlords and even militants rush to get their message across.
The hardline Islamists who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and forbade the use of the Internet, deeming it a Western propaganda tool, now regularly use Twitter to promote their ideas and boast about attacks on NATO forces.
The militants are reluctant to discuss the thinking behind their Internet U-turn, but last year’s Arab Spring was a wake-up call to the Muslim world about the ability of social media to organize mass movements and communicate a message outside traditional channels.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said they would still ban the Internet or any other media outlet if they were used for “un-Islamic” purposes, but for now they are happy to use it as a public relations tool.
They have set up an official Web site featuring propaganda videos depicting their campaigns against US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, including scenes of attacks and bombings.
“The leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan regards social media, in particular Facebook, as a useful way to communicate and pass messages of the Islamic Emirate to Afghans as well as foreigners,” Mujahid said. “In fact, the commission for cultural affairs of the Islamic Emirate encourages our people inside and outside Afghanistan to use social media to pass our messages to the Afghan nation as well as to the Westerners.”
“We know that Twitter is very popular among Westerners and we are using it to pass our message and philosophy to a different audience, including Westerners,” he added.
About 2 million people, less than 10 percent of the population, have computer access to the Internet, officials say, but the figure is rising and many more have access through the increasing use of smart phones.
The role of social media in the Arab Spring convinced one seasoned Afghan figure, Abdul Rashid Dostum — a former warlord who now has an official Facebook and Twitter account — his aide Homayoon Haqbeen said. Dostum, who is considered by many as the leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek minority based largely in the north, is also part of the National Front, a political alliance planning a push for the presidency in 2014 elections.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is constitutionally not allowed to seek another term, but is expected to present and back a successor.
Homayoon said Dostum wants to get his message out to young, energetic and educated Afghan youths as well as to a Western audience.
“Nowadays you see that almost all the active politicians and many Afghans interested in politics are on Facebook or Twitter,” he said.
Like the Taliban, Dostum knows that he can use the traditional channels of local elders and mullahs to address and mobilize poor and illiterate Afghans who make up most of the population in rural areas.
“We launch gatherings and rallies in some provinces, mainly rural areas to communicate and address those people who have no access to the Internet,” Dotsum said. “But we see social media as an effective way to communicate our messages with the educated Afghans inside and outside the country, as well as with the European and Americans who are engaged or interested in Afghanistan’s affairs.”