by Ben Sixsmith
Tuesday, 24
August 2021

The Taliban’s meme war

The hardline Islamic group is no stranger to online propaganda
by Ben Sixsmith
The Taliban mocking the Iwo Jima flag raising

As the Taliban has advanced to Kabul they have taken pains to present themselves as humanitarian. Any Afghan government is heavily dependent on international aid, with more than 80% of the nation’s healthcare being funded by such sources, so even the Taliban has no desire to turn the world against them. Thus, they have announced an amnesty for former Afghan state officials and employees — whether it will actually be respected is another question.

As well as attempting to present themselves as humane, the group is striving to appear cultured too. The spokesman of their “cultural commission” is a better English speaker than many representatives of first world nations (raising the concerning question of where exactly he was educated).

The Taliban has had decades to improve their once basic, half-hearted propaganda, developing magazines, DVDs and websites. Now, they are also displaying a grasp of social media. As they have advanced through government territory, they have revelled in posting videos of humbly clad warriors marvelling at the empty, opulent houses of fleeing Afghan officials, or playing with US equipment that was left behind. Most woundingly, Taliban fighters mimicked the famous flag-raising scene from Iwo Jima. Their aim is to project an image of triumphant underdogs ⁠— Deobandi Davids seeing off the American Goliath.

English-speaking pro-Taliban accounts have been active on Twitter, adopting the snappy, snarky style of Western posters. “MJalal700”, for example, presents himself as an ordinary Afghan and peace activist. He can also add to his roster the achievement of shitposting, responding to the former Minister of Interior Amrullah Saleh thusly:

While Western diplomats struggle to formulate a response to these new circumstances, Taliban accounts have also been engaging with random posters. A Spanish “groyper” account ⁠— representing an esoteric Right-wing subculture based on a cartoon frog ⁠— asked one self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman not to hurt people from the Spanish embassy because “we don’t like [America] either.” “We are human beings,” the Taliban spokesman said, “we all respect each other.” More bizarrely, an alleged Taliban account even published a variation on the popular “wojak vs chad” meme, in which a weeping, neckbeard-sporting loser (supposedly representing the liberal West) cries that “you literally treat women like property” while an iron-jawed Taliban fighter surrounded by his happy harem responds, simply, “Yes.”

This is comic because the typical image of the Taliban is as desert-dwelling Islamic militants who spend all their time with their Qurans and guns, but definitely not on social media. And yet, this is a rather foolish thing to believe — of course the Taliban keep up with modern propaganda techniques. They did not keep up pressure on the most powerful and best equipped armed forces in the world for almost twenty years by being primitive technophobes.

It is important to remember, too, that it is propaganda. Claiming that you will behave humanely does not mean you really will, and posting memes is not even proof that you have much of a sense of humour.

Still, this is an interesting illustration of how the Internet affects communications on all levels. ‘Shitposting’ has become a weapon of war. Governments and armies are not just struggling to be richer and more innovative than their opponents, but more based.

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  • I have some history in Afghanistan, long ago, but substantial, and have tried to be optimistic on the Taliban here on Unherd since I began posting; explaining my understanding of their history, and where I felt they could end up.

    That aid is necessary is a huge factor – but I feel the bigger one is stability is needed to attract foreign investment in the resource extraction which is 100% needed to allow the country to function. 3 Trillion $ is laying there, but massive investment and infrastructure needed.

    When I was looking in commodity metal mining to invest in (as I saw the collapse of the stock market – which grows instead so far…but I still distrust it) I found CEO/Management/Company, And the actual metal in the ground, how much and how difficult, were just 2 parts of 3 of the mining stock value. The third variable is geopolitical Risk. Thus Ivanhoe Mines in Congo carry a big discount to any other comparable deposit. No one can mine unless some security exists. (it takes a decade to get a big mine operational, it is a long term thing)

    Afghanistan must carry the greatest mining discount Stock value of any place on earth. China is the likely one to get the mines, pipelines, roads, power grid, going first as they have great ability to deal with this sort of risk. This means the Taliban not only have to try to keep the West on side, but show the world they will try to make the people satisfied. Everyone knows how Afghani are masters of the IED, the guerilla attack, and if the people were in revolt new industry would be the best target to bring down the government. Every household has an AK-47, the people must be ruled by consent for the nation to work.

    This is why I think it may end up working, China, USA, Russia all need to be shown the Taliban can govern, so they have to govern, not merely rule. They also are much more cosmopolitan from their origin of rural boys sent to the harshest and most hard line boarding schools in The Western Frontier, Pakistan, to memorize the Koran in Arabic (Madrases) and learn radicalized fighting and religious law – then turned onto the urban places to manage them… (Talib means religious student)

    As far as the West and aid – this is always done through NGOs – those horrible things run by the most agenda driven Liberal/Lefty (also corrupt) cultural Imperialists. Let us hope they, for once, put their gender politics aside and work on giving aid. If the Taliban go half way, I hope the NGOs do as well (But I doubt it – think of the most Post-Modernist, third wave Feminist university graduate – that is who likely runs it, and the huge chains of corrupt developing world employees tho manage it on the ground.)

  • From Ben Sixsmith’ first paragraph: “Any Afghan government is heavily dependent on international aid, with more than 80% of the nation’s healthcare being funded by such sources, so even the Taliban has no desire to turn the world against them.”
    How often, praytell, is international aid denied to brutal and oppressive regimes? As must be common knowledge by now, the compassion-happy West doles out its bounty in the naive hope that recipients will appreciate the gesture and learn humanitarian values by example. Post-Christian morality prevails.
    The Taliban are probably shrewd enough to know that many in the developed world are so eager to give aid that the most superficial display of respect for human rights will be sufficient.

  • Never underestimate the appeal of strong leadership – especially in turbulent times. I think we are beginning to wake up to the fact that stability and prosperity have a higher value than freedom and democracy in the third world. If the West are cutting their losses and running why would Afghanis not take up the Taliban’s offer – they looked to be the new ruling power.
    If there is one ray of hope for the West it is that this looks very, very bad for the woke elites and their favoured US government. They should hang their heads in shame – but will they?

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