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Taliban Radio At The Voa?

Eli Lake has an interesting story in today's Washington Times about the Voice of America's Pashto language service, and the controversy surrounding its airing interviews with top Pakistani Taliban leaders, including Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban military chief in Waziristan, as well as figures sympathetic to the Taliban. Last month, Republican Congressman Mark Kirk of Illinois fired off a letter to the State Department Inspector General complaining of this trend, writing that, "The U.S. taxpayer should not be subsidizing free air-time for al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban leaders."

I can understand why the VOA might want to interview Taliban leaders; it earns the station a bit of credibility with the local population, which might otherwise view it as merely an American propaganda arm. The United States isn't exactly popular in Pakistan right now, and perhaps the native Pakistani employees of the station see this as a way to better win higher ratings. But Lake quotes Richard Holbrooke, Barack Obama's envoy to the region, who seems to differ:

Last month, Richard C. Holbrooke, the chief U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States lacked "counter-programming" to Taliban FM stations, which he likened to the Rwandan radio stations that broadcast ethnic Hutus' propaganda against the Tutsis during the 1994 genocide.

"Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war. We are losing that war," Mr. Holbrooke said. "The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication in an area where literacy is around 10 percent for men and less than 5 percent for women."

Mr. Holbrooke added, "We cannot win the war, however you define win, we can't succeed however you define success, if we cede the airwaves to people who present themselves as false messengers of the prophet [Muhammad], which is what they do, and we need to combat it.

If the situation is as Holbrooke describes it, and I have no reason to believe it's not, then clearly the United States and its allies in the region are not doing enough to compete with what appears to be a concerted effort on the part of the Taliban to convince Pakistanis that its religious authoritarianism will provide them a better life. 

In all the news coverage about the dire state of Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past few months, this is the first I've heard about the use of radio technology in fighting the war against the Taliban. It's certainly less deadly than predator drone attacks, a sadly necessary aspect of the battle we're waging. The only collateral damage with the VOA is that listeners might not like the music they hear. This is a crucial tool in winning over "hearts and minds." Like Holbrooke, I don't see how we accomplish that by giving air time to religious fanatics. 

--James Kirchick