West faces a losing battle for Afghan "human terrain"
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By Sayed Salahuddin and Paul Tait
KABUL, Aug 30 (Reuters) - As the conflict in Afghanistan deepens, with more foreign troops fighting and casualty tolls rising against a bolder Taliban-led enemy, a parallel battle is being fought to win the hearts and minds of Afghans.
Despite vast, sophisticated resources at their disposal, it is a battle some analysts fear NATO and U.S. forces can't win.
"In my opinion NATO is making a monumental mistake," said Kabul-based political analyst Haroun Mir.
"No matter what policy NATO might adopt, they are losing the trust and respect of the Afghan population because Afghans consider the Taliban the winners of this war," he told Reuters.
That view was supported by a July poll by the Kabul-based International Council on Security and Development that showed the NATO force was failing to win hearts and minds and that most Afghans in Taliban heartlands viewed foreign troops negatively.
Since taking command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, General David Petraeus, the master of counter-insurgency tactics honed in Iraq, has stressed that the key battleground in Afghanistan will be what he calls "the human terrain".
Many U.S. military officials feel the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) must do better at heading off Taliban propaganda by speaking directly to Afghans, seeing such "strategic communications" as part of the larger war effort.
It is no coincidence that, since Petraeus took over, media outlets have been flooded with media releases every day, many more than ever before, detailing the successes of Afghan and foreign forces and the perfidy of the Taliban-led insurgents.
KILLING CIVILIANS "NOT GOOD POLICY"
ISAF sent more than 20 media releases on Sunday from their 24-hour-a-day media unit.
One release, about two Afghans wounded by a roadside bomb in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, quoted U.S. Army Colonel Rafel Torres as saying: "The insurgents are as indiscriminate as their choice of weapons. Killing innocent civilians isn't good policy in Afghanistan, or anywhere else for that matter."
No doubt these are fairly straightforward counter-insurgency tactics but, analysts say, what is interesting is that the Taliban have been doing the same for much longer.
On Sunday, the Taliban went so far as to suggest holding a news conference to counter Petraeus' assertion last week that his forces were making progress, an unprecedented move since the Islamists were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.
It was their second media release in four days, somewhat unusual for a group which banned television and computers during their rule from 1996-2001.
The Taliban's tactics have not gone unnoticed by ISAF.
"One way of tackling this issue is to undermine the Taliban's influence in society," said Kamran Bokhari, regional director for global intelligence firm STRATFOR.
"The key to this is to try and drive a wedge between the Afghan jihadist movement and their social support network."
Earlier this month, ISAF issued an extraordinary media release in which an unidentified "senior ISAF intelligence official" denounced the Taliban's "attempt to manipulate the media in order to misrepresent the truth".
The official said the Taliban used a "formalised network", overseen by Taliban leader Mullah Omar himself, and which included spokesmen who usually give names like Yousuf Ahmadi and Zabihullah Mujahid.
Those spokesmen, he said, worked directly with "external malign media support, which is largely comprised of sympathetic media outlets".
The Taliban usually communicate by telephone, their spokesmen calling reporters from undisclosed locations.
They are quick to claim credit for attacks on foreign forces, whether they were involved or not, and usually inflate casualty figures. They are equally quick in their attempts to discredit foreign troops when civilian casualties are involved.
Regardless of how untrue that information might be, analysts say there is little Western forces can do to counter it.
"There is only so much that they can do to improve their standing among the public because of certain structural problems, the key to which is the perception that Western forces won't be in the country for long," Bokhari said.
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here) (firstname.lastname@example.org; Kabul Newsroom, +93 706 011 526) (If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to email@example.com)