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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Words Are a Key Weapon in the Taliban's Arsenal

November 04, 2001|MEGAN K. STACK and ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Taliban tales of successful strikes against U.S. warplanes escalated Saturday, as the Afghan regime claimed it had gunned down a helicopter and a jet aircraft, "maybe a B-52 carpet bomber."

In recent days, the reports from the Taliban--which are one of the few windows into the warfare in Afghanistan--have evolved into wild tales of downed aircraft, dead Americans and an assassinated leader. The increasingly fantastic accounts, consistently denied by the Pentagon, stand in sharp contrast to the relatively measured reports the Taliban issued in the early days of the 28-day-old bombing campaign.

"Their lies are getting bigger and bigger," said a Western diplomat here in Pakistan's capital. "If you add it up, it shows a sense of frustration that things are not going their way."

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who wrote a book about the Taliban, isn't so sure. He believes that the regime has taken to exaggeration with an eye toward boosting morale in its encampments. U.S. bombs have shattered radio stations throughout Afghanistan. But soldiers in the field--who traditionally regard their shortwave radios as second only to their guns--can still listen to Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef, whose speeches from Islamabad are broadcast on the BBC.

"The ambassador is the only national voice," Rashid said. "He knows that what he says will be listened to by every Taliban fighter on the front."

Zaeef, a formerly obscure diplomat who has become a sort of global spokesman for the Taliban, sat on a low sofa at his home here Saturday night, a translator at his side and journalists huddled before him.

Speaking slowly to the crowd, he told a story. It began Saturday morning, he said, when Taliban soldiers shot an invading helicopter from the skies. Then a warplane came looking for the wreckage, and the Taliban blasted it to the ground too.

"It is a very huge plane," he said. "We don't know the model or quality, but it is believed it may be a B-52." Taliban soldiers were combing the snowy field for bodies, he said.

That night, Urdu-language newspapers hawked on the curbs of Islamabad splashed the story across their front pages as if it were indisputable fact: more than 100 captured Americans, an opposition leader hanged, a B-52 smashed in the snow.

But in European and U.S. wire reports, the Taliban's boast barely rated a mention. Instead, the Western agencies carried the story of a helicopter downed by bad weather Friday and an unmanned aircraft that went missing in an unrelated crash the same day. Pentagon officials confirmed the loss of the two aircraft but said nobody was killed.

One war, two stories. In some respects, the struggle between information and propaganda has succeeded in further dividing an already fractured world, in slashing a rift between Muslim readers and their non-Muslim counterparts.

Urdu newspapers aren't the only ones to dole out Taliban reports without a trace of skepticism. The Afghan regime's version of events gets top billing--and straight-faced treatment--in news accounts throughout the Middle East and western Asia. And as the news gets bloodier, discontent is growing in the streets.

Demonstrators throughout the Muslim world have been shouting disapproval of the U.S.-led attacks on Afghanistan--and particularly of the deaths of children, hospital patients and the elderly, which are featured prominently in Taliban accounts.

The United States insists that Taliban death tolls are inflated. But not so long ago, nobody in the U.S. government seemed particularly bothered by those exaggerations. When the first bombs fell, U.S. officials shrugged off Taliban reports as lies. When questioned, they'd tell reporters there wasn't enough time to respond to every statement issued by the regime.

The indifference is long gone. As the bombing increased this month--and the propaganda intensified--the United States and Britain showed a sudden eagerness to dispute Taliban reports. The two nations set up 24-hour public relations offices in London and Washington and are organizing a third center in Islamabad to respond to Taliban claims.

"The idea is to beat the time lag we're suffering from," said Mark Wentworth, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy here. "Because of the time difference between here and the [U.S.] East Coast, rumors can proliferate. That's when headlines are written."

In the midst of Saturday's rhetorical warfare, Osama bin Laden chimed in with a videotaped statement. Clad in military camouflage, backed by an automatic weapon, he said the United Nations is guilty of crimes against Muslims. Afghans are not to blame for the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, he said, and should not be punished with bombing.

"Today, without any evidence, the United Nations is peddling resolutions in support of America against the weak who just emerged from a massive war by the Soviet Union," Bin Laden said.

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