Voice of Tal­iban on VOA queried

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY ELI LAKE

Com­plaints that the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s Voice of Amer­ica (VOA) in­ter­viewed a top Pak­istani Tal­iban leader have sparked an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into VOA’s Pashto lan­guage ser­vice to de­ter­mine if it has al­lowed it­self to be­come a plat­form for ter­ror­ist pro­pa­ganda.

In a let­ter ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Times, the State Depart­ment’s act­ing in­spec­tor gen­eral, Harold Geisel, said his of­fice will con­duct a re­view “to de­ter­mine the ef­fec­tive­ness of their broad­cast and ed­i­to­rial prac­tices and poli­cies.” The ser­vice broad­casts into the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der re­gion that serves as a refuge for al Qaeda and the Tal­iban.

The probe was spurred by con­cerns first raised by Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, an Illi­nois Repub­li­can who in the past had cham­pi­oned the Pashto-lan­guage ser­vice known as Deewa Ra­dio. Mr. Kirk said he be­came con­cerned that Amer­i­can tax­pay­ers were pro­vid­ing the Tal­iban a me­ga­phone af­ter he learned that Pak­istani Tal­iban leader Bait­ul­lah Mehsud had been in­ter­viewed by the ser­vice — and claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for ter­ror­ist bomb­ings in the Pak­istani city of La­hore in March.

“The U.S. tax­payer should not be sub­si­diz­ing free air-time for al- Qaeda ter­ror­ists and Tal­iban leaders,” Mr. Kirk wrote in a May 5 let­ter to Mr. Geisel. “Th­ese broad­casts put the lives of Amer­i­can sol­diers in dan­ger and un­der­mine the poli­cies of the United States in Pak­istan and Afghanistan.”

VOA Di­rec­tor Dan­forth Austin said Deewa Ra­dio was sim­ply seek­ing to re­port the news in a way that was cred­i­ble to lis­ten­ers from the same eth­nic Pash­tun group as the Tal­iban.

He told The Times that the Tal­iban has threat­ened the fam­i­lies of his re­porters and broad­cast­ers and de­clared Deewa Ra­dio “haram” — for­bid­den by Is­lamic law.

“We wouldn’t be threat­ened by the Tal­iban if we weren’t show­ing them up for what they were and in a way that is cred­i­ble,” Mr. Austin said.

None­the­less, the sta­tion at times has in­ad­ver­tently served as an out­let for the Tal­iban to ad­vance its mil­i­tary strat­egy by mis­lead­ing Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties. For ex­am­ple, a Tal­iban spokesman told the VOA ser­vice in an April 24 in­ter­view that mil­i­tant fight­ers were with­draw­ing from Pak­istan’s Buner prov­ince when they did not do so.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion of VOA’s Pashto ser­vice is an­other exam- ple of the long-stand­ing ten­sion about the role of Amer­i­can­funded broad­cast­ing.

The pro­fes­sional staff of VOA con­sider the op­er­a­tion akin to the Bri­tish Broad­cast­ing Corp. and other West­ern news out­lets, Mr. Austin said. Hence, the cor­re­spon­dents from time to time in­ter­view Tal­iban leaders in the process of cov­er­ing news from the North West Fron­tier Prov­ince of Pak­istan and Pash­tun ar­eas in neigh­bor­ing Afghanistan.

State Depart­ment pol­i­cy­mak­ers, how­ever, have re­cently be­moaned the ab­sence of an ef­fec­tive op­er­a­tion to counter Tal­iban pro­pa­ganda in the group’s Afghanistan-Pak­istan strong­hold.

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.”

A U.S. of­fi­cial close to Mr. Hol­brooke, who spoke on the con­di­tion that he not be named, said the en­voy be­lieved that the in­for­ma­tion war was broader than Deewa Ra­dio, whose an­nual bud­get for 2009 is $3.2 mil­lion, in­clud­ing both pro­gram­ming and trans­mis­sion costs. The sta­tion is broad­cast on the short­wave band and from FM trans­mit­ters on the Afghanistan side of the bor­der. The State Depart­ment has failed to per­suade the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment to al­low VOA to broad­cast on an FM fre­quency in­side Pak­istan.

Only 11 FM ra­dio sta­tions are of­fi­cially sanc­tioned for the North West Fron­tier Prov­ince. The Tal­iban, on the other hand, pro­duces dozens of un­sanc­tioned FM broad­casts from the backs of trucks and per­sonal homes.

Deewa Ra­dio broad­casts 6 hours a day be­tween 6 p.m. and mid­night. The mix of pro­gram­ming on the VOA sta­tion ranges from po­lit­i­cal call-in shows, news di­gests and po­etry, a pop­u­lar oral tra­di­tion among the Pash­tun.

The Pashto ser­vice is overseen by Spozh­mai Mai­wandi, VOA divi­sion di­rec­tor for South Asia. Ms. Mai­wandi helped get an in­ter­view with Tal­iban leader Mul- lah Mo­hammed Omar a few weeks af­ter the Sept. 11 at­tacks in 2001. That in­ter­view, broad­cast by VOA’s English lan­guage ser­vice, sparked con­tro­versy and calls from some law­mak­ers for the VOA lead­er­ship to scru­ti­nize more closely the Pashto ser­vice.

Ms. Mai­wandi de­fended her de­ci­sion, not­ing that she asked Mul­lah Omar at the time whether he was will­ing to let all Afghans suf­fer by con­tin­u­ing to har­bor al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

“That is VOA’s job,” she said. “We are here to give the news. We are here to give bal­anced, ac­cu­rate, ob­jec­tive news. It is the only way to get cred­i­bil­ity.”

Robert R. Reilly, VOA di­rec­tor from 2001 to 2002, said, how­ever, that it is pos­si­ble to cover the Tal­iban “without giv­ing them a plat­form with which to speak.” Mr. Reilly gave a di­rec­tive when he was in charge for­bid­ding cor­re­spon­dents from giv­ing ter­ror­ists air­time.

“The Voice of Amer­ica was cre­ated as part of the war ef­fort for World War II,” he said. “It should to­day be just as much a part of the war against ter­ror­ism. That does not mean we have to com­pro­mise jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards, and it does not mean we pro­duce pro­pa­ganda. It is pre­cisely be­cause the Afghan and Pak­istani peo­ple are sub­jected to pro­pa­ganda from the Tal­iban that th­ese ef­forts are so badly needed.”

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