On April 17 a new voice was added to the rather crowded airwaves in Afghanistan: Shariat Zhagh, the “Voice of Shariat.” For those Afghans who had all but forgotten the Taliban, it was a disturbing and chilling surprise (VOA, April 22). Literally meaning the “Voice of Islamic Law,” Shariat Zhagh was the name of the Taliban regime’s state-run radio. Its dreaded voice filled the airwaves for six years in Afghanistan, but the station had not broadcast since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 by the U.S.-led military forces. Except for individuals who were affiliated with the Taliban regime, the new broadcasts are a reminder of the dark cloud hanging over the country. Remnants of the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan are re-launching the radio station to broadcast their extremist propaganda. According to news reports, the Voice of Shariat will be heard in Dari and Pashto, the main Afghan languages. It will face stiff competition.
When the Taliban seized power in 1996, they prohibited the broadcasting of music. News and information were tightly controlled. After the regime was overthrown in late 2001, independent Afghan media began to revive. Afghanistan now has more than 40 radio stations and eight private television channels (Pajhwok Afghan News, April 19).
It is not a lack or shortage of media outlets that worries Afghan listeners. Rather it is the re-emergence of a voice that people had thought was long gone. How is it possible that a rather backward, uneducated group of clergymen, who barely know the very religion they preach, could operate a mobile radio station in the volatile region of southwestern Afghanistan? Is it the success of the Taliban or the failure of the U.S.-led coalition that allows a radio station to pop up?
The emergence of the radio is also a disturbing surprise to the Afghan government, which has started a series of negotiations with high- to mid-level Taliban leaders. President Hamid Karzai offered the olive branch to rank-and-file Taliban fighters last year and said that all but a hardcore of some 150 militants wanted for human rights abuses would be able to join the political process. Although some leaders, such Habib-ur Rahman in Khost province or commanders Abdul Nabi and Najmudding in Kunar province, surrendered to the Afghan authorities last week, their number is not significant. Habib-ur Rahman’s surrender was especially noteworthy because he was the head of the crime department in the Taliban’s ministry of interior. The government has not given any figures regarding how many people have surrendered to the authorities (Cheragh, April 24).
Also last week, despite the reported negotiations and surrenders, attacks near the border with Pakistan killed at least five people. There were also rocket attacks in the early hours of April 24 in Kandahar city, but officials said those did not cause any casualties (Outlook Afghanistan, April 26).
There are concerns that the Taliban might disrupt Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections. According to the independent election commission, candidate registration will take place beginning on April 30. Lt. Cindy Moore, spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition forces, predicts a wave of attacks by the Taliban in the next six to nine months. However, both the Afghan government and the people feel confident that the Islamic movement would not be able to disrupt or significantly change the election’s course or outcome. They point to the successful October 2004 presidential election that was, in effect, a litmus test of the Taliban’s strength. To help keep public order, the government has about 65,000 trained soldiers and police, plus about 8,000 troops from the NATO-led security forces. Added to this are about 18,000 U.S.-led coalition forces that have offered to help ensure that the elections run smoothly (Asia Pulse, April 19).
The Taliban have vowed to continue their attacks, though their “targets would be specific.” They have said they would not target people but have also warned individuals not to participate in the polls. During the presidential election, the Taliban threatened and even killed some people for simply carrying voter registration cards. Now that the Taliban has a radio station, they will likely use it to broadcast anti-election propaganda.
Meanwhile, the radio war continues. While the U.S.-led commander of the coalition forces, General David Barno, has said that his troops would disable the Taliban radio transmitter wherever it may be located. Taliban spokesman Lutfullah Hakimi said they have more than one transmitter and would start broadcasting, weather-permitting (Kabul Times, April 26).
The same newspaper wonders how the Taliban — who are a “bunch of mullahs” that know nothing about engineering — can run a radio station. The newspaper also poses the more fundamental question, “Where did they get their engineers and who pays them?”