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Propaganda war may miss targets

By Mark Davis

(CNN) -- When he sees or reads news accounts about efforts to win the hearts and minds of Afghans with leaflets and meals dropped from the skies over Afghanistan, Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi can only shake his head.

The effort may be heartfelt as U.S. and British forces take the fight against terrorism to the Taliban and Osama bin Laden, said Ghamari, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University who specializes in Islamic society.

He fears, though, that the leaflets and meals may not score as many direct hits as the coalition's missiles and bombs.

"First, the great majority of people cannot read those leaflets," Ghamari said Sunday. "It also has created sort of a schizophrenic feeling on the ground -- dropping the bombs, then dropping the leaflets and meals."

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For more than a week, the U.S.-led effort has augmented its assaults against mortar and brick emplacements with a war for Afghans' allegiance.

"We're working to make clear to the Afghan people that we support them, and we're working to free them from the Taliban and their foreign terrorist allies," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Monday, October 15.

One leaflet features a Western soldier shaking hands with an Afghan civilian.

"The partnership of nations is here to assist the people of Afghanistan," the leaflet reads. Another leaflet lists the frequencies and times in which Afghans can tune in to U.S. broadcasts produced from aircraft flying in the region.

The plastic-wrapped meals consist primarily of grain and vegetable items. They contain no pork or other meats or additives that might be considered offensive to Muslims, Pentagon officials said.

By mid-October, planes had dropped more than 275,000 packets of food rations, Rumsfeld said.

But the leaflets and food may be insufficient without a thorough understanding of the culture at which they are aimed, said Ghamari, a native Iranian who immigrated to the United States in 1985.

For example, he said, conservative Muslims are periodically offended by Western values -- Saudi Arabian shopping malls, filled with goods from the West, have inflamed anti-American sentiment in that country and elsewhere in the Middle East, he said.

Confounding U.S. efforts are images that Afghans may have trouble forgetting.

Al Jazeera, the Arabic-language television network, has released video that shows Afghans picking through rubble of what used to be their homes -- the sort of pictures that may make the United States appear less benevolent than its leaflets proclaim.

Other pictures show Afghan refugees fleeing toward the Pakistan border, running the risk of inadvertent bombing or getting caught in mountain passes that soon will be freezing.

Sources in Afghanistan have told CNN that such images may do more to put the United States in trouble with the Islamic world than leaflets or meals can rectify.

A more resilient opponent may be upbringing. Children who are taught enmity toward a common foe do not soon forget their lessons, as underscored by recurring acts of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Children raised in extremist households who have been taught that America is Satan, that Israel is a usurper, are hard to win over, as CNN correspondent Mike Boettcher discovered on assignment last year in Lebanon.

Talking with the young son of a man who ended his life in a suicide bombing aimed at Israelis, Boettcher asked the child if he wanted to follow his father's example. "Yes," the child answered without a pause.

Why? "To kill our Zionist enemies, and to drive him out of our land," the youngster answered.

History cannot quickly be changed, Ghamari suggested. Efforts to win over Afghans will take time, and will involve reaching out to moderate Afghans who can set an example for the rest of the nation.

The military "needs to be more in touch with the local intellectuals and local media," he said. "Unfortunately, they never do that."


• New Scientist magazine

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