Center for Strategic Communication

By Chris Lundry

We in the CSC have documented the predilection for the Taliban to exaggerate the number of casualties it inflicts on the ISAF in Afghanistan (in this blog post, and in Studies in Conflict in Terrorism). The latest Taliban figures for the Islamic month of Jumadil Akhir (April 24 – May 23), however, are astonishing and unbelievable: 888 Crusaders killed; 418 Crusaders wounded; 616 vehicles destroyed; 1720 Afghan puppet soldiers killed; 1042 Afghan puppet soldiers wounded; 116 Taliban martyred; 126 Taliban injured.

talibanThe announcement comes after the rebranding of Taliban operations in Afghanistan, now named al Farooq. Perhaps the Taliban was eager to show that along with the new name comes new vigor for the Taliban, with deadly results for the enemy.

Since the Islamic month doesn’t correlate to our calendar, it’d take some effort to parse the casualties from icasualties for the exact same period. That being said, icasualties lists the total of ISAF forces killed in April at 39 and killed in May at 45. If you average the two you get 42 (I know, not precise, but it’s a 30-day period similar to Jumadil Akhir). This is 5% of the Taliban estimate. The figure of 888 represents 30% of all of the ISAF casualties for the entire conflict in Afghanistan, going back to 2001, and is more than any given year of the conflict.

I found the story reposted on the Indonesian extremist site ar Rahmah (which is why the Arabic names reflect the Malay spelling variants), and it cites the source of the information the Taliban magazine Ash Shumud. The totals are broken down by district.

The comments on the story are telling. “Siapa bilang umat Islam gak menang-menang? (Who says the Islamic Umma isn’t winning? We are winning!! Allahuakbar!!” “we the Muslims pray for the Mujahidin so that they will be helped and achieve victory in the war against the nonbeliever colonizers. Truly the assistance of Allah is very close.” One commenter states that the ISAF casualties are not enough because the majority of ISAF casualties are Muslims civilians, so keep chasing out the Crusaders, and from Indonesia too, if need be. Another responds: “While it’s true that more (civilians) die, God willing, we are still winning. Because those who are killed, God willing, are martyrs. And isn’t martyrdom itself true victory?”

Despite the ridiculous nature of the Taliban’s claims, the comments show how the communication is received and interpreted. The narratives invoked in the original story (the Crusades/colonization, martyrdom) are repeated in the comments. The assertion of Taliban victory is unquestioned, and is used to rally and encourage. And perhaps most troubling, despite the fact that the conflict in Afghanistan is taking place thousands of miles away, the story of victory is used to relate to foreigners (“crusaders”) in Indonesia (perhaps especially relevant as the US Navy and Coast Guard recently had ships visiting Indonesia, and the recent announcement by the Pentagon to increase the presence of US ships in the South China Sea).

Although the casualty figures are false and grossly inflated, the story becomes a strategic communication victory by rallying those who read it. If the US is going to turn its attention to the Asia-Pacific region in reaction to China’s rise, it must be aware of and pay attention to the sentiments and reactions of those who are sympathetic to or support hostility toward it. Indonesia has always been an especially complicated country with regards to its relationship to the US.

The US would do wisely to pay attention. As we note in the abstract to our article about casualty inflation:

The authors argue that these measures undertaken by the extremists can be countered successfully through the use of similar story forms, more timely reporting, use of side-by-side comparisons, and use of similar reporting venues. These steps could challenge the credibility of the Taliban reports, reduce sympathy, and diminish potential recruitment.