Center for Strategic Communication

By Chris Lundry

According to a CNN report Monday, the Taliban in Pakistan released a statement threatening to cut off all polio vaccinations for children in the North Waziristan region if the US continues drone strikes there. From the Taliban statement:

Almost every resident of North Waziristan has become a mental patient because of the drone strikes, which are worse than polio… On one hand, the U.S. spends millions of dollars to eliminate polio, while on the other hand it kills hundreds with the help of its slave, Pakistan.

The polio vaccination campaign is spearheaded by Unicef, and the attempt to shut it off is a Taliban tactic to deny the organization – and by association, the West – credit for the campaign.

A Unicef worker administers polio vaccine at a Karachi tran station (image from the Unicef Facebook page)

A Unicef worker administers polio vaccine at a Karachi tran station (image from the Unicef Facebook page)

There is an undercurrent of suspicion of western providers of medical services in general among some Muslims, especially among extremists. For example, some Muslims – and some Jews, and some Christians, and others opposed to vaccination – cite the potential for traces of pig to be present in some vaccines, in the form of gelatin. The topic is a running debate among some Muslims (and others), and is based on interpretations of Muslim law. Simple google the terms “Islam” and “vaccination” and you will be led to blogs and fora that describe the debate.

On the more conspiratorial side, some Muslims – again, especially extremists – view vaccination campaigns such as this as nefarious. In a recently published book on rumors that I co-authored with colleagues Daniel Bernardi, Pauline Cheong, and Scott Ruston, one of our cases concerned a bovine inoculation program in Iraq. Because of the narrative landscape in the region, including suspicion and hostility of American intention and the prevalence of rumors, the campaign failed to win over Iraqis. Rather it backfired, and rumors spread that Americans were actually poisoning livestock.

The most relevant question here, however, is if the Taliban campaign will be effective, and in what regard. First, it will almost certainly not prevent continued American drone strikes. A recent Associated Press story noted that, contrary to militants’ claims, militants and not civilians were the primary victims of drone strikes. (This assertion is debated, however, as some claim that those killed in drone strikes are posthumously labeled militants). Hence, militants could be acting to simply protect themselves, and not the civilians they claim to defend with righteous indignation.

Second, cutting off medical aid to the poor residents in North Waziristan is unlikely to win the Taliban any hearts and minds, despite their attempt to link it to drone attacks. Much will depend on their ability to “sell” this message to the locals, although they are admittedly in a much better position to communicate these messages than the US.

I came across this story while examining Indonesian extremist sites and blogs. Ironically, on the same day this story broke, the (English language but Indonesia-based) extremist blog Prisoner of Joy posted a story praising the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, an organization that has been vilified by some extremists as serving western interests, in the same way that Unicef has.

The message is complex when considering its background and the landscape within which it circulates. The bottom line, however, is that the Taliban is using innocent civilians as pawns in its desire to further its strategic goals. If their threat is carried out, it will lead to more suffering amongst an already poverty stricken population. If the Taliban’s message is that the US is targeting and killing Pakistani civilians, surely this tactic will send the message that the Taliban is simply doing the same.

As an exercise in strategic communication on the part of the Taliban, given the complex background and conflicting messages circulating in the communication landscape, it will likely go down as a failure.