At President Abraham Lincoln's funeral in 1865, the oak tree stood just a few feet from the event, shading the funeral choir.
It sounds like any other popular radio broadcast in Afghanistan. But this one is different. The station’s funding comes from NATO. Its general manager used to work at CNN. And its studios are at Kandahar Airfield, one of the largest NATO bases here.
Ted Iliff, who manages the station, said it was created to provide an alternative to the listeners of southern Afghanistan who speak Pashtun. Iliff is an American who works for Strategic Social – a contractor to the U.S. Army, which is running the operation for NATO.
“It’s intended to be a news, information, and cultural station, finding a niche in the market for primarily local and regional news, and local and regional cultural affairs to try to give a local flavor to the listeners that they don’t seem to be getting from the other broadcasters,” he said.
Remember the golden age of radio? You probably weren’t old enough. But here in Afghanistan, the golden age of radio is now. That’s because the average Afghan can’t read, can’t afford a television, and has only sporadic access to electricity. So radio fills an enormous void. One NATO is making sure it fills, especially when it comes to news programming.
“News is a huge area of interest for the population here,” said Major Thomas Wood, the chief of broadcast media for the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, stationed at Kandahar. He says in many Afghan villages, news is still delivered by word of mouth.
“Due to the terrain and the lack of mass transportation, the populations generally have been not able to gather news from different areas…as they’re being exposed to radio broadcasting in particular, there’s a hunger for more information about what’s going on throughout the world,” he said.
Wood says the military has set up roughly a hundred transmitting stations throughout Afghanistan. Many are what are known as a “radio in a box,” or RIAB.
Each RIAB consists of a simple transmitter, an antenna, a laptop computer, and a small diesel generator. The whole set up would fit in a walk-in closet. The broadcast signal is sent to the RIABs via the Internet – typically from a regional station, such as the one here at Kandahar, where news and music programs are produced by a staff of Afghan professionals.
Wartime radio has come a long way from World War II and the days of Tokyo Rose – the name for a group of Japanese women who played American popular music and broadcast messages of foreboding to Allied soldiers in the Pacific.
Like Tokyo Rose, NATO’S radio operations in Afghanistan are a form of psych-ops. But NATO’s broadcasts are more subtle than the dire warnings that soldiers heard in the Pacific 70 years ago. I asked Ted Iliff, who manages the station at Kandahar, how NATO’s sponsorship affects how he covers the news.
“It doesn’t a lot, very much at all. There are certain things that they want to emphasize or think are important,” he said. For example: “governance, security, education, agriculture in terms of poppy eradication. Reintegration in terms of opposition to insurgents joining the government and putting down their weapons… we know what the sponsor is interested in, but at the same time, we do news and they know that we’ve built as much of a firewall as we can between news and other information so we can maintain our credibility as best as any news organization can.”
So, in the interest of presenting all viewpoints in a story, would he put a representative of the Taliban on the air? For that, Iliff says, he’d have to check with his military sponsors in NATO.
“It’d have to be a really special case, and it’d have to be something the sponsor would authorize, and in fairness to the sponsor, they’ve been very open to all kinds of ideas. I don’t know how they’d react in that situation, but they have left us alone…It’s been very refreshing, how they have their opportunities to say what they want to say, and they leave us alone with news and information to do what we think is necessary,” Ted Iliff said.
Make no mistake: NATO isn’t footing the multimillion-dollar bill to run RIAB stations in Afghanistan simply because it wants Afghans to have better news choices. This network is a crucial part of NATO’s information war here. Taliban and insurgent forces are present in many of the country’s scattered rural villages, and in those villages especially, NATO needs to counter Taliban media’s version of events.
“We tell the people that in Afghanistan, it’s not only fighting going on,” said Mohammed Sarwar, an announcer at the RIAB station at the Governor’s palace in Kandahar.
“If you see outside, there is improvement in education. In the time of Taliban, there was not any schools, but you see now there are hundreds of schools out there…Our target is to tell the people, that Afghanistan, day by day, they’re improving. We want to tell them, there is not only fighting, but also construction work [is] going on. The people, they’re happy, and they need peace. Now, do you know some time, do you know the Taliban says something against government, so we have to tell them the reality. This is not the reality. This is the reality.”
For an example: when a pastor in Florida burned a Koran last March, three days of rioting across Afghanistan followed. In Kandahar alone, 14 people were killed and more than a hundred injured. Major Wood says RIAB took on the Taliban directly.
“You had Taliban media putting out things along the lines of, there’s multiple instances of it; it wasn’t just an isolated case, and it was something that was being perpetrated not only by people back in the states, but being done by forces here in Afghanistan. You have Kandahar media center and the local journalists who redress those accusations, and by providing honest and open reporting, are able to counter that,” said Thomas Wood.
To make sure Afghans get the message, NATO has handed out thousands of little green AM-FM radios that can be powered by either the sun or a hand crank. Someday, after NATO leaves, the Afghan government will be left with RIABs scattered across the country. Military officials here suggest that those stations could form the basis of a new public radio network in Afghanistan. Who knows? Maybe it’s not far-fetched to imagine a day when Afghans will be able to tune in to a Pashto-language version of “Here And Now.”
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