[T]he Twitter accounts of the Taliban and ISAF reveal another war that is not so undecided— the struggle for the support and confidence of the Afghan people. The theater of battle for combatants may remain in the poppy fields of Helmand and mountains of Kunar, but another has opened up online. Whether it is ISAF promoting social progress and calling out the Taliban for killing civilians, or the Taliban trumpeting battlefield victories and accusing ISAF of the same, the two sides chose to start a Twitter beef, and like celebrities’ social media feuds back in the U.S., it is all about image.
By most measures, the NATO alliance appears to be winning its PR campaign, which is all the more important as Afghans decide whether to extend a military partnership with the U.S. post-2014. The general Afghan public has embraced the changes that have occurred since the Taliban regime was ousted, the same ones ISAF touts on Twitter, and the majority of them say the country is going in the right direction. While the Western powers may not be seen as knights in shining armor, they are associated with the positive progress recognized by the general population. Perhaps more significantly, Afghans associate the Taliban with the opposite. Recent polls (PDF) indicate insurgents’ approval ratings hover around 10 percent nationally and only 30 percent in the Taliban’s southern Pashtun heartlands.
Insurgents may still be able to recruit from the illiterate, unemployed youth pool of Afghanistan’s many underserved communities, but they are confronted by an inconvenient truth: That segment of Afghan society is shrinking. Between economic growth, improvements in health care, educational development, and the meteoric rise of the media and telecommunications industry, increasing numbers of Afghans live better, longer, more informed, and more connected lives than ever before. The revolution in access to information, facilitated by the spread of cell phones and social media use, is why the Taliban’s luddites have been forced to join Twitter, build a website, and compete for favor beyond the confines of the village.