On October 5 the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) invited the Taliban to discuss the coalition’s committment to free speech in Afghanistan. There was, however, just one problem: no one could say with certainty the man summoned via Twitter was in fact a member of the group.
The overture was made to Abdulqahar Balkhi, who describes himself as a “servant to the Islamic Emirate” behind the @ABalkhi account on the micro-blogging service.
Since last year, the @ISAFMedia account has engaged in a series of back-and-forth online spats with Balkhi’s account.
Balkhi sees it as his duty to “recover from the spiritual and material losses caused by three decades of war and invasion [in Afghanistan]” – 140 characters at a time.
He says his is one of several Twitter accounts belonging to the Taliban.
But unlike the others said to belong to the group – @alemarahweb, @zabihmujahid and @Qariyusufahmadi – Balkhi’s stands out for its conversational tone that he has successfully utilised to provoke a series of responses from other actors in the Afghan conflict.
“If an insurgent is watching, we are giving notice that we too are watching,” said Lieutenant Commander Brian Badura, ISAF media operations officer.
@ isafmedia How the dialogue elevates. Look: Nobody takes you seriously. Everything you type is wrong. Just. Stop.
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) February 25, 2012
@ isafmedia Super duper pro tip: Never argue against a documented video clip. Makes you look like a juvenile, JUST STOP!
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) June 17, 2012
Ten years ago under Taliban control, the internet, like many other forms of media, was banned in Afghanistan.
In recent years, however, the Taliban, and those said to be associated with them, have keenly embraced digital media.
From iPhones, to Twitter, and even an online appeal for donations, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the group refers to itself, made a concerted effort to use online outlets to counter the actions of what it calls the “invaders” and “ puppets” of the Afghan occupation.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Balkhi says the change in policy is indicative of a generational shift.
“Our elders banned the internet since they did not fully understand the power of conveying the Prophet’s message … There is recognition within the organisation that all skills and experiences need to be utilised to support the Afghan people.”
If the group does come back to power, Balkhi says they will not ban the internet, but will “filter out the filth of the West”.
Initially, Balkhi’s account went largely unnoticed outside the small but active Afghan Twittersphere. But it gained international notoriety after a series of Taliban-orchestrated attacks rocked the Afghan capital in September 2011.
The violence culminated in a siege of the US embassy and NATO headquarters in Kabul. And a series of social media exchanges between the then little-known @ABalkhi account and ISAF gained media attention.
As Afghan journalists, bloggers and residents fervently recounted details of the 19-hour assault, an argument ensued between two sides of the war as the coalition aired out its frustrations towards a statement made by a Taliban spokesman.
@isafmedia i dnt knw.u hve bn pttng thm n ‘harm’s way’ fr da pst 10 yrs.Razd whole vllgs n mrkts.n stil hv da nrve to tlk bout ‘harm’s way’
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) September 14, 2011
Though other so-called “terrorist” groups – al-Shabab, Hamas and Hezbollah – are also said to be active on the micro-blogging service, there is little, if any way, for Twitter to verify the identity of the people behind them.
One analyst says the authenticity of the @ABalkhi account is of secondary concern.
“Some members of the Islamic Emirate enjoy the press beyond the boundaries of proper vanity. They communicate like a Western celebrity espousing the virtues of the Islamic Emirate on one hand, while hiding their first-born 12-year-old son from supporting armed jihad.“
– Abdulqahar Balkhi, Taliban tweeter
Connected to the Taliban or not, Balkhi’s account is “genuinely doing what it claimed to, helping the Taliban dominate social media”, says Daveed Garenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think-tank.
Though ISAF believes the account is operating outside of Afghanistan, Balkhi would not disclose the location of people managing the Taliban’s online presence.
“We move freely and use electronic communication methods when and where available,” he says.
Asked about his connection to the group, Balkhi identified himself only as a “servant to the Islamic Emirate who may have once been from Mazar-e-Sharif”, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province.
Gary Owen, who has been doing development and reconstruction work in Afghanistan for three years, says initially the idea of a Taliban Twitter account was appealing.
“The enemy is on the airwaves, and he’s able to deal with us on a 21st century level,” said Owen.
Like many other users of the micro-blogging service, Balkhi often provides commentary, both serious and ironic, on media reports, which he says are sourced by a Taliban intelligence unit that monitors “many different websites and news organisations”.
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) July 31, 2012
He has also been critical of reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, designed to win “hearts and minds” in the war-torn country.
@ usembassykabul maybe the criminals and their puppets who control Kabul should stop children from dying by providing them with food/clothing
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) February 9, 2012
As reports of Afghan forces turning their guns on their international counterparts began to dominate global headlines, Balkhi and other reported Taliban accounts began to tweet disturbing details of the so-called “insider attacks”.
Though experts say neither group has been negatively affected by the year-long back-and-forth, both accounts have at times faltered in their responses to the incisive words of the other.
For ISAF, that moment came in the form of the October 5, 2012 overture to the @ABalkhi account:
@ abalkhi : ISAF has and always will support freedom of speech and of the press. In fact, we invite you to meet with us anytime.
— ISAF Joint Command (@IJC_Press) October 6, 2012
Taliban have always welcomed journalists to verify their claims however @ isafmedia & Co. have & are trying to silence free press.
— Abdulqahar Balkhi (@ABalkhi) October 6, 2012
In a phone conversation with Al Jazeera, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Spiegel, ISAF Joint Command chief of public affairs, characterised the invitation as lapsed judgement.
ISAF got “a little excited, a little carried away. We have no intention of meeting with him”, said Spiegel.
In recent months, the coalition has made an effort to distance themselves from the @ABalkhi account.
Calling the “lies” spread by Balkhi “upsetting”, Spiegel said: “We don’t want to give him anymore attention and we don’t want to respond to him anymore.”
Balkhi, who tweets almost exclusively in English, said social media is an ideal platform for educating “Afghans and the world on [Taliban] doctrine”.
But most people in the impoverished country do not have internet access, and Western intelligence analysts say appeals from Balkhi and his fellow Taliban netizens are probably falling on deaf ears.
The Taliban’s conservative, rural base is mostly made up of individuals “who have little or no interest in things like social media”, Owen said. Over the long-run, Twitter debates between the Taliban and ISAF will have “very little impact”, he said.
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye