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Twitter is new battleground for NATO and Taliban in Afghanistan

By Nick Paton Walsh, CNN
updated 1:33 PM EST, Fri November 18, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NATO and Taliban are now arguing with each other through Twitter
  • Twitter exchanges part of growing information war in Afghanistan
  • Analysts wonder what NATO has to gain from Twitter dialogue with Taliban
  • Internet reaches very few people in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanitan (CNN) -- After a decade of lethal combat, NATO and the Taliban are now fighting over something else: the last word.

On Twitter, for months now, @ISAFmedia -- the press office for the coalition's International Security Assistance Force -- and @ABalkhi -- someone who tweets Taliban messages -- have been slugging it out. On Thursday the exchanges got personal, over claims NATO has Afghan mercenaries in its pay.

The Taliban affiliate, @ABalkhi, tweeted @ISAFmedia of the accusations: "@ISAFmedia - your officials admitted to it dumb dumb."

ISAF's twitterer replied: "@ABalkhi - Dumb dumb? How the dialogue elevates.

Look: Nobody takes you seriously. Everything you type is wrong. Just. Stop."

The Taliban affiliate replied: "@ISAFmedia - That's why they picked you for this job. If I wasnt here, you wouldnt have a job."

CNN approached @ABalkhi for comment and also asked NATO to discuss the nature of their tweets, but neither side wanted to talk about it on camera or show the face of their twitterer.

Some other contributors to the social media microblogging site have commented that these barbed exchanges are the closest NATO is right now to direct talks with the Taliban.

The Twitter exchanges are part of the growing information war in Afghanistan. NATO has long held that this is a war of perception and -- as U.S. domestic public opinion increasingly moves toward a swift drawdown -- the court of public opinion over who is winning or losing has never been more important.

While NATO has long had reporters and a TV channel to put out their own message, they seem keen to keep the upper hand with social media observers in Kabul -- a relatively small group of media, NGO researchers and diplomats who discuss issues over social media in a country where the internet reaches very few Afghans.

On Monday, after reports a Taliban spokesman was arrested, @ABalkhi and @ISAFmedia sniped over whether the detained man counted as a civilian.

The Taliban affiliate, citing a report of the arrest, said: "@ISAFmedia why are you capturing civilians?"

@ISAFmedia replied: "@ABalkhi So you're saying he was not a member of the Taliban? Is that what you want everyone to believe?"

After posting a series of U.N. definitions of civilians, the Taliban affiliate said: "@ISAFmedia - You know not everyone is paid to sit behind a desk all day to tweet. Everyone else has a life to tend to."

The tit-for-tat nature of the exchanges has raised eyebrows among some media analysts who wonder what NATO has to gain from engaging with the Taliban via Twitter.

Lotfullah Najafizada, head of current affairs at TOLOTV, one of Afghanistan's biggest TV networks, said: "I saw some of them [Thursday morning] and to be honest they were so funny and I was wondering why ISAF should reply."

"ISAF should not do such things as the Taliban may not consider all ethics of communications so it's good for ISAF to stay out of it and not to engage in such communications. It would be counter-productive for ISAF."

But it's not just about sniping. ISAF often uses Twitter to swiftly respond to what it sees as false claims by the Taliban about insurgent operational successes.

ISAF: "@ABalkhi Nope again. No ISAF helo shot down last night. Nice try".

ISAF: "@Pressistan Did. Not. Happen. @ABalkhi is truly the gift that keeps on giving."

After more than a decade of fighting, it's also a war of words online.

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