IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Pentagon radio targets tribal belt

The United States is planning to deploy satellite radios along the Pakistani-Afghan border in an effort to win the hearts and minds of villagers influenced by extremist views. MSNBC’s Preston Mendenhall reports.
/ Source:

Frustrated by deeply rooted anti-U.S. sentiment in regions along the Pakistani-Afghan border, the United States is planning to deploy thousands of specially manufactured satellite radios in an effort to win the hearts and minds of villagers influenced by extremist views and supportive of Afghanistan’s fallen Taliban regime, a senior Pentagon official told

SINCE THE U.S. campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida began, tribes along the 1,500-mile frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan have proven a constant irritant to Washington as it negotiates a war bordered by a land of complicated alliances and age-old hostilities.

Winning tribal trust in areas where the Taliban has its roots is crucial to U.S. efforts to stamp out Afghanistan’s terrorist havens, especially after reports of al-Qaida fighters — and possibly Osama bin Laden himself — taking refuge in the area.

Along with missiles dropped on al-Qaida hideouts, U.S. planes have bombarded Afghanistan with pro-U.S. radio broadcasts, leaflets and food packages aimed at swaying Afghans loyal to the Taliban — or those wary of a foreign presence in the country.

That campaign has met with limited success, in some cases increasing local suspicions of the United States. So the Pentagon is employing a new tool in its information war: the World Space Digital Receiver, a Space Age device that the Bush administration and U.S. military strategists view as a longer-term solution to problems in the border region.

The new radio picks up over 300 stations, or channels, beamed down from two satellites orbiting Earth.

Gen. Simon Worden, director of the Department of Defense’s Office of Strategic Influence, said in an interview with that the Pentagon realized some of its other attempts to reach local populations were seen as heavy-handed U.S. propaganda in areas largely cut off from the outside world.


“We asked ourselves, how do you get to people who are being propagandized” by religious leaders, local tradition and lingering pro-Taliban views?

The answer, according to Worden, lies in giving “access to many different sources of news and information,” rather than just the Pentagon’s message.

InsertArt(2009204)Washington will foot the bill for several thousand World Space Digital Receivers, which cost about $80 each, and enlist the Pakistani government to distribute them to remote villages, mosques and Pakistani religious schools, or madrassas, traditionally hotbeds of Islamic extremism and much of the theory behind the Taliban movement.

“The United States ignored this region for a long time,” Worden said. “Getting information and education into tribal areas will go a long way.”

Worden was in Pakistan over the weekend to meet with government officials and secure support for the project, which the Pentagon plans to “jump start” and then hand off to the Pakistani government and international relief organizations, Worden said.

According to the Pentagon plan, the Pakistani government will use U.S. funding to produce educational programs, or classroom radio, on several channels. By providing villages with a link to the outside world, the United States hopes to balance some of the radical views passed down by local religious leaders and madrassa teachers.


Radio penetration is high in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where few can afford television. Television was banned under the Taliban, and millions in both countries listen to local-language broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Voice of America. The Pentagon feels the World Space Digital Receiver will develop a similar following when a range of educational programs is beamed down to remote areas, Worden said. The specially manufactured radios can also be powered by a small solar panel, saving listeners the cost of replacement batteries.

In many parts of the border region, madrassas are the only education available to poor populations, which are largely illiterate. Instruction is offered for free, but classes center mainly around memorizing long passages of the Koran, with almost no emphasis on subjects that encourage dialogue or political discourse. Many of the Taliban leadership studied in Pakistani madrassas.

Worden said it was “no coincidence” that the program comes on the heels of a Saturday speech by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf that signaled a turning point in the government’s tolerance of Islamic extremism and organizations linked to terrorist activities. In his speech, Musharraf announced a plan to reform madrassas by introducing a government-approved syllabus. Those that refuse will be closed. The educational programs provided on the Pentagon-sponsored radios would be a first step toward bringing thousands of madrassas in line with the government’s demands — and the Pentagon’s desire to dilute anti-U.S. sentiment.

InsertArt(2009207)Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Musharraf has detained and arrested hundreds of militants and leaders of Pakistan’s Islamic political parties, which espouse hatred toward the United States. The Pakistani president has also cracked down on militant groups staging terror attacks on Indian troops in Kashmir — the disputed border region between India and Pakistan. Madrassas have often served as a breeding ground for such militants.


Wary of villagers associating Washington with the radio programs, the Pentagon plans to distribute the radios through Pakistan’s ministry of education. Worden said competing with the madrassas and penetrating a region with deep suspicions of the outside world will be no easy task.

“It’s not like the Gulf War, where there were regular lines and the enemy was entrenched,” Worden said. “Here there are no frontlines.”

The U.S. military’s propaganda war over Afghanistan began almost simultaneously with the air war. But some attempts to influence Afghans have proved clumsy. One recent leaflet portrayed bin Laden without a beard and dressed in a business suit, suggesting that the Saudi terror mastermind was living in the West. Pentagon officials, however, say they have no idea where bin Laden is hiding.

By distancing itself from the distribution of the radios and the production of programs, the Pentagon hopes to avoid future embarrassments.

With access to a variety of programs on the World Space radio, “these people can draw conclusions themselves,” Worden said. “They are not stupid. Just because many of them cannot read, they are not stupid.”

After penetrating the border regions, Worden said the Pentagon is drawing up plans for a full deployment of World Space radios into Afghanistan.’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Pakistan.