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Feature: The Radio War in Afghanistan

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America's new so-called "war on terrorism" has some interesting radio wrinkles running through it. In fact, "pirate radio" may play a role in the outcome of the current action in Afghanistan.

To tell the truth, since the Taliban took control of the country in 1996, what media there was in Afghanistan was all but destroyed. As part of its rigid imposition of ultra-strict religious law, the Taliban went on a seek-and-destroy mission against all television sets in the country; turned the country's central TV station into a military boarding house; and established dominance over all radio outlets.

More than a dozen radio stations are active in Afghanistan, all part of the Taliban-controlled "Voice of Shari'ah" (Islamic Law) network, broadcasting mostly on AM and shortwave.

Voice of Shari'ah radio station before U.S. missile attackIt shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, that the radio voice of the Taliban was one of the first targets hit when America began dropping bombs.

Some of the first damage photos released from a U.S. cruise missile attack on October 8, 2001 were those from the Voice of Shari'ah facilities in the capital city of Kabul. It was considered to be a target of importance because it's the radio outlet of the Taliban regime. International law, however, prohibits the destruction of civilian radio stations.

The actual attack played itself out on the air; a listener in Japan actually recorded the U.S. jamming the Voice of Shari'ah's shortwave signal, which immediately preceded the attack. About 40 seconds after the jamming stops, the programming immediately ceases (missile one) and then the station goes off the air (missile two).

Voice of Shari'ah radio station after U.S. missile attackWith the Taliban's main link of speaking with the Afghan people gone, the United States has moved in its own "pirate" station - and, like the bomb attacks, it will be broadcasting from the air.

With the Taliban's radio outlets all but gone, U.S. military forces are setting up shop on Afghanistan's airwaves with their own $70 million "pirate" radio station.

A specially-modified C-130 aircraft named "Commando Solo" is flown by a unit of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. It has been making regular flights and broadcasting a few hours of pro-American and anti-Taliban propaganda mixed with music, primarily on shortwave frequencies, every day since the Voice of Shari'ah was bombed off the air.

Commando Solo propaganda aircraft, courtesy of the U.S. militaryThe plane is essentially a flying radio and television station, able to broadcast on all bands, in all modes, at any time, from anywhere. In order to get the message to Afghans that the airborne propaganda platform is on the air leaflets are being dropped telling the populace to listen in. There are also reports that special wind-up radios tuned to a single frequency are part of the "aid packages" the U.S. Military has sprinkled throughout the country.

Even with the military media machine gearing up, Afghans themselves are beginning to speak out on their own frequencies. At least one FM and one TV station are on the air already, and plans are in the works for a crude radio network from the Taliban's main opposition, the Northern Alliance.

The FM station on the air is called Radio Sol and was founded with the help of the French free-speech group Droit de Parole (Right to Speak). The station was originally intended to broadcast information about women's issues, but its three hours of programming a day since the bombing have become more specifically anti-Taliban in nature. Radio Sol covers an approximately 30km (20 mi) square area of Afghanistan's Parvan province.

Additionally, the Northern Alliance itself is currently working to establish a network of AM and FM radio stations throughout the country. With the help of several groups in Europe, satellite-fed transmitters are being scattered about Afghanistan and programming will be uplinked to them from a portable studio on the front lines of the ongoing civil war. Plans also include a streaming audio component.

And even though television sets may be taboo to the Taliban, broadcasters in Faizabad, the capital of the most remote province of Afghanistan, have remained on the air for 14 straight years running. Originally established in 1987 and independent since 1992, Faizabad TV is on the air for two to four hours every day - provided there's enough power.

The fact that Faizabad TV has survived under the Taliban is nothing short of remarkable - but with only 10 watts and a potential audience of less than 60,000 (in a country of 16 million), the ruling regime might just consider its existence symbolic, if nothing else.

This has left radio as the only means of mass communication in Afghanistan. As the battle over the hearts and minds of its citizens goes on, this is where the action will be.