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Looming over a potholed Kabul street is a giant billboard showing horsemen in tribal dress galloping across a vast plain at sunset and waving an Afghan flag. Sharing the same poster is an image of modern soldiers silhouetted against a sky bathed in the national colours of red, green and black. The message is clear to any local, the Dari and Pashtu text beneath almost redundant: the Afghan National Army (ANA) is carrying on the brave warrior ­traditions of Afghanistan. And you should respect them for this reason.

Whether it will convince the locals is another matter. As the war in Afghanistan rolls into its ninth year, with a seemingly unstoppable insurgency and rampant corruption and drugs production, the message of national pride is not an easy sell.

Yet social marketing – using television, radio and print advertising – is booming in Afghanistan as the counter-insurgency strategy focuses on winning over the civilian population (while crushing the insurgents with military might). It’s big business too, with one Nato source calculating that its mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has an annual €17m budget to market its anti-drugs and anti-terrorism messages. Other parties, such as the US army and some foreign embassies, have also commissioned local agencies to carry out their own marketing projects.

Most of the PR and advertising relies solely on images as over 70 per cent of the population is illiterate. A growing band of local media and advertising agencies are being recruited to devise campaigns using everything from kites decorated with anti-poppy motifs to comic books spreading the concept of good governance.

Sitting in his office in the upscale Wazir Akhbar Khan neighbourhood of Kabul, Saad Mohseni, chairman of the Moby Group, argues that the country needs to take charge of its own fate. And these advertisements, he says, aim to create that sense of ownership and responsibility. “It shouldn’t be all about the international community,” he says.

Mohseni’s Lapis agency is trying to further the ANA brand as an inclusive, truly national one. The army is currently dominated by troops with a Tajik background, thus feeding resentment from the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, and hampering recruitment in the south and east of the country where they are concentrated. While never using the term Pashtun, the Lapis ads use excerpts from the Pashtunwalli, the tribal code of conduct, to reinforce the subtle message that not only does the army welcome those from the Pashtu ethnicity but also shares their ancient warrior values.

“We are trying to connect to people in an incredibly culturally relevant way,” says Ali Bettencourt, director of communications for the US Combined Joint Task Force in eastern Afghanistan, which is funding the $3.6m campaign.

Alongside the ANA campaign is one entitled “The Future Is In Your Hands” featuring hands holding chalk, stalks of wheat or a finger daubed in ink to signify casting a vote. Another strand presents the image of a baby with a tag-line “Massoud Sanjeer: suicide bomber. Or doctor?”

“The idea that a child could become a terrorist or a doctor – this is a very powerful message, especially in a country not certain of its future,” says Mohseni. “We live in denial here and have done so for a long time. Violence makes you not think about the future.”

“You have to be very careful about what message you are sending and to whom,” says Mustafa Babak, the sharply dressed 27-year-old country director of Sayara, another of the new crop of home-grown Kabul media agencies. “Branding is a main part of strategic communication anywhere, but it’s a bit different in Afghanistan.”

In Sayara’s office, a three-storey townhouse with its own video suite and recording studio, relics of past campaigns such as anti-poppy clocks and posters advertising election theatre workshops share space with traditional carved Afghan furniture and rugs. Sipping green tea, Babak – who like many of those involved in Afghanistan’s creative industries grew up in Pakistan and only returned after the fall of the Taliban – explains the importance of highly localised messages in a country so geographically splintered and ethnically diverse.

Sayara’s test groups take in everyone from teachers and illiterate farmers to street peddlers and children and separate women-only focus groups.

In past anti-narcotics campaigns, Sayara has been at pains to focus on regional differences. To combat poppy farming in Helmand, for instance, the agency pushed the idea of sowing cotton, for which the southern province used to be famous. In Kandahar, pomegranate growing was promoted over poppy, and in Nangahar, orange and olive farming.

But in a country that still supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium, Babak says that the counter-narcotics communications strategy remains stuck at the awareness-raising phase.

“In 2004 people didn’t care whether growing poppy was against the law or religion,” says Babak. “In 2008, people knew it was against the law and religion but felt they had no other option.” The situation has not noticeably improved.

“The message is that if you grow poppy you will go to jail – but no one is jailed,” he adds, emphasising that social marketing is not enough to change behaviour. “Communications campaigns are very much linked to implementation.” Mohseni is more blunt. “If you can’t match words with deeds,” he says, “some campaigns are a waste of money.”

Uncle Rescue

Of all the unlikely counter-insurgency schemes dreamt up by the coalition forces, Kaka Nijat – roughly translated as “Uncle Rescue” – must be among the most charmingly bizarre.

The kindly, bearded 72-year-old was the face of a hugely popular TV campaign last year, in which he warned children of the dangers of playing with unexploded ordnance and personally intervened to prevent the recruitment of suicide bombers.

In dozens of TV advertisements, all funded by ISAF, he appeared in a puff of smoke to argue with potential terrorists. His killer lines included: “Don’t touch!” and “Stupid! By killing civilians, you will never go to Paradise!” – catchphrases quickly taken up by the children in the streets of Kabul.

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