Images scroll across the computer screen: crowds lining the streets of Wootton Bassett, coffins draped with the Union Jack and the faces of British soldiers killed last week in Helmand. Above them a banner reads Voice of Jihad and a ticker tape entitled Hot News announces a stream of alleged military successes. This is the website of the Taliban, infamous for their wholesale rejection of modernity, who have banned television and the internet. Yet since 2006, the Taliban have been harnessing that same despised technology in an escalating campaign of propaganda against which Nato appears to have no effective answer. Huge resources are now being committed to catching up. Natos new communications directorate opened in Kabul this year and employs 120 staff. Information is everything. This is a war of perception played out in the minds of the Afghan people, says. Rear-Admiral Greg Smith, the foremost communications expert in the US Navy. His arrival in Kabul in May was the latest acknowledgement that in the front rooms of the West and the villages of Afghanistan, Nato has failed to win the argument. In the border regions of Pakistan the enemy is also hard at work. Ustad (Master) Muhammad Yassir is the Talibans chief spin doctor. As well as internet sites, the Taliban produce magazines, dozens of DVDs of attacks and hundreds of different Taliban song cassettes mournful chants promoting Taliban heroes and martyrs. There are even downloadable Taliban mobile phone ringtones. On the ground in southern Afghanistan, Taliban fighters leave night letters in villages and wandering preachers propagate the Taliban message. So successful have the militants become at propaganda that many analysts doubt that the group could have achieved the transformation alone. Joanna Nathan, an analyst at International Crisis Group, blames outside assistance from the media-savvy al-Qaeda. Taliban spin doctors, usually working under the noms de guerre Qari Yousuf Ahmadi or Zabiullah Mujahid, ring news organisations daily with reports of attacks, often making demonstrably exaggerated claims of Western casualties. The Taliban blow stuff up to create an event that they can then market to the media and that will shape public perceptions, Admiral Smith says. This is particularly true of spectacular assaults in Kabul, such as the one that killed five UN workers last week. The Taliban have embedded communications at the very heart of their operations, with terror attacks and assassinations having a psychological impact far beyond the immediate victims both in Afghanistan and around the world, Ms Nathan says. That is the nature of insurgency not winning battles, but seeking to portray omnipresence and a determination to stay the course. Admiral Smith acknowledges that Nato has in the past been flatfooted, while its television advertisements and newspapers have been only marginally effective in a largely illiterate society with little electricity. The Wests credibility has also been battered by instances of Nato denying high civilian death tolls that were subsequently proved correct. Last year, Nato ridiculed claims that up to 90 civilians had died in a US-led operation in Farah province, admitting to a toll of five dead. It was forced to backtrack after The Times and other media obtained mobile phone footage of dozens of dead men, women and children. While statistical assessments suggest that Western forces kill far fewer Afghan civilians than the Taliban, Admiral Smith acknowledges that the public believes the opposite and tends to blame Nato even for Taliban attacks. There is a perception that since we are responsible for security, if the Taliban kill people we are still responsible for that, though people may curse the Taliban. An overestimate of the capabilities of Western weapons systems to see everything means that people who die in the crossfire are often deemed to have been targeted deliberately by callous Western soldiers. Since June, the new Nato commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has pushed a concerted public relations campaign highlighting unprecedented strictures on the use of firepower by Western forces. Nato information operations, meanwhile, are increasingly seeking to rely on the same traditional networks of respected tribal figures and clerics used by the Taliban. Admiral Smith cites recent riots sparked by reports that US troops had burnt a copy of the Koran. The rioting subsided after local clerics agreed to refute the claims. Reaching out to such figures is not easy. The Taliban have killed large numbers of clerics and tribal elders regarded as pro-government. Antonio Guistozzi, an Afghan expert at the London School of Economics, points out that the Taliban have wisely not sought to offer an alternative vision. Their strategy is simply to undermine the Wests efforts, he says. (The Times)