A U.S. official close to Mr. Holbrooke, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, said the envoy believed that the information war was broader than Deewa Radio, whose annual budget for 2009 is $3.2 million, including both programming and transmission costs. The station is broadcast on the shortwave band and from FM transmitters on the Afghanistan side of the border. The State Department has failed to persuade the Pakistani government to allow VOA to broadcast on an FM frequency inside Pakistan.
Only 11 FM radio stations are officially sanctioned for the North West Frontier Province. The Taliban, on the other hand, produces dozens of unsanctioned FM broadcasts from the backs of trucks and personal homes.
Deewa Radio broadcasts 6 hours a day between 6 p.m. and midnight. The mix of programming on the VOA station ranges from political call-in shows, news digests and poetry, a popular oral tradition among the Pashtun.
The Pashto service is overseen by Spozhmai Maiwandi, VOA division director for South Asia. Ms. Maiwandi helped get an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. That interview, broadcast by VOA’s English language service, sparked controversy and calls from some lawmakers for the VOA leadership to scrutinize more closely the Pashto service.
Ms. Maiwandi defended her decision, noting that she asked Mullah Omar at the time whether he was willing to let all Afghans suffer by continuing to harbor al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“That is VOA’s job,” she said. “We are here to give the news. We are here to give balanced, accurate, objective news. It is the only way to get credibility.”
Robert R. Reilly, VOA director from 2001 to 2002, said, however, that it is possible to cover the Taliban “without giving them a platform with which to speak.” Mr. Reilly gave a directive when he was in charge forbidding correspondents from giving terrorists airtime.
“The Voice of America was created as part of the war effort for World War II,” he said. “It should today be just as much a part of the war against terrorism. That does not mean we have to compromise journalistic standards, and it does not mean we produce propaganda. It is precisely because the Afghan and Pakistani people are subjected to propaganda from the Taliban that these efforts are so badly needed.”
Mr. Austin said that Deewa Radio should not be confused with what the military calls psychological operations or strategic communications.
“I was in Army Psyops in the Vietnam War,” he said. “I have some idea of what those capabilities are. But that is not VOA’s job. We believe that by being credible we can have an impact on our audiences.”