Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Thomas H. Johnson. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.
In Taliban Narratives, Professor Thomas Johnson critically assesses the information operations of the Taliban through a wide-ranging evaluation of their collected works. Over the course of a week spent reading this book I found myself reviewing Shabnamah (night letters), reading excerpts from Taliban magazines and newsletters, learning about the Taliban's extensive use of radio stations, reflecting on Taliban poetry, and, of course, catching up on the Taliban’s social media and internet activities. The scale of the their effort is striking and approaches that of a state in many ways, yet does so with the basic craft of storytelling that resonates with their audience.
The American-led effort in Afghanistan has, it would appear, lost the battle of the narrative. What Johnson provides here is an important post-mortem on the still living corpse of this conflict. Taking that pulse, this book has true utility, and Johnson lays out the core Taliban messages, which are easier to recall than those of the United States. Therein lies both the crux of the problem and its practical demonstration: the Taliban can articulate why they fight in a way that resonates with Afghans, and the West can not.
What is it that the Taliban want? They want foreign forces driven out of Afghanistan and the establishment of Sharia law. It is no more complicated than that. While the goals are simple, though, Johnson argues the Taliban has created a complex story that resonates deeply with rural Pashtuns and goes far beyond the simple ends of removing foreigners and returning to Islamic rule. Part of the problem in countering this narrative is that it is grounded in historical precedence. Additionally the West’s narrative—creating a democratic and pluralistic society—is wholly aspirational. Afghans have repeatedly driven out foreign invaders. They long lived under Islamic rule. They have never been what America seeks to make them, and perhaps they never will be. For the average rural Afghan, it makes little difference if there is a central government in Kabul or if the Taliban are ruling the country. Life for them does not change.
There are three basic advantages the Taliban has over the United States when it comes to controlling narratives: religion, language, and history. Together, these provide an insurmountable cultural barrier.
Taliban narratives are imbued with the authority of religion, a topic about which the United States cannot speak and cannot leverage with any authority. Johnson demonstrates this throughout the text, both in the simplicity and strength of the Taliban messages and the resounding failures of the West.
The Taliban have a capacity for language the United States cannot match. Fielding Afghan-American translators and advisors across the force—trusted agents who risked their very lives in an effort to help their native and adopted countries—walked America into unforeseen pitfalls. America relied on expats, Afghans who had long since left their homeland and who were themselves religiously, linguistically, and historically separated from the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Even as the war approaches the end of its second decade, the United States still cannot field officers fluent in Pashto or Dari—complex languages that take years to learn and decades to master—in sufficient numbers to make a difference.
We need not recount the repeated failures of the British in Afghanistan, nor bask in the glow of the Soviet defeat to see that Afghans are subject to deeply held skepticism about foreigners.
Finally, the Taliban has the weight of history and the power of living memory on their side. We need not recount the repeated failures of the British in Afghanistan, nor bask in the glow of the Soviet defeat to see that Afghans are subject to deeply held skepticism about foreigners. Few Afghans today understand the events of September 11th, 2001, yet one would be hard pressed to find an Afghan who cannot recount with great pride the defeat of the British and the Soviets. History is as important in what Afghans do not remember as it is in what they do, and here is where America’s aspirational narratives fall short. There are perhaps a handful of Afghans old enough to recall what a functioning Afghan state looked like, but every Afghan alive has seen war and been taught of their historical success defeating foreigners and the religious obligation to support their Muslim brothers.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was a student of Thomas Johnson at the Naval Postgraduate School from 2010-2012. I subsequently spent three years plying my trade in Afghanistan, two of those years of my life were spent in the Strategic Communications division of the International Security Assistance Force, and later Operation Resolute Support, where I assisted in perpetuating the failures Johnson highlights. I knew at the time we were failing and struggled with the problem at hand. Even then, synchronizing the coalition’s messages with those of the Afghan government proved a monumental task in and of itself.
The inability of the U.S.-led effort to win the battle of the narrative with the Taliban is unsurprising. What is surprising, from afar, is the inability of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to effectively counter the Taliban narratives. It is not as surprising when seen up close, though, for much of the government is comprised of Afghans who fled the turmoil of conflict only to return with western education and exposure to democratic processes. These Afghans were natural and easy partners for the Americans, but just as easily disliked, and often distrusted, by their Afghan constituents. Johnson’s work would be strengthened had he spent more time assessing the barriers to communication between the new Government of Afghanistan and its citizens.
He may well be right, but we should also ask: Was it ever the West’s war to win?
Johnson closes by stating the West has lost “...the battle of the story in Afghanistan, and therefore, the war.” He may well be right, but we should also ask: Was it ever the West’s war to win? If Johnson is right, if the West has lost the war in Afghanistan, does it also mean the Afghans cannot win it? What remains to be seen is what narrative will be assigned to the conclusion of this conflict. Will the Americans be added the roster of defeated great powers for some future mujahideen to recite or fill some other role in an Afghan story yet to be told?
Johnson has done the community of interest a great service in writing this book. A work conceived over the course of a decade is no small feat and it has no rival in the body of research on the conflict. There is a spectrum of work to help us approach an understanding of Afghanistan. We may begin with Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game to understand the impacts of empire and geography on Afghanistan, then read David Edwards’ Heroes of the Age and learn to view actors through the lens of honor, Islam, and rule. Johnson’s book, however, takes us one step closer to understanding the stories and narratives developed in these other texts and, importantly, how they relate to the present conflict.
Students of the Afghan conflict, information operations officers, public affairs professionals, diplomats, relief workers, and those working in the intelligence and psychological operations arenas would all be well served to have this reference close at hand. One can only hope the failures Johnson cites are not repeated, and, if the war cannot be won by the West, perhaps this book can help the Afghans find an honorable and enduring conclusion.
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Header Image: Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan. (Allauddin Khan/AP Photo)
 Thomas H. Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 284.