#Reviewing Taliban Narratives

Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Thomas H. Johnson. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Taliban Narratives, by Professor Thomas Johnson, explores Taliban and U.S. communication cultures by analyzing narratives, propaganda, and stories between 2001-2011. Johnson decodes the Taliban’s master narrative, information operations, target audience, and their propaganda tools such as circulars, shabnamahs (night letters), internet accounts, graffiti, poetry, and chants, which he refers to as cultural artifacts. He argues the Taliban, unlike the U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, have culturally relevant information closer to the values held by the local population. Aiming at changing the emotions and perception of people, Taliban campaigns target rural Afghans by focusing on local issues.

The book draws heavily on culture to interpret and decode Taliban stories and information operations. This has led to what Mahmood Mamdani calls culture talk, as “predilection to define cultures according to their presumed essential characteristic, especially as regards politics.”[1] For instance, Johnson argues, “an insurgency is the product of its own culture, with the Taliban being very much part of the Afghan and especially Pashtun, culture.”[2] While the author subscribes to the definition of culture given by Franz Boas, the father of modern anthropology“the system of shared belief, values...artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another”he does not endorse the fact that Boas’ understanding of culture is pluralistic. Boas believed that, unlike race, culture does not have a fixed attribute. Johnson conflates Pashtunwali with a generalized Afghan culture and overlooks the multiplicity of values, culture, and subcultures in Afghanistan. It also locks Pashtuns in predetermined, fixed, and unchallenged tribal code. While doing so, the book has forcefully interpreted some policies of Taliban as being based on Pashtunwali, though they are not. For instance, the Taliban information operations examples on the issue of the searching of women for weapons or contraband has been interpreted within the Pashtun tribal code of conduct. But the rhetoric used in the specific leaflet Johnson cites does not refer to these codes; rather, the phrase "defiling our Muslim sisters" in their information operations refers to Islamic values.[3] However, this does not mean we should deny the Pashtunwali component of Taliban information operations.

After a theoretical discussion in chapter one, chapter two turns to an analysis of Taliban master narratives which Johnson categorizes into religious, cultural, and political concepts. Under the religious concepts used by Taliban, Johnson identifies six themes: jihad, Islamism, shaheed (martyrdom), shar’iah, and Islam. Johnson’s conceptualization of these themes is vague and intermingled at times. For instance, he does not make clear the difference between Islamism and Islam. In both these themes, Johnson argues the Taliban use the notion of Islam under threat to mobilize people. Unlike Johnson’s understanding, Islamism indicates an ideology that projects Islam as a socio-political system. He also conceives Taliban as a Deobandi movement that follows a Salafist egalitarian model. While it is correct the Taliban is Deobandi, it is problematic to call them Salafi. Salafis are the neo-fundamentalist movements mainly following Wahhabism.

In the cultural concepts, Johnson introduces five themes: Pashtunwali, pride and honor, resistance and independence, justice, and victimization. Similarly, two themes, nationalism and collective memory, are presented in political concepts. Again the main problem here is the concepts are not mutually exclusive. Nationalism is very much connected to the issue of collective memory and independence, for example, yet these are categorized separately. Chapter three distinguishes five different Taliban audiences and provides an analysis of the context, aim, and effectiveness/ineffectiveness of  Taliban messages. These five target audiences, according to Johnson, are the local but neutral population, local sympathizers, local people who are against them, the neighboring countries, and the international community. Chapter four provides a detailed bibliography of the magazines, circulars, and newsletters of the Taliban and Hizb Islami Gulbudin.

Chapter five, six, and seven look at the Taliban’s means of communication and propaganda. According to Johnson, shabnamah are simple, cost-effective, time-tested, traditional means of communication, deeply rooted in the history and society of Afghanistan. Their link to society is through the notion of folklore. It not only has a utilitarian usage, such as social control, intimidation, persuasion, and instruction of local people, but also has symbolic importance. It indicates the presence of Taliban in an area or testifies to their ability to immerse themselves within the community. While the chapter provides a narrative of different forms of shabnamah through textual analysis, it incorrectly takes it as a timeless and universal practice of Afghanistan’s culture. For instance, it does not tell us how the mujahideen use of shabnamah was different from that of Taliban.

Johnson’s study shows that modern communication technology enables direct communication without intermediaries who might moderate their messages.

Perhaps more successfully, Johnson shows how the Taliban adopted modern communication technology and skillfully used the internet, social networking pages, graffiti, and audio-visual methods to transmit their message to their Pakistani and Arab constituencies, as well as the international community. Regular web-based updates and multilingual communication have been characteristic of Taliban propaganda. Johnson argues, “Taliban messaging spectrum and narrative universe is finite, but their information tools are numerous.”[4] Johnson’s study shows that modern communication technology enables these  groups to establish direct communication with their audience without intermediaries who might moderate their messages.

The Taliban (Zee News Network)

Johnson makes an important distinction between the literary discourse in the West and Afghanistan. Johnson asserts that just, as literature has played a crucial role in developing Western thoughts, poetry has filled this role in Afghanistan. His notion that poetry plays a role in the political leadership in Afghanistan is novel. He notes that a lack of understanding of Afghanistan society and culture has been the main factor behind the West’s inability to understand how the Taliban uses cultural tools like poetry and chants. Johnson’s research identifies three broad themes in Taliban poetry: defense of the homeland from foreigners, defense of Islam against the crusaders, and appeal to personal gains such as honor and esteem. Furthermore, the author provides an analysis of Taliban policy on music and the importance of their differentiation between chants and music. Knowing how embedded poetry and chants are in the culture of Afghanistan, Johnson argues the Taliban use these tools specifically because of their cultural impacts. Comparatively, the government of Afghanistan and the countries involved in the mission of the International Security Assistance Force not only failed to employ these tools in their information operations efforts (if, indeed, they could have done so), but they also remained largely unaware of the importance of Taliban’s chants.

The  unique character of Taliban Narratives is the book’s analysis of the Taliban Layeha (code of conduct). Johnson not only provides interpretation of each article of code of conduct, but also provides a comparative analysis of the three codes of conduct from 2006, 2009, and 2010. Importantly, the author depicts the provincial organizational structure of Taliban based on signifiers mentioned in the Taliban Layeha. One other nuance of the book is that it does not paint all the terrorist groups in Afghanistan with the same brush. The author’s analysis of Hizb Islami Gulbuddin information operations and propaganda, and its differences from that of the Taliban, shows the depth of author’s knowledge of the insurgent groups, their techniques, and their motivations. While both Taliban and Hizb Islami Gulbuddin use the same tools and artifacts for their information operations, their operational strategies, goals, and methods of usage differ. Johnson argues the information campaigns of Hizb Islami Gulbuddin were more sophisticated and informed compared to those of the Taliban.

Johnson’s conclusions on the failure of the coalition forces, particularly the United States, to defeat the Taliban’s narrative echoes Joseph Nye’s argument that power is not just material distribution of resources but also the ability to co-opt and attract people. As “terrorists depend crucially on soft power for its ultimate victory,” the Taliban has been very effective in this battle of narratives.[5] Johnson characterizes the U.S. campaign as passive, ill-informed, problematic, and culturally insensitive or insufficient.[6] The U.S. campaigns failed to resonate with Afghans primarily because of the lack of information on culture, society, and politics of Afghanistan.[7] ]

It is important to note that Johnson confirms Islam is not a monolithic entity. On the contrary, he sees the Taliban as manifestation of “the bastardization of Islam.”[8] For Johnson, the Taliban represent a conflict within Islam rather than an exclusive clash between Islam and the West. However, the book does not touch upon how the West and the government of Afghanistan should use the indigenous, progressive, and moderate interpretation of Islam as information operations to counter Taliban narratives.

...the book is critical in analyzing the contemporary conflict in Afghanistan as it provides an in-depth perspective on the strategic culture and information operations of the Taliban

Taliban Narratives is valuable as it enriches our knowledge about the Taliban’s information operations, code of conduct, and communication strategies. At the same time, it is a good anthropological study of Pashtuns. Johnson frequently references Pashtunwali as a signifier to analyze the behavior of Taliban and draws on an extensive list of anthropological sources to do so. Out of thirty historical and anthropological books on Afghanistan in the bibliography of the book, almost half of them are anthropological studies on Pashtuns. Similarly, the book is critical in analyzing the contemporary conflict in Afghanistan as it provides an in-depth perspective on the strategic culture and information operations of the Taliban. It also implicitly presents a gap in the literature and hence potential areas for future research. These could include the strategic culture of Northern Alliance, particularly Ahmad Shah Massoud, who resisted the Taliban for almost six years, as well as the Post-Bonn Government of Afghanistan.

Omar Sadr is a Research Associate at the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. He has submitted his PhD thesis on ‘Negotiating Cultural Diversity in Afghanistan at South Asian University. His primary research interests are laid in the intersection of culture and politics.

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Header Image: In February 1980, mujahedin listen to the radio as they rest in the rocky, mountainous area of Afghanistan's Kunar province, near the Pakistani border. (Associated Press)


[1] Mamdani, Mahmood (2002), “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim”, p. 766

[2] Johnson, p. 15

[3] Johnson, p. 29

[4] Johnson, p. 104

[5] Nye, Joseph S (2004), Soft Power. p. 22

[6] Johnson, pp. 226-234

[7] Johnson, p. 229

[8] Johnson, p. 2