Having squandered earlier opportunities, the United States now faces a conundrum in Afghanistan, where neither staying nor going will likely produce a favorable outcome to its Afghanistan adventure. Most likely, America will soldier on in Afghanistan, following flawed strategies until some unexpected event or developing trend—such as American retreat from global leadership—causes Washington policymakers to conclude that America has done enough.
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.
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.
It is time that the United States and its allies plan for the long haul of supporting the Government of Afghanistan instead of remaining fixated on the immediate crisis at hand. For far too long the international community has tried and repeatedly failed to create a durable peace on a Western timeline. By dividing the insurgency into smaller manageable groups, pressuring amenable Afghan leaders, and aligning the win sets across all levels, the United States may eventually help the Government of Afghanistan bargain a tenable peace and achieve an honorable exit from its longest war.
The present center of gravity in Afghanistan is the Taliban subsystem of the greater Pashtun social system enabled by Pakistani elites. The insurgency is effectively wielding power to meet their independence and removal of foreign occupation objectives. Re-analyzing the critical factors and engaging the critical vulnerability of ineffective governance forces nonlinear change. Ineffective governance by all relevant actors is mitigated by transforming Afghanistan into a federal system of government with semi-autonomous areas. This includes political accommodation, ethnic nationalism, financial incentive structures, and power sharing.
More U.S. troops are likely headed back to Afghanistan soon, while the Trump Administration is also now considering withdrawal. Before either option—or anything in between—is considered, the U.S. needs to decide what version of victory it wants before it can decide on a strategy, but debates often consider strategies in isolation, and this is a mistake. Strategies must be judged relative to the realistic alternatives.
Defeating the enemy’s ability to organize and operate is fundamental to pacification. During the War on Terror and the Vietnam War, complex enemy organizations posed a serious challenge to the United States. Highlighting difficulties in pacification for both the Republic of Vietnam and the United States during the Vietnam War in Southeast Asia serves as a lesson underscoring the limits of American power to defeat clandestine networks.
Lemar Farhad recently wrote on the relationship of the Pakistani government and the Taliban in “Why Peace with the Taliban Is a Bad Idea”. In it he highlighted specific reasons why Pakistan has been aiding the Taliban against the current U.S. and NATO backed government in Afghanistan. This duplicitous stance by the Pakistan government, which is also our ally in the Global War on Terror, makes the goal of actually defeating the Taliban likely unattainable.
In a recent article for The Bridge, it was proposed that negotiating with the Taliban is not only morally reprehensible but also a fool’s errand as the movement is a proxy force of Pakistan. So long as Pakistan supports the Taliban, it was argued, a conclusion to the War in Afghanistan will remain elusive; the Taliban will be militarily neutralized only when Pakistan removes its support.
In the fall of 2010 in Kunar, as the more active period of fighting subsided, we began to take a second look at the day-to-day intelligence reports we had amassed in an attempt to better understand the enemy. We had a lot of material to sift through, as there were a number of intelligence teams operating in the area. As you might be able to tell from the picture above, we tried to have a little fun with the process as well.