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“Wars today cannot be won without media”. Book Review – Thomas Johnson’s “Taliban Narratives”

October 17, 2018

“Wars today cannot be won without media”

Summary: Thomas Johnson’s overview of the way in which the Taliban communicate to advance their cause is an excellent and essential reference work.  Johnson explores in depth the Taliban’s exploitation of diverse media, both traditional and modern.  Poetry, letters, social media and radio, amongst others are employed to play intelligently to a range of local, national and international audiences.

Review: Taliban Narratives – Thomas Johnson

I read the book early in the year (I scooped it up via Amazon along with Theo Farrell’s “Unwinnable” and Steve Coll’s “Directorate S”, which gives a clue to the importance of the subject in my small universe) and have been using it professionally since then.  Thomas Johnson has been researching in Afghanistan since the mid-1980s.  He brought this expertise into play in helping to formulate the early US propaganda messages from 2001 and conducted extensive field research in-country from 2004 – 2011.

Johnson’s work is an in-depth review of the way in which the Taliban use narrative through increasingly varied media to explain and advance their cause.  He also examines and contrasts the progress of the propaganda war from US-led Coalition and Taliban perspectives.  He judges that the international community always struggled to understand the Taliban and scrambled to develop a coherent propaganda response to the themes and stories that the Taliban employed and that naturally resonated with the Taliban’s core target audience, the Pushtuns on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border.

The Taliban recognise that “Wars today cannot be won without media”.  The narratives they use contain strong echoes of their values and beliefs – through their letters, statements and poems, there are coherent rhetorical devices and metaphor.  The use of repetition is important – narratives and stories are continually returned to on the basis that they are more effective that way.  Taliban information operations exploit culture (for example Pushtunwali, the Pushtun tribal customs) and history (success in repelling invaders).  Johnson asserts that Taliban information strategies are “virtually impossible” for the West to counter because the West does not have the sensitivity to the poetic nature of dialects, lacks linguistic skills and does not understand what resonates with the population.

An insurgency is a product of its own culture

Johnson argues that Taliban information operations are very effective because it is indigenous and relies on traditional tools – shabnamah (night letters), tarana (chants) and poems – that are deeply rooted in Pushtun culture.  These approaches are critical to our understanding of how the Taliban recruit.  The Taliban take aim at three different Afghan identities: religious, cultural and political.  Although the message themes are relatively simple (Pushtunwali, honour, justice, victimisation, independence, resistance) they have been enhanced from around 2005 by an increasing variety of delivery mechanisms available given developing technology and the situation on the ground: print, radio, spokesmen, testing, social media, websites, graffiti, videos, preachers, sermons, poetry, presence patrols and pattak (ad hoc checkpoints).  Most of the Taliban messaging focus and impact is at the rural/village/local level, recognising three distinct audiences, neutral, sympathetic and opposing.  Where most analysts now appear to overly focus on the Taliban’s use of social media and the internet, Johnson very helpfully guides us down less travelled – but equally important – messaging processes:

“Poetry has an exceptional place within Afghan culture and society, and the Taliban play on this fact.  Condensing deep thoughts and emotions within just a few words, and expressing them with elegance and flow, has meant that a Taliban poem can be used as a communication device…It is important to understand and appreciate why poetry occupies such a significant space in the psyche of the Afghan…a huge role in communicating thoughts and ideas from person to person…the Taliban uses poetry to communicate the legitimacy of their actions, and to sanctify the ongoing insurgency.” (p.140-141)

Johnson’s individual chapters break down into broad and deep coverage of different media types: magazines, circulars and newsletters (chapter 4), night letters (chapter 5), internet, video, radio and graffiti (chapter 6), poetry and chants (chapter 7), the Layeha, or code of conduct (chapter 8).  Interestingly, Johnson convincingly refutes the notion of the Taliban as backward and anti-modernity, by highlighting the Taliban as “pioneers” in the use of Facebook and Twitter, where the Afghan government was largely absent on this new electronic media battlefield.

Battle of propaganda campaigns: Chapter 10

Johnson offers an insightful “compare and contrast” discussion, looking at the performance of both Taliban and US propaganda campaigns since 2001.  He argues that the international community had problems defining the parameters of the conflict from the word go and struggled to put together an information operations campaign.  Crude early propaganda leaflets were toxic to the local population who knew the dangers of being seen handling one.  Early images of the 9/11 attack in the US were simply not understood by the population.  The 2003 attack on Iraq took resources away from the media effort.  By 2007 a revamp of the “master narrative” tried to emphasise “in it for the long haul”, the comprehensive approach and the destruction and criminality linked to the Taliban.  This narrative failed to resonate.

Stalemate is a victory for most insurgencies.  For the Taliban’s part, they need to remain credibly in the field and at least be tolerated by the population.  Johnson suggests the challenge for the US is still to defeat the Taliban’s narrative as much as their military capacity on the battlefield.

Analytical diversion – What is “effective” propaganda?

I still struggle to understand what “effective” means where it comes to the use of propaganda.  When I first wrote on the subject, in 2007, I think I made an early tactical mistake when I judged that the Taliban messaging techniques were “only partially effective”, citing their crude home-grown methods, the contradictions and lack of strategic reach.  I spent the next few years realising that I didn’t know what “effective” actually meant.

What is effective Taliban propaganda?  How do you measure it?  Are the Taliban effective at messaging because the Taliban still manage to convince people to fight for them?  Or are they not so effective because they have not rallied the population to their banner – they have not achieved the popular jihad of the 1980s.  The population, by most measures, do not support the Taliban and their interpretations of Islam.

The international community have their own problems – I remember reading the open source bulletin board in the ISAF HQ in mid-2006.  There was an account of early British “hearts and minds” operations in Helmand which involved showing a film of dolphins in the ocean to a gathering of gnarled village elders who didn’t even know what the ocean was, let alone recognise a dolphin.

But I was struck by how readily the ISAF analytical and military community were keen to tell everyone that would listen that ”…of course the Taliban have a much more sophisticated IO system than us”…

This aroused my curiosity – my limited studies suggested to me that the Taliban were not superhuman in this department and were regularly incoherent, uncoordinated and lacking in a strategy.  The Taliban approach to bad news always seemed to be to denounce, deny or deflect.  It seemed that westerners declared the Taliban “effective” primarily because the Taliban were able to say lots of things very quickly and on a variety of “modern” means.  There was less attention applied to the content of the messaging.

Fast forward to 2011 and another tour in the ISAF headquarters.  One brainstorming group of analysts was gamely grappling with the narrative complexities of Afghan culture – what is the most effectively insulting way of describing the Taliban that would clearly resonate with the population?  From fading memory, the word being mulled over was “wolves”.

In one briefing, the dilemmas of western military personnel countering Taliban propaganda was made clear in this crudely summarised (and poorly remembered) exchange:

Junior officer: Sir, in village x, of y district we received reports yesterday that the Taliban had made two night letter drops.

Senior officer: Ok, so what has our response been?

Junior officer: Sir, within 24 hours we had performed our own ISAF leaflet drop, sent out two presence patrols and put out three local radio broadcasts covering the village area.

Senior officer: Excellent, well done.  Next slide please.

Please don’t quote this, because this conversation absolutely didn’t happen this way – I have fudged and blurred it around to the point of being barely apocryphal.  But this was the overall impression I came away with from the ISAF approach – it was about stats and numbers.  Leaflets, plus a presence patrol plus a radio broadcast defeats a Taliban night letter.  A lot of information operations “stuff” was being done, in the same way your work expands to fill the desk space available.

I got a chance to address some of the analytical community on the issue of propaganda effectiveness.  So, not from memory this time, because I actually wrote it down, I summarised the problem to ISAF thus:

If you cannot measure the Taliban’s messaging actions, content and methods, you cannot know how effective the Taliban’s messaging is.  Therefore you do not know which types of Taliban messages you urgently need to counter, those messages you can ignore and those messages that you could even encourage.

Even though I demonstrably struggle to understand the effectiveness of Taliban narratives, my sense is that the Taliban’s narratives may slowly become redundant unless they can evolve – the Afghan population are getting younger and have a wider understanding of the rest of the world – internet, smart phones, social media assist this.  They have greater expectations about what a government could and should do for them.  The Taliban’s language still seem stuck in war, resistance, total obedience and a crude “war economy” in districts that they can dominate.  That may be fine to ensure an annual quota of uneducated, poor and unemployed Pushtun youths to come and fight for them.  But at some point they need to evolve – perhaps opening their narratives to include reconstruction, the economy, unemployment, governance, popular consent.  But evolution does not mean using a new social media system, it means deeper and broader, strategic and future-looking thinking.  Perhaps we should be asking them other questions – political, social, economic, cultural – and compel them to come up with new narratives as they answer these questions.

Conclusion – would like to see more of…

Johnson’s book is one of the most important reference works we have on the issue of the Taliban’s use of narrative.  It is a crucial subject that is woefully understudied.  It is not simply a review of the Taliban’s use of the internet, radio, social media and night letters.  It takes in the Taliban’s employment of stories from Afghan history and critically pursues the understanding of the Taliban that we can gain through an exploration of the narratives they use and the impact it can have.  The book will be crying out for a updated edition or two in a few years, as the Taliban – and the situation in Afghanistan – evolves.  I had the slight sense, reading through, that the bulk of Johnson’s case studies of Taliban narratives peak at around 2008-2010 – he seems to offer fewer examples of Taliban propaganda and messaging after this period.

I have some questions for that next edition:

  • I would like to hear more about how the Taliban confronted the NATO withdrawal narrative in the run-up to the December 2014 departure and afterwards. Amongst which, the implications that the battle was going to be more about “Muslim killing Muslim” in the future.
  • How do the Taliban now approach the issue of leadership death/changeover from a media perspective?
  • Any evidence that the Taliban are analysing how best to address peace talks in their narratives? Any lessons learnt from the summer 2018 3 day ceasefire – did this cause problems for the Taliban messaging machine?
  • Is it fair to assert that both sides now have drifted into a rut of tired and unimaginative propaganda?  The Taliban Twitter feed is routinely a list of people they have blown up.  Are there any new initiatives and methods merging?
  • Have the Taliban struggled to maintain the historic/cultural/poetry narrative front? It seems that the type of young Taliban fighter – and even mid-level commanders – now fighting may not have the same attachment to Afghan history as before.
  • Following from the last question – night letters – how has this evolved? I recently (this year) read that the Taliban state that they do not really use them so much any more.  Is it becoming less effective – overtaken by smart phones and social media?
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One Comment leave one →
  1. sues57 permalink
    October 17, 2018 6:02 pm

    OH WOW!! EXCELLENT! I can’t praise this enough; your closing questions are so vital. I found the question regarding Afghan history to be particularly provocative (and by that I mean to provoke further discussion.) There are so many variables that we can’t predict; such as Afghan youth gravitating towards an identity of defending Afghan history. (This is probably a terrible analogy, but we saw second-generation youth in Europe, inspired by the “restoration” of the Caliphate. Manchester-supporting, weed-smoking kids who travelled to Raqqa to experience life in time of the Prophet. Who saw that coming?? It certainly is true, that Taliban “adaptability” of media use has been less innovative than we give them credit for. It’s not the amount of platforms they’ve come to understand, it’s the content which reveals the limits of their message. I do keep returning though, to Ashley Jackson’s excellent point, in her report for the ODI, are the Taliban still village traditionalists, or are they modern Islamists? Hint: both. What are the models they might consult, to balance these two identities? And is anyone looking at religious issues implicit in the Taliban’s modernization? There are so many areas to study, and so few opportunities to do so.

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