You say counterinsurgency (COIN) is a battlefield where ‘popular perceptions and rumour are more influential than the facts and more powerful than a hundred tanks.’ What are the battlefield perceptions and rumours in Afghanistan today?
It’s important to realize that some of the perceptions and attitudes of the population can seem perverse or completely unrealistic to us, until we try to see things from their standpoint. For example, one persistent rumour among Pashtuns is that the Americans are sponsoring the Taliban. Their theory goes that America is the most powerful nation on earth, we can put a man on the moon, so the so the only rational explanation for our failure to stabilize a little place like Afghanistan is that we must not want to.
So they talk about the ‘Pakistani Taliban’ (those sponsored by Pakistan), the ‘Iranian Taliban’ sponsored by Teheran, and the ‘American Taliban’ supposedly sponsored by us in order to keep the country weak and provide a pretext for our long-term colonization.
The recent media discussion over Afghanistan’s mineral deposits (actually something that has been well-known for years) played into this narrative—some people in Afghanistan rolled their eyes and said ‘now it all makes sense, the Americans want to stay here to control our mineral wealth’.
By far the most damaging perception to us, however, is the belief—based on President Obama’s speech of December 2009—that we are leaving in July 2011. This, of course, is not actually what the President said, but it was somewhat ‘lost in translation’ with the Taliban coming right out to exploit the locals’ belief that we’re planning to leave. A lot of the behaviour of Afghans—from President Karzai down to local village elders—that seems erratic to us, is perfectly rational when you look at it from their standpoint: they think we’re leaving, and they need to stay on the fence so they can survive once we go.
The next few questions come fromthe Twenty-Eight Articles you wrote in 2006 for soldiers working on the ground without much of a counterinsurgency roadmap. You said, ‘Exploit a “single narrative”—a simple, unifying, easily expressed story that organizes people’s experience and provides a framework for understanding events. Nationalist and ethnic historical myths, or sectarian creeds, provide such a narrative. The Iraqi insurgents have one, as do al-Qaeda and the Taliban.’ What’s the single narrative now operating in Afghanistan; which side is telling it? If you were crafting the narrative, what would it be?
Right now, the key propaganda themes emerging from the Taliban are mainly associated with supposedly imminent US departure. They say ‘The Americans are leaving next summer, but we are staying. If you choose to support them now, we will kill you after they leave.’ Another Taliban propaganda theme is that they represent clean and incorruptible government, in contrast to the abuses and corruption of the Karzai mafia network—the Taliban court system, administrative structure, taxation system and local committee structure are all part of this attempt to portray themselves as the real government while discrediting the Karzai government and the international effort. Another theme is to explain to the people how they, the Taliban, have learned from previous experience and that this time around they will be different—more effective at running the country, less oppressive, more responsive to the people. In respect to women, for example, the current Taliban theme is that all women will be able to work and girls will be able to go to school—just as soon as the Taliban control the whole country. ‘Trust us, we’ve changed’.