Kabuli Theatre

My friend and student Frank Ledwidge has a piece in today’s Guardian reflecting on the latest attacks on ISAF HQ and USA Embassy in Kabul ‘The Taliban are Winning Afghanistan’s Information War‘. Before you read, watch the video of the ISAF HQ guards firing back at the Taliban.


Ledwidge starts off with some harsh criticism of NATO’s strategic communications efforts and some reluctant applause for the Taliban’s:

Over the last decade Nato has constantly found itself behind the curve in planning and executing what they call “influence operations” – a combination of the use of propaganda (“psychological operations”) and, importantly, force to deliver its “message”. For getting its media message across, it has relied on clunking spokesmen whose pronouncements, particularly on casualties, are automatically assumed by Afghans to be lies. Matters are not assisted by the fact that for much of the time western forces and their Afghan allies do not seem entirely clear on their objectives.

Meanwhile the Taliban (or Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as they call themselves) are crystal clear as to their desired end-state: foreigners out and a government under Islamic law. Despite the fact that much of their media output is highly inaccurate – their website this morning claimed that they had killed “several dozen foreign invaders and local puppets” – the Taliban are always first off the mark after every incident. This has long been a source of huge frustration to senior officers, but a problem that Nato’s media operations bureaucracy seems incapable of putting right.

Actually, I would quibble with his point that the Taliban are always first off the mark. NATO has gotten faster at communicating–not necessarily better, as in clearer and more credibly firm of purpose–but quicker off the mark. Nonetheless, Frank’s point is well made. He concludes with a reflection on the purpose of the attacks which seems to me unarguable.

In December, there is to be another try at a political settlement in Bonn. The convenor of the last Bonn conference in 2001, Lakhdar Brahimi, has said that the “original sin” in 2001 was not to give the Taliban a seat at the table. They may yet get it. This week the US approved the opening of a Taliban office in Doha, and it is certain that talks will begin between the US and the Taliban before the end of the year. This is a huge step forward, and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the organisation we call the Taliban, or that part of it under the control of Mullah Omar, is determined to begin them from a position of strength. Their operations in Kabul and elsewhere were intended to establish that position. There is no doubt at all that there will be more like them.

This seems to me quite right. The Taliban are approaching the war as theatre and it’s a winning strategy. If you’ve access to the latest issue of Orbis then you may check out my latest article on the matter ‘Communications Breakdown: Strategic Communications and Defeat in Afghanistan‘. It’s based on a large number of interviews I did in Afghanistan a year ago but remains, if I may say so myself, very current. In any event it shouldn’t be a surprise what the Taliban are up to. I’m sure they get the History Channel there too:


UPDATE: See Image War Raged During Kabul Attack which describes a Twitter exchange between ISAF and Taliban propagandist, uh, I mean strategic communicators.










3 thoughts on “Kabuli Theatre

  1. Pericles says:

    I respectfully disagree that NATO has either a poor or no information strategy. For the past year we’ve been getting nothing BUT spin about the super-effective new counter-insurgency techniques implemented by General Petraeus, about how effective the ANA and Afghan local govt. were suddenly becoming, and how the Taliban were being driven to the edge of collapse by drone strikes and SF work. It’s rather the case that that actually quite carefully crafted narrative is once again clearly parting ways with a reality in which the Taliban show themselves to be both a pretty robust indigenous Afghan reality who are far from on the verge of disappearing, and who are also increasingly capable of doing their own ‘targeted killings’. With the NATO departure date now all but etched in stone, I fully expect another ‘spin cycle’ of NATO info ops between now and 2015, one equally removed from reality…

    • David Betz says:

      I don’t think we actually disagree at all, or at least very much. ISAF has/had a bunch of very clever communicators–not least Petraeus who is preternaturally good at it. The problem is that the most brilliant marketer still requires a certain convergence of reality with hype to move product. I’m not opposed to the declare victory and go home strategy which requires a terrific effort of spin and time to create the objective conditions of dignified withdrawal. I’m also more or less OK with a bit of domestic propagandising/rosy shading of our accomplishments there for posterity’s sake. I just think that the chances of even these modest aims are increasingly severely diminished now; that the culminating point of even a confected victory is passing by at the speed of a train. Makes me think the only strategy left is pack up and go home.

    • Patrick says:

      and I think that’s the strategy thats been decided upon! One thing I always thought: western militaries practice mission command by delegating the use of weapons systems, yet not so with info ops. When you first arrive in an area, guess which is more effective? Central and cumbersome control of info ops hamstrings responses and local successes…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *