Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

War of the Narratives: Words, Stories…and Killing

Kate Clark 6 min

It has been a bad week for the international military, but – according to the Pentagon – it has also been a good six months. On 28 October 2011, ISAF suffered its worst attack in Kabul ever, with 13 people* killed in a suicide attack, along with four Afghan civilians, 2 of whom were children. Hours earlier, three Australian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were the victims of a fratricidal killing by an Afghan soldier in Kandahar. The day before, the Pentagon released its latest – and very upbeat – six monthly report. Violence is down, said the Pentagon press release, and Obama’s war plan is working. As Kate Clark reports, being seen to be winning this war is as important as ever.

The Taleban attack on an armour-plated ISAF bus was brazen and ambitious, on a par with other spectacular attacks this year, such as, in recent weeks those against the US embassy and the PRT bases in Kandahar and the Panjshir. Even though security remains reasonably good in the capital – in terms of people being able to go about their normal business – the nature of attacks like Saturday’s makes people feelunsafe. And especially for those who lived through the 1992-1996 intra-mujahedin war, it is psychologically wearing to see violence returning to the city’s streets and to know that the Taleban apparently have the capacity to enter the capital and attack the most fortified, high-profile targets.

Narratives – being seen to be winning, to have the momentum in the war, to be killing more fighters or gaining more territory than the other side – are important. As ever, the Afghan government sits on the side-lines, leaving the war of words and stories to be played out largely between the Taleban and the US/ISAF.

The Taleban’s spectacular attacks need to be seen in this light, as trying to prove that nowhere – not Kabul, or the Panjshir, not ISAF bases or the US embassy – and no-one – whether police generals or presidential advisors or the host of lesser known elders, policemen and intellectuals who have been assassinated – is safe. In that sense, these acts are aimed at terrorising: at persuading everyone that the Taleban’s victory is inevitable, that the government, in the Taleban’s words, will ‘collapse’ and at making senior figures scared to live normal lives. (Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, jihadi leader and MP, for example, has been secluding himself at home in Paghman for several months now**

The condemnation of the Taleban’s attack on the ISAF bus by overall ISAF commander, General John Allen, attempted to push a counter narrative. He called the Taleban ‘not martyrs, but murders’ and said, ‘…to hide the fact that they are losing territory, support, and the will to fight, our common enemy continues to employ suicide attackers to kill innocent Afghan fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, as well as the Coalition forces who have volunteered to protect them’ (for full statement, see here).

Allen was trying to promote ISAF as the protectors of the Afghan people against a common enemy and the Taleban as the losing side. His statement had a familiar ring. At least since 2004 – when I first noticed this argument being deployed -, ISAF, the US military and diplomats have said the Taleban were using ‘terrorism’/suicide attacks or some such variant because they were cowards/couldn’t fight ISAF properly/were losing the war. Seven years on, it remains unconvincing. Allen’s description of the Taleban as murderers, in this case, is particularly strange as they had attacked a military target during a war (although with the proviso, of course, that launching an attack in this part of Kabul could be fully expected to kill and wound civilians). Unusually, the Taleban admitted to civilian casualties, saying that one civilian – actually, there had been four – had been ‘martyred’. In other words, in an attempt to spin their killing of civilians, they claimed the death as having come in the cause of jihad – as if that made it alright.

The other attack on Saturday, of three Australian soldiers and their interpreter in Kandahar by an Afghan comrade, would, on a normal news day, have been a big story. However, it was relegated to a few lines in most news reports (along with a female suicide bomber who attacked the provincial NDS office in Kunar), apart from in the Australian media (see for example here). The Taleban see such fratricidal killings (see here) as an important part of the fight because of their military and propaganda value; they are, not only (normally) a dramatic way to get on the news, but also sow discord and mistrust between ISAF on the one hand and the ANP and ANA on the other. Even though many of these killings are not political, but motivated by personal grievances, the Taleban reap the benefit. The Australian army is now investigating the background to this particular case.

For ISAF and the US military, the main story-line currently being pushed to the Afghan population and audiences in troop-deploying countries is that violence is down and that, particularly in the south, real gains have been made and security is better. (For ISAF’s reasoning, see here)  In the international media, this story-line is playing reasonably well. For example, BBC correspondent Quentin Sommerville reported on Saturday that, ‘The Taliban have been pushed back in the south of the country – their traditional heartland – where ISAF has made a lot of progress. But there are hot spots there and in the east of the country.’ (see here)  This is, however, a tricky narrative because, even if true, whatever gains ISAF has made in the south are less visible, less televisual and less dramatic than the Taleban ‘spectaculars’.

One certain defect with the ISAF narrative frequently gets overlooked is one dodgy aspect of their statistics. This could be seen, for example in press reporting of the Pentagon’s most recent, upbeat, six monthly report, ‘Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.’ (find it here)When ISAF and the Pentagon refer to ‘attacks’ and ‘violence’ being down, they are actually referring only to insurgent-initiated attacks on the foreign military. In contrast, ANSO and the UN, which also count attacks on civilians, both assess violence to be on the increase. For an analysis of the statistics, read our previous blog. This rather important distinction often gets lost in media reporting. The Wall Street Journal, for example, ran the following headline for its article on the Pentagon report: ‘Violence in Afghanistan Dropped Over the Summer’ (read the full WSJ article here). Other agencies also gave the Pentagon report a good press,*** possibly because the story was covered primarily by Washington or Pentagon-based journalists who had been briefed by Department of Defence (DoD) officials.

The Pentagon’s contention is that the insurgency has been ‘degraded’ and lost momentum in the south, north and west – although security in Regional Command East**** remains ‘tenuous’ with cross-border raids on the rise. Most reporters, quoting  ‘a DoD official’, noted that the report had deliberately not used the usual phrase to describe progress in Afghanistan – ‘fragile and reversible’ – and that this, in itself, was a significant marker of progress. The main risks now – according to the Pentagon – are both external to the ISAF effort: the ‘insurgency’s safe havens in Pakistan’ and ‘the limited capacity of the Afghan Government’,***** which, the report said, ‘remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable, stable Afghanistan.’

Many journalists also carried the Pentagon line that the Taleban-led insurgency remains ‘adaptive and resilient, with a significant regenerative capacity’ and that, ‘as insurgent capacity to contest ANSF-ISAF gains erodes, insurgents have turned to asymmetric efforts in order to avoid direct engagement with ISAF and ANSF forces, including the increased use of IEDs, high-profile attacks and assassinations of Afghan government officials.’

Whatever one might think of their strategy, ISAF, the Pentagon and the United States could argue that, at the moment, they are putting a lot of resources into remedying the problems as they see them, ie training Afghan forces, building up ‘governmental capacity’ and attacking the Taleban hard in the east. However, my sense is that this is also a possible emerging narrative which could be deployed in the future, should the international powers ever feel it necessary to justify retreat from a war which has not been won: ‘asymmetric efforts’ are a sign of a cowardly enemy against which ISAF has done its best, but it was let down by Pakistan and the Afghan government.


* They comprised 8 civilian workers and 5 soldiers, with 1 Canadian, 2 Britons and ten Americans killed.

** AAN received complaints about the fact that the earlier blog discussed Sayyaf without flagging up the allegations against him of war crimes. We had assumed the crimes were well-enough known not to need mentioning. Details on the accusations can be found in the following reports: Human Rights Watch, Blood Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity, July 2005 (read here), The United Nations Mapping Report (of War Crimes and Human Rights Abuses), which officially remains unpublished, but is accessible here, and The Afghanistan Justice Project’s, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, 1978–2001 – Documentation and Analysis of Major Patterns of Abuse in the War in Afghanistan (click here).

*** ‘US sees promising security gains in Afghanistan’ said AFP, while AP judged that ‘US report says security improved in Afghanistan’ (read here). The more war-sceptical, The Huffington Post, said that ‘Pentagon: Afghanistan Strategy Remains ‘Risky’ (link here).

**** Regional Command East covers Paktika, Khost, Paktia, Nangarhar, Laghman, Kunar, Nuristan, Panjshir, Kapisa, Wardak, Logar, Ghazni, Parwan and the Sarobi district of Kabul.

***** In terms of the Afghan government, the report noted that job fairs in Ghazni and Kandahar have recruited hundreds of new civil servants, that electricity consumption continues to rise and several new health facilities are up and running, along with new vocational education centres across the country. It also notes the continuing disputes over the parliament, the absence of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and ‘widespread corruption’. As for the Afghan National Security Forces, there are now a reported 170,000 ANA soldiers and 136,000 ANP. The number of ANA units which are ‘effective with assistance or better’ rose from 52 per cent in September 2010 to 72 per cent in September 2011 (the figures for ANP were up from 40 to 70 per cent). The Pentagon however admits there are problems with ‘attrition… leadership deficits and capability limitations in… staff planning, management, logistics and procurement’ and also ‘criminal patronage networks’ within the Afghan security forces.


ISAF Taleban