Almost every human conflict has a narrative associated with it that simultaneously describes the cause one group is fighting for as much as it defines what it is fighting against. The narrative frames the conflict and simultaneously seeks to build the morale of your side as much as it tries to undermine the opposition’s.
Afghanistan has gone from a “war of necessity,” as President Obama described it in 2009, to a “tide of war” that is “receding” where we must “focus on nation-building here at home,” as the president stated June 22. However we describe the conflict in Afghanistan, there are hard facts on the ground that cannot be denied, the fighting will continue and the Taliban believe they are winning, and it is a conflict that will have a winner and a loser, regardless of whether the will to fight on one side has dissipated.
Narratives also bolster morale, that great quality that all fighting organizations must have, for it heartens men and women when times are difficult and serves as the organizing spirit for successful units. The narrative of the Afghan war has now fundamentally changed; it is no longer about winning or prevailing but about leaving and mitigating cost.
In the wake of Obama’s June 22 speech announcing details of U.S. plans for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is useful to view the war from the enemy’s perspective and to gauge what his reactions to the speech might be and his strategy for the future. Regardless of how the president presents the drawdown, the Taliban and their supporters will present it as a victory and will spin it to their advantage. It is useful to think through how they might do so and to factor that into future policymaking as Afghanistan’s government increasingly takes control of the war.
The following are fictionalized accounts of what Taliban leader Mullah Omar, a senior Pakistani intelligence officer and a senior al-Qaida leader might write to their subordinates in light of the president’s speech.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
“The mujahedeen have beaten the Americans! Like the British and the Russians before them, the Americans have tired of their war to oppress Islam in Afghanistan and are leaving. The speech by their leader, Obama, shows that the U.S. does not have the fortitude to fight and that the fighting spirit of the mujahedeen cannot be defeated. Obama speaks of switching from nation-building in Afghanistan to nation-building in America when his policies have destroyed Afghanistan! Do not be fooled by the apostate’s talk of peace, reconciliation and reintegration. These are simply lies their politicians tell their people that we will somehow give up our pure, Islamic principles to compromise with the unbelievers. We are winning and they are losing. The Americans are tiring of the war and their empire is fracturing. They are going bankrupt and their weak economy is breeding a new isolationism. Praise be to Allah! They have become obese and bloated from the wealth they have stolen from Muslim lands and cannot match the austere, stoic and proud fighting spirit of the mujahedeen. The corrupt regime in Kabul is becoming increasingly desperate. They rely upon a conscript army of unbelievers and oppress our brothers among the Pashtuns. Their corruption knows no limits and when the people cry out for help, their pleas are ignored. Our protectors in Pakistan have ensured that our senior leaders are ready to assume the mantle of leadership in Afghanistan and we will collect our resources and wait for the Americans to leave before striking a fatal blow against the Hamid Karzai regime.
“Obama says he has degraded our forces and that we will now negotiate our freedom away and join with Karzai and the Afghan government. He could not be more wrong. Victory is on our side for we will outstay the Americans. We will send mujahedeen to ‘reconcile’ to learn more about the apostate’s plans and to rest our army. We will never truly ‘negotiate’ and will drag any ‘peace process’ along, and as their politicians lose heart, our position will grow stronger. We will tell the Americans and the Afghans that we are different from the previous Taliban, we will stress nonviolence, a return to politics and other pleasant-sounding words to trick them into believing their own lies. As we do this, we will begin to infiltrate into areas the Americans are leaving, telling the people about the return of the Islamic Emirate. This will lead to rumors among the people that the Taliban will return and our enemies will lose heart. We will target the apostates who have joined with Karzai, such as the interpreters, elected officials and village elders who turned their back on Islam and joined the unbelievers. This will cause a crisis for the Afghan government and slowly our grip will strengthen in the rural areas. As the Afghan Army attacks us, they will overreach and kill many civilians. We will rally the people against these abuses and continue our jihad against the Northern Alliance and the Afghan Army. The Americans will try to use their drones against us, but they cannot defeat a popular movement of the people with their missiles. They cannot defeat what is in the heart of every mujahedeen.
“As our grip tightens in the countryside, we will attack the apostate’s logistics, raiding their convoys and sending rockets against their bases. The Afghan Army will become scared without their American advisers and their planes, and their army’s desertions will increase. As we kill the unbelievers their supporters will flee north, telling others about our return, which will cause a panic in Kabul. We will slowly move into the cities, finding friends among those who have been oppressed by Karzai’s government and with the countryside in our control, the cities will fall. First it will be Qalat, then Lashkar Gah, then Tarin Kowt, and finally, Kandahar. We will then move to the east and work with our allies, the Haqqanis, and push the unbelievers out of the valleys of the mountains. There will be calls by some in America for more action, to stop our attacks, but Obama does not care and he can do nothing as his weak and hobbled empire goes bankrupt. As we liberate each town and village of Afghanistan, we will be generous to those who turn their back on the apostates, generating good will among the people, but we will be ruthless to our enemies. As we grow stronger, we will allow our friends in al-Qaida to return to escape the drone attacks and together we will rebuild Afghanistan and create the Islamic state. Praise be to Allah!”
Pakistani intelligence officer
“As we have always known, the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and, as expected, the task of cleaning it up has fallen to us. We have been able to modernize our military with U.S. support while harboring al-Qaida and the Taliban for our strategy of retaking Afghanistan. The U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden taught us many things about U.S. capabilities and intentions. They do not respect our sovereignty and are willing to strike targets within our borders without our cooperation. We have safely moved the leaders of the Haqqani insurgent group as well as the senior leadership of the Taliban to areas the Americans cannot strike. We will continue to make the Americans dependent upon us for logistical support for their troops in Afghanistan. As the Americans draw down in Afghanistan, we will partner with our Taliban allies to extend their reach into areas the Afghans and the Americans do not control to extend our influence. We will contact our allies within Afghanistan to reactivate our networks and begin the slow assault on Kabul. We will make the Karzai government dependent on us and use the Taliban to force concessions from it to check India and make them follow our wishes. We will continue to limit American activities within Pakistan so they cannot again conduct raids against al-Qaida or the Taliban and make the U.S. increasingly dependent on us for intelligence support. We will still allow them to conduct drone attacks in certain areas of the country in order to let the Americans believe we are still committed to going after al-Qaida, but we must initiate a plan to rebuild the Taliban in order to take advantage of the new safe havens the American withdrawal will create. We are entering a new stage in our policy toward Afghanistan, but a familiar one. Just as the Americans left Afghanistan in 1989 and we had to pick up the pieces, we must do so again.”
Senior al-Qaida leader
“We have lost many leaders within Afghanistan and Pakistan, but our cause and our organization endures. Our strategy of attrition against the Americans is working as they begin their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Their bankruptcy and weak economy are forcing them to retreat from the world, and al-Qaida will take advantage of these new opportunities. Another victory for al-Qaida! Our affiliates in Somalia and Yemen have grown in significance and our presence in Iraq continues even though our core group has been weakened with the death of Osama bin Laden. Our cause endures. The so-called Arab Spring will present us with many opportunities as the enemy regimes are removed one by one and the ensuing chaos creates opportunities for us to seize power and exercise influence. As Afghanistan falls slowly under the influence of the Taliban, we will begin to re-establish our bases and reactivate local support networks. The mujahedeen are too strong for the Afghan Army, and once the army of occupation has left Afghanistan, the Afghan military will melt away. We can rebuild in Afghanistan. Our Taliban brothers may need to emphasize their differences with us in order to convince the Americans that they want a peaceful Afghanistan, but their real intention is to fool them and lay the groundwork for an Islamic state. We will chase the Americans from Afghanistan and thousands of mujahedeen will join our cause in great numbers due to our strength at having defeated the Americans. Praise be to Allah!” AFJ