The Taliban Are Winning the War of Words in Afghanistan

The government’s radio silence is handing a propaganda victory to the insurgents.

Foreign Policy

A Taliban commander ahead of an interview with AFP.

Mullah Misbah, a Taliban commander and director of public health for Ghazni on the Taliban-controlled side, at a hospital in the Andar district of Ghazni province, Afghanistan, on June 3. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

KABUL—As Afghanistan’s armed forces cede and regain ground in the searing summer offensive against the Taliban, they are losing a propaganda war that is affecting the morale of a fearful population waiting for reassurance that the insurgents won’t overrun their country.

Over the weekend, Taliban militiamen stormed districts in the north of the country, furthering the widespread perception that the insurgents are winning against a government that lacks strategy and leadership. Since May 1, the Taliban have stormed 60 districts, with active fighting now going on in some 64 percent of Afghanistan’s territory, according to the Institute of War and Peace Studies, though eight districts have been retaken by Afghan forces. Security sources said that Afghan forces often retreat in order to save civilian lives. 

The Taliban onslaught, coupled with the looming withdrawal by Sept. 11 of the remaining U.S. troops, is escalating concerns that Afghan government forces may not be able to prevent Taliban battlefield gains without the presence of international forces. Close air support, in particular, has given ground forces the edge over their enemy but could be significantly curtailed with the withdrawal of U.S. troops and private contractors who work with the Afghan Air Force. 

The Taliban—much more adept at the use of media platforms than the Kabul government or its supporters in the international community—often post videos on social media of their militants raising flags in the central squares of districts where the Afghan forces have either been vanquished or forced into retreat.

Some Afghan officials counter that the perception of the Taliban’s victories is due to faulty reporting.

“If we were looking at a breakdown of the war, it is 75 percent narrative and 25 percent actual conflict,” a senior Afghan security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Their narrative is ‘we have defeated the superpower,’ and that is attractive to some young people.”

Some Afghan officials counter that the perception of the Taliban’s victories is due to faulty reporting.

“This is what exactly it is. A perception. A false perception. Helped by ‘journalists’ who are either not in Afghanistan or are blind to the truths of war and how many districts have been retaken. Ethics in journalism are important,” Col. Naweed Kawusi, the Ministry of Interior’s police support director, wrote on Twitter in response to a U.S. newspaper report.

While the Taliban trumpet their advances, there is little substantive response from the Afghan government—which lacks a clear communications strategy—or the U.S.-led international forces. The NATO Resolute Support Mission in Kabul declines to respond to requests for information. The U.S. Department of Defense has referred queries back to Kabul. The British Ministry of Defence and the British Army, as well as other NATO partners, have also failed to respond to questions.

Afghanistan’s ministries of defense and interior are also silent, under advice, according to sources, from the international military. While some officials will speak to journalists on the condition of anonymity, the Taliban have effectively seized the high ground in claiming victory over the government.

“There is a flood of the negative narrative. But it is not a government narrative versus a Taliban narrative,” the senior security official said. “It is a narrative being propagated by international media. Their access to the ground is limited, the people they talk with is limited, they don’t really understand how things really are, they have to rely on a lot of the information they see in the public space, and not all of it is correct.”

“The Taliban put out pictures, images, and videos that are not always reflective of the reality. The assumption outside is that this is it,” he said.

At the same time, even as the battlefield heats up and more territory falls to the Taliban, government reshuffles are slowing a coherent response. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani just replaced, again, the ministers of defense and interior, a move that brings changes in key senior positions as each newcomer seeks to build his own team.

If government officials are frustrated with that narrative of Taliban victory, that’s because the insurgents rarely hold districts for long, have yet to take control of provinces or provincial capitals, and don’t provide government services in areas they do control.

Still, the Taliban are on the march. A fierce late spring-early summer offensive in Helmand and Kandahar provinces coincided with the poppy crop harvest, which earns the Taliban hundreds of millions of dollars a year and seasonally provokes fighting in the country’s opium belt. On Sunday, the government moved reinforcements to northern Faryab province, where the insurgents were rolling over districts on the outskirts of the provincial capital, Maymana. That followed the deaths last week of at least 23 Afghan special forces commandos fighting a Taliban advance, including 31-year-old U.S.-trained Col. Sohrab Azimi, who was mourned across the country as a hero.

“They are not there to deliver governance, they can’t and they are not good at it.”

On the battlefield, the Taliban are pursuing a three-pronged strategy, said Tamim Asey, executive chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies. First, they test the resolve of Afghan forces by inviting defections and desertions. Second, they encircle and isolate big cities and population centers, including by attacking infrastructure like power pylons, bridges, and highways. Finally, they carry out targeted killings of government and military officials in those cities, he said.

“This is not the first time such an irregular warfare military strategy against a sitting Afghan government is pursued. The mujahideen of yesteryear almost pursued an identical military strategy against the last communist ruler of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, we see military history repeating itself here,” he said.

Asey and other Afghan security sources said the violence could be expected to intensify in coming months, as the deadline of Sept. 11 nears, with a few provinces likely to fall into Taliban hands. That will likely hand the insurgents what a former government official called a further “morale boost,” if not control of the country, as they seek to project strength when stalled peace negotiations with the government begin in earnest.

“They don’t have the capacity to hold them even in the medium term. In the American Wild West, you’d have guys come into small towns, rob everyone—a campaign of terror,” the former official said, speaking on condition he not be named. “The Taliban will do that. But they are not there to deliver governance, they can’t and they are not good at it. It’s a morale boost for their fighters.”