(Written with Alister Miskimmon) Following the death of Osama bin Laden, political pressure is mounting for an early scaling down of British military troops presence in Afghanistan ahead of David Cameron’s deadline of 2014 for the end of Britain’s combat mission. With this in mind the British defence establishment is trying to understand their role in Afghanistan since 2001. Much of this soul-searching has focused on trying to explain why British forces have not been able to pacify sections of the Afghan population. Their explanation is that they have not been able to project the right storyline to Afghanis. They feel that they are being out-communicated by the Taliban, losing out to a more effective strategic narrative. This is presented as one reason Britain and NATO have failed to win hearts and minds.
An example of such thinking was witnessed in Westminster this week in a session of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, identified a critical moment as Britain’s efforts at “poppy eradication at the time of the deployment”. “In the minds of some local Helmandis, and within the narrative of the Taliban,” he said, this created the “idea that these [British] forces are coming here to eradicate your poppy and take your living away.” Ultimately, “that worked against us in terms of strategic narrative.” The incredulity of our most senior military officers that they could not convince Afghanis in Helmand of their good intentions suggests that they think of communication as an easy solution; as if finding the right strategic narrative would solve their operational problems.
Such a stance exposes the lack of clear goals in the first place. Failure to convince Afghanis stems more from a lack of clear British strategy than the ability of Taliban forces to present a more convincing counter narrative.
In our fast moving media ecology, projecting a coherent message is a challenge. However, there are some instances when governments are able to deliver a clear narrative. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden was so clear it did not need to be explained – least of all to the United States’ citizens seen celebrating on the streets of American cities after the President announced the mission. President Obama did not even engage in the ensuing debate about the legal status of such an action. He let his actions speak for themselves.
Once war has begun, strategic narratives are about keeping domestic audiences on side, not about convincing those who you are invading. When hostilities begin it is too late to convince them. Trying to tell a reassuring or uplifting story to Afghanis that is contradicted by what they see and hear on the ground only opens up space for Britain to be accused of hypocrisy – a narrative with a long precedent in Central Asia and the Middle East.