Why you should care
Because stories can drive people to kill.
Neil K. Aggarwal is the author of Mental Health in the War on Terror (2015) and The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate (2016).
On Monday, President Obama announced that an American air strike had killed the Taliban’s supreme leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. As of this writing, the Taliban has not acknowledged the Mullah’s death. But the militant group’s silence — and the death of Mansour — offer the United States and its allies a rare opportunity: They can use the leadership vacuum to spread a much-needed message of peace to Taliban sympathizers. Indeed, the reported reconciliation of Taliban killer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with the Afghan government, earlier this month, makes the moment even more auspicious.
Now is the time for the U.S. and its allies to set the terms of a new narrative.
Over the past two decades, the Taliban has proven itself a remarkable spinner of stories, a master of propaganda. As I show in my book The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate, it has seized every opportunity to publicize its views on a range of topics, even after American-led NATO forces toppled it from power in 2001. The group is so adept at controlling narratives that it took almost two years for the world to learn about the death of its first supreme leader, Mullah Omar, even though Taliban militants on the ground had occasionally made their suspicions known to reporters.
After the news finally broke that Mullah Omar had died, Mullah Mansour claimed to be acting on Mullah Omar’s behalf, which means Mullah Mansour’s sudden death removes a vital link in the Taliban’s hierarchical chain of communications. Notably, the Taliban has not yet addressed Mullah Mansour’s death on its Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu websites — a silence that has generated a messaging vacuum around the future of the organization.
This silence offers the United States and their allied governments the chance to script a new narrative. In February, President Obama outlined his focus on narrative in countering violent extremism. He urged Muslim communities to push back on “twisted interpretations of Islam” and “on the lie that we are somehow engaged in a clash of civilizations.” Such narratives, he said, had become the very foundation of terrorist ideology.
The United States should not lose this opportunity to disseminate a narrative of peace.
Some terrorist researchers have fleshed out what counterterrorism narratives might look like. One method is to refute the extreme binaries of a militant group’s ideology based on an imagined “us” vs. “them” or, in the language of jihadists, “believers” vs. “infidels.” Here, the possible reconciliation of Taliban militant Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with the Afghan government is bad news for the Taliban: It complicates its attempt to frame its insurgency as a jihad of believers against infidels.
Hekmatyar’s bloodthirstiness as a proponent of militant jihad is legendary: In 2009, the United Nations listed him on its Al-Qaeda Sanctions List for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf or in support of” the Taliban and Al-Qaida. As one of the last senior leaders associated with the original jihad against the Soviet Union and founder of his own terrorist group, Hekmatyar possesses the experience and credibility to counter any new Taliban leader. He has pledged his commitment to peace in Afghanistan so long as he is removed from all U.S. and U.N. sanctions lists and can return to Kabul. His reconciliation should be tied to a public disavowal of violence and a call for Taliban militants to follow suit.
Make no mistake: Counter-narrative is not the silver bullet that will reverse Afghanistan’s misfortunes. The Taliban could still splinter into competing factions as the No. 2 official Sirajuddin Haqqani and Mullah Omar’s son Yaqoub vie for succession. By protesting that the air strike violated its territorial sovereignty, Pakistan is doing little to assuage Afghan and NATO concerns that it offers safe shelter to Taliban leaders, raising ongoing questions about its loyalties in the War on Terror. The government of Afghanistan must also fight rampant corruption, ranking 166th of 168 countries in Transparency International’s 2015 list.
Despite these factors militating against a durable peace, the United States should not lose this opportunity to disseminate a narrative of peace. As the Afghan proverb goes, “There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain.”