Ten Years Later, Our Narrative Remains Murky to Afghans

by Steven R. Corman

Have you seen this picture?

Last Friday the always-excellent PBS Newshour ran a story that left me floored.  It featured interviews with several ordinary Afghans who were handed pictures of the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Of a dozen or so people asked, only one man (a police chief in Marjah) knew the story behind the pictures. All but one person said they had never seen the pictures before and did not know what they represented.

The conclusion of the segment mentioned a report published last November by the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS).  It is odd that we were not previously aware of this report, and that it seems not to have gotten much play anywhere in the strategic communication blogosphere. It paints a concise picture of our narrative problems in Afghanistan.

One thousand participants from Helmand and Kandahar provinces were shown pictures of the 9/11 attacks, and asked if they recognized the pictures. About two-thirds said yes.

But then they were read the following story of the 9/11 attacks:

On September 11 2001, Al Qaeda attackers hijacked planes in the United States which were full of ordinary passengers, including women and children. They flew these planes, full of people, into two tall buildings in the city of New York. They destroyed both buildings, which were full of ordinary people. The attacks killed 3000 innocent citizens, including Muslims. They were organised and directed by Al Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, who was then living in Afghanistan protected by the Taliban government. The American government asked the Taliban to hand over Osama Bin Laden. They refused, so the Americans and their allies NATO attacked the Taliban, and came into Afghanistan to look for Osama Bin Laden and overthrew the Taliban.

When asked “Did you know about this event which the foreigners call 9/11?” only 8% responded “yes,” 11% responded “no,” and 81% responded “no answer/don’t know.”

There could hardly be a more stark illustration of the essential strategic communication problem of the Afghan conflict: Huge swaths of the population have seen foreign troops enter their land and launch attacks for 10 years but seem to have no idea why they are there. Since nature abhors a narrative vacuum, this is fertile ground for the development of alternative stories about what we are doing there.  These integrate to form a narrative that is not favorable to our interests.

In the same study ICOS asked participants: “Why do you think the foreigners are here?”  Here is a graphic I produced based on a table from their report (click to view full-size):

Half of respondents either don’t know why we are there or think it is for “evil” reasons–my term for a set of responses.  Only half think we are there for benign reasons (consistent with the narrative we favor).

Looking at the breakdown on the right, we see that of the respondents who see “evil” motives, around three-quarters believe we are there to create mayhem (terrorism?).  A bright spot is that few participants think we are there to destroy Islam, but the “evil” set overall is consistent with our opponents’ narrative that we are crusaders.

Among other interesting results in the report is the belief that foreign forces kill around two times as many civilians as the Taliban.  These figures are almost exactly opposite those released by UNAMA at around the same time, which show that anti-government forces kill twice as many civilians as pro-government forces (i.e. ISAF plus the Afghan military).  As I have argued before, we are missing a significant opportunity by allowing such beliefs to persist.

The ICOS study shows, and the more recent PBS interviews reiterate, that our narrative in Afghanistan remains remarkably murky.   Only a small number of people in that country know the story of 9/11.  As for why we are there, the reason that actually aligns with our domestic narrative–namely that we are there for self-defense–is believed by only one out of six respondents.  Over twice that many believe we are there for reasons that align with our opponents’ “crusader” narrative, and that we are killing most of the civilians.

This makes it pretty easy to understand why people there would support an insurgency.  As the tenth anniversary of our invasion of Afghanistan approaches, we still have a lot of  ‘splaining to do.

Update 9/7/2011

A colleague from the UK informs me that a book just published by Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale, August 2011) has a whole chapter on this subject and that the book “makes very sober reading.” Here is a reviewer who says it is “one of the most upsetting books I have read about Britain’s part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Update 9/9/2011

A colleague forwarded me this link to a related story that ran yesterday on National Public Radio.