Center for Strategic Communication

Narrating the Exit from Afghanistan

With the United States and NATO set to withdraw all or most forces from Afghanistan in 2014, a key question is: How do we want to be remembered for our efforts there? The current narrative of the Afghanistan war is a mess. Yet the narrative of the war, as history tells it, will affect future domestic support for counterinsurgency operations and our credibility with local populations where conflicts take place. If the Taliban return to power, the war will be a failure in its own terms. But there is still time to repair the narrative of the Afghanistan war. This book by experts in history and strategic communication provides guidance for that effort. Beginning chapters review lessons learned from Vietnam and the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, expose the Taliban effort to project an inevitable return to power and its key weaknesses, and explain how narratives are used in contests to define history. The last chapter assesses the narrative up to now and shortcomings of current plans for ending it, then draws on other ideas the book to make concrete suggestions for creating a fitting end.

Praise from Experts

“Strategic communication of our narrative can save a potentially humiliating departure from Afghanistan as American and Western militaries withdraw. This book provides a critically essential history and “play book” to right continuous narrative wrongs and save U.S. credibility in world and at home. From Vietnam through today, its analysis of failed attempts to “spin” wars to locals, regional friends, international partners and foes, to lastly the American people, is eye watering. This is the book to read, learn from, and operationalize. We needed this kind of thinking before 9/11, during our efforts with two wars while fighting, and especially now as the United States pivots its way to the Pacific.”

– Amb. Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dell Dailey Former U.S. Ambassador at Large for Counterterrorism Former Director, Center for Special Operations, U.S. Special Operations Command

“This is a timely and valuable study coming as it does exactly as ISAF’s nations need to think through how we manage the end of the ISAF mission and the continuing support to Afghanistan that will follow. Readable and accessible, the chapters provide a thoughtful study of historical parallels and use of narrative that should be of real practical value to policy makers and communicators. While much of it may make uncomfortable reading it is no dialogue of despair, making constructive suggestions and encouraging a more holistic approach to information strategy that looks beyond reacting to today’s headlines. This is the right kind of book at the right time.”

– Mark Laity Chief Strategic Communications, NATO SHAPE & former NATO Spokesman, Kabul

“It may, once, have been idiomatic that a conflict’s victor wrote its history. No longer. In today’s hyper-connected world of user generated content multiple and often competing commentaries abound. What, too, of a conflict where there is no apparent victor or loser, where the best that might be said is ‘we prevailed’? CSC, under the thoughtful stewardship of Prof Steve Corman, have published a timely and thought provoking study of how a post Afghan narrative may look. Policy makers should take note. Just as al-Qaeda successfully bound together regional and local grievances to form a [false] narrative of ‘global jihad’ there is danger that the coalition’s collective efforts in Afghanistan, of which I was proudly part, are added to the populist epitaph of ‘Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires’. This would be a disservice to all who served and more importantly to the majority of Afghans who seek nothing but peace and prosperity.”

– Cdr Steve Tatham Commanding Officer, 15 (UK) PsyOps Group co-Author of “Behavioural Conflict: Why Understanding People and their Motivations Will Prove Decisive in Future Conflict”

Media inquiries: Contact CSC Program Manager, Ms. Cecilia Contreras, at 480-727-8184 or


1. Introduction
H.L. “Bud” Goodall, Arizona State University

2. The U.S. Exit from Vietnam: Lessons For Afghanistan?
Jeffrey P. Kimball, Miami University of Ohio

3. Breaking Contact Without Leaving Chaos:
The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan
Lester W. Grau, U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office

4. The Taliban Narrative: Understanding the Group’s Messages, Actions and Clues to Their Endgame
Thomas H. Johnson & Kevin L. Steele, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School

5. Historical Narratives and Collective Memory
Eviatar Zerubavel, Rutgers University

6. Toward a Fitting End: Concluding the Afghanistan War Narrative
Steven R. Corman, Arizona State University