“Wars today cannot be won without media. Media aims at the heart rather than the body, [and] if the heart is defeated, the battle is won.”

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We failed to learn the lesson of this war

The US failed to predict a swift Taliban takeover and that may — in part — be for the same reason the War on Terror was doomed from the beginning. US leadership — from 2001 all the way through 2021 — consistently underestimated the role that information operations played in the Taliban’s power. Although we identified this misstep years ago, the evidence suggests we may have erred one last time.

The US and ISAF should have carefully studied Taliban propaganda and attempted to learn from the Taliban’s information operation strategies. Quite simply, the Taliban clearly know what resonates with the Afghan population, and the narratives and stories presented below will clearly reflect this. They understand relevant cultural referents and themes, and of course local traditions. We quite simply do not.”

Taliban Narratives by Thomas Johnson

Information operations paved the victors’ path

Before taking Kabul, the Taliban had disseminated a steady stream of propaganda that reframed the relationship between the Afghan Special Forces, the Taliban, and outsiders. Accounts tweeting pro-Taliban content referred to the Afghan military’s actions as needlessly “slaughtering their neighbors.” The Twitter accounts urged the Afghan Special Forces not to be America’s “trained dirty creature.” Twitter has banned some Taliban accounts in the past but ban-evasion accounts can allow bad actors to re-appear.

Hoaxlines found references to what happened in Vietnam to suggest that they too would be abandoned or sacrificed. (In a similar vein, both Russia and China have recently claimed the US would likewise desert Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively.) Social media campaigns targeting the Afghan government and military reframed relationships as us-versus-them between Muslims native to the region and meddling outsiders who were nearly defeated.

One noteworthy campaign came in early June 2021. Tweets discussed  “deceived soldiers” with an associated hashtag. The message was “dissident soldiers welcome.” Paired with over a year’s worth of propaganda showing the training of Taliban forces, and the Afghan forces may have wanted to avoid a “pointless death.”