The Culture Wars and ‘War Stories’: Narratives and Counter-narratives in War

Afgahn Kids

The US Military was aware that it needed a new strategy and the addition of some ‘cultural awareness’ in Afghanistan after IED’s were becoming very damaging. The Human Terrain System (HTS) became an experiment of the military and anthropologists in Afghanistan from 2006-2014. It was the brainchild of anthropologist Montgomery McFate and others and was implemented with a very large budget. However it became embroiled in controversy with the American Anthropological Association (AAA). When the US pulled out of Afghanistan, the programme was reviewed and studied by Christopher J. Sims at the US Army War College. It, reportedly, was closed down. However, that is disputed and it appears to have been merely shelved or is undergoing even more review rather than being reactivated. USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook and Michael C. Davies entered into an ugly inflammatory public dispute in 2016.

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Despite the withdrawal of troops the US Military is still embroiled in Afghanistan and Iraq. It considers it is in its interests to continue to monitor and support both countries so that they do not become a threat to the United States either by disintegrating into failed states and succumbing to the influence of al Qaida or Daesh/IS; or in Afghanistan’s case, becoming a vassal-state of Pakistan.

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War Stories

Wars have always had narratives and fables. War stories persuade and inspire, contain propaganda and tell of ‘daring-do’ and tales of heroism to communities and soldiers alike.

Communicating information in an intriguing and entertaining fashion helps attention, memory and assimilation. This in turn leads to a greater grasp of the truth on the ground, accurate information for decision-making, safety and coordination on the battlefield. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu sets out, in one of the earliest battlefield manuals in about the 6th century BC, a metaphor-filled Tale of successful strategies of war and the tactics of wise commanders.

US Master Narratives of Defeat, Withdrawal and Failure: Withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq

The wisdom of the strategic withdrawal of US Troops by the Obama Administration in 2014 ignited a firestorm of furious partisan debate in the US that continued into the last election in 2016. The bitterness, fear of another failure and another attack on the mainland and increasing siege mentality of the US people following the catastrophes of Vietnam and 9/11 and now the viral spread of war, insurgency and terrorism means the US will continue to commit to the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

The Taliban and Daesh/IS – narratives of death and destruction

Jane’s Online Interactive Global Attack Index 2016

In June 2017, both the Taliban and Daesh continue to attack Afghan security forces in Afghanistan in the provinces of Faryab and Ghor. CNN has reported that Daesh leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has been killed in an air strike “near Mosul close to the Syrian border.” The effect that this event will have on the propaganda narratives of Daesh/IS is unclear but the ‘heroic myth’ that has ensnared Youth in the thousands travelling to the Middle East to fight has been critical for Daesh to recruit.

The embedding of civilians among Daesh fighters is a tactic to alienate locals from the US. They cannot see the US as saviours from Daesh if they see around them evidence of the destruction of their villages and communities.


The toxic narratives of Daesh/IS that obscure the true motivations and agenda with pseudo-religious doctrine were explained recently by a freed French journalist Nicolas Henin.

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Counter Narratives of Hope for Tribal Communities

Retired US Special Forces Officer Scott Mann of MANN Up Report  puts it this way: “The absence of narrative was a big reason for the rise and fall of one of the most successful stability strategies in Afghanistan. Storytelling?! Really?! This is the 21st century, not the ancient age of the Iliad. Is storytelling really that important in this hyper-connected, fast-paced world? You bet your Rudyard Kipling ass it is.”

Lt. Col. Mann is part of Narrative Strategies (Montgomery Fate Ph.D is on the Advisory Board) and has developed a concept of Village Stability Operations based on local leadership based on 4 points: “(1) Get yourself surrounded; (2) Meet them where they are; (3) Connect through extreme collaboration and (4) Tell a story that sticks.”

What is a “Story that Sticks”?

Stories that “resonate” and that people “believe” are what Mann considers effective. But what are those “gamechangers” as he describes them? Mann believes that “combat story-telling” needs to “speak to a higher purpose” and which motivates people to transcend their conditions to obtain ends which serve their communities.

Mann makes the point that ‘America-centric’ narratives will not play well in tribal communities. He considers people need to be engaged and inspired firstly by simple, “instinctive” and “compelling” stories that are culturally relevant. Tribal leaders standing up for themselves and empowering their communities are narratives that people will feel mobilised by. The “How” is spelled out by Mann with his 5 elements of a successful narrative.

Alan Malcher of Narrative Strategies found that online recruitment using manipulative narratives drew many away from the mainstream into the darker regions of the Web.

Dr. Ajit Maan, CEO and MD of Narrative Strategies, says in “Calls to Terrorism and Other Weak Narratives”  calls for a new narrative that emphasises “tolerance, dignity, and inclusion.”

Muslims Taking Action Worldwide

There are several initiatives by Muslims in Western countries to counter extremist terrorist propaganda. Anooshe Aisha Mushtaq is the Chair and Founder of The Raqib Taskforce that builds “social inclusion … in a manner designed to dispel extremist messages…..”

Sayed Naqibullah, a cultural advisor in Afghanistan, in his Pashto Language Blog, ‘Men Holding Hands in Afghanistan’, reminds Westerners not to make cultural assumptions. This clip has Sayed talking about men holding hands as a normal part of Afghani life:

Compassionate narratives that inspire hope and healing with humanity are the kind of “war stories” that will be compelling and engage their listeners. Humans have told oral histories, war stories and passed on myths, legends, proverbs and tribal wisdom over the ages. Devastated tribal communities need and deserve stories of courage, self-esteem, unity and pride of family and community crafted into the counter-narratives that the West is telling in the Middle East.

Pamela Williamson, Auckland June 13, 2017


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