‘T’ is for ‘Topak’: How the Taliban are Winning the Propaganda War

By Rija Habib

Abstract: September 2017 marked sixteen years since the start of the War on Terror, America’s longest war. In 2001, US-led coalition forces successfully toppled the Taliban government and ended the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Many years later, despite the continued American presence in the country, the Taliban have managed a remarkable resurgence and their territorial control is strengthening. This paper argues that the insurgency’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda efforts, including the effective exploitation of dominant Pashtun and Islamic principles, have largely contributed to their resurgence. The paper uses content analysis to study the effectiveness of propaganda methods used by the insurgency including madrassas, poetry, and shabnamas (night letters) as well as the underlying themes of their messages. Findings suggest that Taliban propaganda is extensive and continues to adapt to the changing social and political conditions of its target population—the Pashtuns. American and Afghan anti-Taliban propaganda efforts, on the other hand, have been limited and often culturally and religiously insensitive, leading to further backlash against foreign intervention and the Afghan government.


Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the regime’s remnants have persevered and made significant efforts to re-establish themselves as a political and military force. The war in Afghanistan has become the longest war in U.S. history. The Taliban have returned to power in many parts of the country from which they had been earlier expelled. Reports from The Long War Journal, an agency reporting on the War on Terror, show that as of September 2017, the Taliban control areas in 16 of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan (refer to Appendix 1). The Taliban have managed not only to survive after the fall of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan but also steadily expand their influence and authority over the Afghan population, despite continued American military presence.

The economic and political conditions in Afghanistan have empowered the Taliban and facilitated its resurgence. James Fearon and David Laitin have argued that financially, structurally, and politically weak governments assist the rise of insurgencies due to weak local control or inept counterinsurgency practices.[1] Similarly, Kareem Kamel pointed out that the rise of the Taliban can be partially attributed to the failure of state-building and the inability of the Afghan government to secure and stabilize the rural areas of the country in order for development and reconstruction to proceed.[2] Instead, Tim Foxley argued that Pakistani financial and military assistance as well as strategic planning from the Pakistan Inter-Services intelligence (ISI) (as part of its attempts to sustain influence in Afghanistan) have played a crucial role for the survival and resurgence of the insurgency.[3]

At the core of an insurgency is a battle of wills and determination to retain power and not military might. In most conflicts, effective use of media to advance and promote goals, activities, and intentions can be key in winning the population’s support. Retired British general, Rupert Smith, argued that most contemporary battles are primarily about winning the will of the people on whose land a conflict is being fought.[4] The Taliban have realized this and devised a sophisticated propaganda operation that capitalizes on local frustration toward foreign presence and the corrupt Afghan government. They have also exploited the weakening support for future involvement in Afghanistan among the public opinion of the countries involved. The Taliban insurgency has been able to survive due to its ability to garner genuine support for its mission, notably from villagers in rural areas of Afghanistan willing to sacrifice themselves for its cause.[5] The tone and narrative of the Taliban propaganda also resonates with pre-existing values and traditions (Pashtunwali) of the Pashtun people—the target audience of Taliban propaganda.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group of Afghanistan and have been the dominant ethno-linguistic group for more than 300 years. The Pashtun language, Pashto, is one of the official languages of Afghanistan. The majority of Pashtuns are followers of Sunni Islam and adhere to pakhtunwali, their traditional lifestyle or ethical code. 

There are several key components of pakhtunwali that are widely practiced and strictly followed. Melmastia (hospitality) entails the providing of hospitality to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation, or economic status. Nyaw aw badal (justice and revenge) refers to seeking justice or taking revenge against the wrongdoer.  Turah aw sabat (bravery and loyalty), according to which a Pashtun must be loyal to his country, family and tribe, and must defend them from incursions.[6] Groh (faith) entails a wider notion of trust or faith in god (ibid.). Disloyalty to any of these principles results in shame for any non-abiding individual and his family

Tribal culture is very strong in Afghanistan and the shifting of allegiance by powerful tribes and warlords can be crucial to determining victory and influencing people’s perceptions and support for the Taliban. Crucial to the shaping of popular opinion is the manner and nature of the Taliban’s efforts to communicate their goals, views, and values. This paper analyses the message Taliban propaganda seeks to present and the means used to do so. It also evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the Taliban’s efforts to communicate with and influence local Pashtun communities, both supporters and opponents alike. The paper argues that Taliban propaganda in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan has evolved with increasing sophistication and has adapted its message to evolving local conditions by taking into account the political, economic, and socio-cultural predicaments of its intended audience.

Literature review

The Taliban insurgency has a complicated past with many successes and failures. Gohari traces the origins of their ideology to the madrassas of Pakistan during the 1980s. Gohari’s discussion of the hardships that Afghan refugees faced during the Soviet invasion has helped understand the conditions that allowed the Taliban to gain a strong footing amongst the Afghan population in its early days. The author describes the miserable state of refugee camps and the lack of schools and employment opportunities in refugee areas which led to radicalization of Afghans and growing hatred toward foreign military presence and interference in Afghan affairs.

Kareem Kamel argues that Taliban’s success lies in their capacity to act as resourceful ethnic entrepreneurs through selective usage of dominant Pashtun and Islamic mythomoteurs (constitutive myth that gives an ethnic group its sense of purpose) in the process of symbolic cultivation. He shows the ability of the Taliban to adapt their propaganda means and fine-tune their messages to appeal to local sensitivities and grievances. In addition, the report by the International Crisis Group “Taliban Propaganda Winning the War of Words” sheds light on both the messages the Taliban wish to convey to the public and their media strategies. Thomas Johnson has showed how the shabnama have a long history in Afghanistan and are still effectively used today to deliver threats and instill fear. Johnson’s discussion of Taliban poetry identified several themes present in their chants and poetry. He also highlighted the Afghan government’s failure to address these efforts and its naïve dismissal of these poems as simply “entertainment.” To the contrary, the Taliban exploit these inexpensive but effective tools to successfully spread their propaganda. Of a different opinion is Tim Foxley who argues that Taliban propaganda is neither particularly complex nor even effective, but appears so because of the inefficacy of both foreign and government propaganda.

Means of Propaganda

Since the rise of the Taliban in 1996, propaganda means have evolved over time. From the use of traditional methods targeting limited audiences to adopting more advanced approaches reaching larger numbers of people in Afghanistan and the world over, the Taliban have shown increasing sophistication in their media tactics. The Taliban issue print magazines but also operate their own website and social media accounts, including Twitter and Facebook. However, high rates of illiteracy in rural areas compel the Taliban to rely on more traditional means of communication, such as issuing pamphlets, delivering sermons in mosques, teaching Taliban ideology in madrassas, issuing of threats in shabnama, and circulating poetry.[7] 


In the 1980s, hundreds of Afghan refugees in Pakistan enrolled their male children into madrassas or religious schools. According to Neamatollah Njoumi, attending these schools provided a source of income for many refugee families as they offered free rooms, daily meals, and a monthly stipend, which the students used to support their families.[8] Since refugee camps were often located far from town, finding jobs was almost impossible and families relied on this type of income.[9] Over the course of the Afghan conflict, mujahideen groups such as Hezb-e-Islami and Jamaat-e-Islami became involved in these schools and even opened their own.[10] Gradually, madrassas became affiliated with the war effort and provided military training to students, who often went on to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets.[11]

The ideological formation of the Taliban has historical roots in the emergence of thousands of madrassas across Pakistan. Like other mujahideen groups, members of the Taliban including the senior leadership such as the former supreme commander Mullah Mohammad Omar, have received their education and training in these institutions.[12] When the Taliban came to power in 1994, public schools were shut down and replaced with madrassas and it was declared that students of these schools would be entrusted with the duty of jihad-fi-sabeelillah (War in Allah’s path).[13]

Although the Taliban initially banned girls from attending classes and threatened any individual who would teach girls privately, they have softened their stance in recent years. Women and girls now attend segregated classes at these madrassas or in separate schools for girls.[14] Their curriculums are typically limited to Quran memorisation, the study of Hadith, Islamic law as well as languages such as Arabic and Pashto[15].

In most rural areas, madrassas are the only form of institutionalized education and a critical means to promote Taliban ideology. Since secular knowledge is unavailable and literacy rates are low in these regions, children easily absorb these schools’ teachings. Additionally, for the poorest families, it is the added benefits of free daily meals and basic provisions that make these institutions attractive for their children.

Poetry and Chants

Poetry and chants form a strong component of Pashtun culture; throughout history they have been a means of entertainment, art, and storytelling. Even during Taliban rule, despite the ban on several forms of entertainment and media (such as music and television) poetry and chants were permitted – in particular religious chants and taranas oremotional, martial, nationalistic songs without musical accompaniment.[16] Over time, these became a powerful Taliban tool for “instructing” and intimidating the Afghan population.

The Taliban regularly compose powerful lengthy poetry and chants on a variety of topics, including the importance of jihad, the long and honourable history of Afghanistan’s struggle  against foreign “infidels,” Pashtun traditions, Islam, and even love.[17] While some poetry points directly to Taliban activities, others aim to intensify and applaud resistance to foreigners and appeal to nationalism. Since Taliban members are primarily Pashtun, these poems and chants are mostly composed in Pashto (and sometimes in Dari), thus making them easily accessible to the population.[18]

Johnson and Waheed described Taliban chants as melodic with catchy tunes; often with repeating sections that have a tendency to persist in people’s consciousness.[19] The authors claim that the catchy rhymes, rhythm, and lyrics of the chants are easily memorized and passed on as they are one of the key sources of entertainment in communal gatherings and celebratory events. As such, poetry has become a crucial means of promoting propaganda, especially for the illiterate. According to Johnson and Waheed, several local singers and musicians have also decided to sing Taliban chants, thereby further increasing their popularity. They have also come to the attention of an increasing number of Pashtun youth, especially in areas where the Taliban have a substantial presence.[20]

The Taliban have been able to keep up with the modernizing population by ensuring that these chants and poems are widely available to rural and urban populations through a wide variety of mediums such as poetry books, Taliban magazines, CDs, audio cassettes, websites, and YouTube. Chants are now also available as downloadable ringtones on the internet.[21]


Shabnama (night letters) are a traditional means of communication in Afghanistan. These letters consist of printed or handwritten pages delivered to targeted individuals, distributed throughout towns and villages, or even blanketed over entire provinces. The letters are usually posted to the walls of mosques, government buildings, or other important landmarks, and promise death to anyone who disobeys their threats and instructions.[22] Night letters were a particularly useful technique employed by the mujahideen to influence and intimidate their recipients chiefly during times of turmoil, such as during the Soviet invasion. Nelofer Pazira, in her book A Bed of Red Flowers, describes the use of night letters to coordinate shop closings or similar activities intended to generate solidarity among the Afghan population in their anti-Soviet conflict.[23]

The Taliban adopted this highly cost-effective means to deliver threats to warn villages of the “wrath” they would face if they cooperated with international forces or the government. Often the targets of these letters are the villagers seen talking to ISAF soldiers, or the victims of local Taliban settling old tribal scores. While such methods do not win the hearts of local villagers, they are successful in instilling fear and making villagers reluctant to engage with the international community or the Afghan Government.[24] The Taliban rely on the educated populace to communicate the shabnama to illiterate villagers. Typically, shabnama are directed to figures of authority and supporters of the current government and often read as the following: “Once this government falls, we will be in power. We have your documents, your names and your addresses. We will come and punish you.”[25]

Night letters are often accompanied by direct action, such as school burnings and the execution of locals accused of spying for American forces. There have been countless cases of Taliban beheading villagers and innocent children for “spying for the government.” For instance, in 2013, the Taliban beheaded two boys aged 10 and 16 as a warning to villagers not to cooperate with the Afghan government.[26] The increasing use of such means demonstrates the Taliban’s ability to learn from other insurgent groups and benefit from the growth of local industries for the  production of audio-visual propaganda.

Themes and Messages of Taliban Propaganda

While the means of propaganda is important to reach the intended audiences, it is ultimately the message that will determine whether intentions will turn into actions. There are clear recurring themes within Taliban’s propaganda that are directed toward the local population, including the call to jihad, resistance to foreign forces, and the local government. The Taliban use their interpretation of Islam as a basis to back their ideology and claims.

Foreign Presence and Afghan Government

The Taliban promote the notion that it is the Islamic duty of Afghans to attack the foreign military presence thus undermining the legitimacy of foreign presence and boasting its ability to attack it.[27] Exaggeration and distortion on the following issues are commonplace: (a) the numbers of casualties inflicted on foreign forces, (b) the numbers of casualties inflicted on Afghan civilians by foreign forces, (c) claims to have brought down foreign aircraft, (d) kidnappings or capturing of military personnel, and (e) weapons systems available to the Taliban.[28]

The following is an extract from an online publication on the Taliban website and entitled “Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure,” published on October 2, 2017:

We want to remind America and their stooges that when you had 150,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010-2012 and turned to all kind of terror and brutalities, did any leader of the Islamic Emirate seek asylum in any other country? Did they abandon their resistance? It is to be mentioned that all leaders of the Islamic Emirate have been refined and hardened in the furnace of time. Have your generals not admitted many a times that defeating Taliban is not an easy task. They are resilient, always emerging with new tactics to confront us. Therefore, do not waste your money on such failed intelligence efforts and meaningless wars anymore. It is not worth it.

Readily, America seeks to extricate herself of due financial share in the NATO and the United Nations under one pretext or the other because of economic problems. This is the result of your meaningless wars in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries which have made you weak and discredited to such an extent… So, there is still time to realize and abandon your imperialistic schemes before you face the same fate of the former Soviet Union.[3]

The publication includes several significant messages directed toward the American government, but also to the local population. Firstly, it aims to commend the strength and resilience of the Taliban for not abandoning the fight despite the heavy presence of foreign soldiers. Secondly, it hopes to make apparent the growing weakness of the Americans by revealing their reluctance to financially contribute to NATO and the UN as a consequence of their “meaningless wars.” Lastly, the publication seeks to remind the Americans and more importantly the Afghan population, of its earlier victory against the Soviet Union in an attempt to further illustrate the nation’s success against foreigners.

Taliban strength is also demonstrated in their poems.

wali pa gondo shwali?
sar pa narido shwali?
ta kho wel che za super kuwat pa tol jahan ki yem
nan kho sta makhi ta watalei nagyalei Talib,
har chata warzi da nangyali Talib.[30]


Why did you go to your knees?
Began to drop on your head?
You claimed you are the superpower of the world.
Today, you encountered a young Talib,
Facing everyone proudly, this young Talib.

The poem is from the viewpoint of a talib (single of Taliban) fighter and is addressed to an American soldier who drops down to his knees in agony upon the death of his comrade. The talib asks the Americans why they drop to their knees after claiming to be all-powerful. He further explains that it is because the soldier saw a Talib, who courageously faced him and brought him to his knees.

Figure 1: A page from a fourth grade Pashto textbook used by the Taliban

Anti-foreigner propaganda is also present in madrassas, where textbooks used by the Taliban are filled with violent messages and images, exposing children from an early age to a culture of violence. Figure 1 shows a page for the letter “K” from a Pashto alphabet book. The text reads “K” for Kor (house/home), Afghanistan is the home of Muslims. Kaafirs are the enemies of our religion and our nation. We will not let enemies enter our pure home.”[31]

The Taliban perceive the Afghan governments succeeding their rule as “puppets” of the Americans and have devoted much of their efforts to shifting local support and opinion against the government. The Afghan government, particularly under Karzai was presented as corrupt, as run by non-Muslims who are directing Afghanistan toward un-Islamic western values. This is further evident from the highly degrading language used by the Taliban when referring to government forces. Members of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP) are labelled munafiq (hypocrite), and other members of the administration are called ghulam (slave/servant), ajir (agent), and gawdagai (puppet)[32].

The Taliban seeks to portray itself as resolute and its violence as legitimate. The growing discontent with corruption within the government further fuels grievances and presents the Taliban as a viable alternative, even to people who do not like the Taliban. The Taliban have realised this and have created parallel governments that enforce Sharia law and established Islamic courts to solve disputes among residents.[33] Taliban courts are perceived as quicker, fairer, more effective and less corrupt than the secular courts, a further proof of the Afghan government’s inability to impose law and order, and its negligence of the rural areas.[34]

Figure 2: A Taliban shabnama threatening an individual seen to be cooperating with foreigners

Taliban shabnama are also used to threaten any individuals, groups or organizations that are cooperating with foreign forces. Figure 2 shows a shabnama with the Taliban seal on the top of the page. The shabnama is addressed to Neamatullah Rekazai, working for an aid organization, “ABM,” which helps women find work.[35] The text threatens Neamatullah to stop cooperating with foreigners or “face the consequences.” It further clarifies that the Taliban are aware of where he lives and works. In a culture that emphasizes loyalty to the state and tribe, such public shaming of individuals is an effective tool for the Taliban.

Jihad and Islam

Another major topic of discussion in Taliban propaganda is jihad and the duty of every Afghan and Muslim to perform it. The Taliban present jihad as a vital part of one’s belief in Islam and an “honor” for a Muslim. Figure 3 is a page discussing the letter “T” from a children’s Pashto textbook used in madrassas. The text reads “T” for “Topak” (weapon/gun), “My uncle has a gun. He does jihad with the gun.”[36] Figure 4 shows a page from a mathematics book which teaches children to count using images of Kalashnikovs, handguns, knives and bullets.[37] Such messages are specially designed to instil a culture of violence in young minds and teach children from a young age their “duty” as a Muslim and an Afghan.

Na ba Jari grani mori sta zakhmuna me che giri,
Za shahid pa Shariat yet pa winu ke lat pat yam,
Janaza ta me ratel ka spin pagrei and stergei ye tori.
Handagha khafar de bad dei,
nan sa ham na dei hawas dei,
Ghbargi hoori mi tarsang di,
pa ma kri da zulfo syuri[38].


Don’t cry my dear mother when you see my red scars,
I am shaheed (a martyr) by Shariah all covered in blood,
Gather white turbans and black eyes for my funeral,
This is enough pride for you,
Today isn’t a day of sorrow it is a celebration,
There are Hoori around me,
their long hair is giving me shade.

Jihad and Islam are also strong themes in Taliban poems and chants. Poem 2 is a chant from a talib fighter’s viewpoint telling his mother not to cry because he is a shaheed (martyr) in the name of Islam. The mention of “red scars” and “blood” is intentional to instill a sense of pride a soldier or martyr should feel from their battle wounds. The soldier tells his mother that his martyrdom or jihad should be a cause for celebration and that he is now in paradise surrounded by hoori, the women of heaven.

Evaluating Taliban Propaganda

Reliable information in Afghanistan is scarcely available and high levels of illiteracy coupled with poor access to modern media lead to reliance on messages spread through word of mouth. This means that information is often imprecise, out of date, and second hand. For such an audience, any claims of military success by the Taliban will be deemed credible. Secondly, the Taliban have dominated the narrative as its spokesmen reach out to journalists and media outlets with detailed accounts of insurgent attacks in real-time while the Kabul government stays silent.[39] Bureaucratic lethargy often prevents Afghan officials from issuing timely responses to Taliban claims. Government forces cannot publish photos and videos from the battlefield and must follow formal approval procedures prior to any publication, which limits their ability to contest Taliban’s claims. Their prompt responses along with their ability to threaten journalists, allow the Taliban to claim attacks and present exaggerated accounts of incidents to their benefit.[40] 

In addition, the Taliban benefit from the damage and civilian casualties resulting from foreign military operations and from the perceived lack of respect for local people, property and tribal customs by Western military tactics. The Taliban publish monthly reports detailing the number of casualties per day along with the location and a brief description of each incident. The following is an excerpt from a post on the Taliban website titled “War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries” for the month of September 2017:

“On Wednesday 13th September, main gates of civilian houses were blasted in bombs; the houses were thoroughly searched out; local people were badly beaten; their valuables were stolen; and eventually 4 innocent villagers were taken away as prisoners during a brutal raid of the savage foreign invaders escorted by their internal stooge forces in Abu-Bakar village of Wazir area in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province.”[41]

Often the figures in these reports are highly exaggerated in an attempt to create resentment toward the foreign forces. These reports are not only published on the Taliban websites but also in the Taliban magazines and broadcasted on Taliban run radio stations.

Taliban propaganda has shown to adapt to the changing conditions within Afghanistan and address contemporary issues, in particular on the role of women. Mullah Omar guaranteed that the new Taliban regime would “respect the rights of all people in the country, including women.” Accordingly, in Taliban controlled regions, the number of girls’ madrassas has been growing. Jelani Zwak, an Afghan political analyst who studied Taliban propaganda stated that “these days their propaganda has changed. They are not only talking about the occupation and civilian casualties. They are acting like an alternative to this government.”[42] Referring to the Karzai administration, which many Afghans perceived as corrupt, Mullah Omar had vowed that the Taliban would also “bring about administrative transparency in all government departments.”[43]

Although Taliban propaganda has evolved and strengthened over time, it does have its limitations. The message is often inadequate and lacking clear insight as little effort is made to appeal to a wider Afghan and western audience. Though the means used reach a wide international audience, the message is nevertheless directed toward the local Pashtun population. While the Taliban have gradually embraced modern communications technology, they struggle to modify and develop their message. Most importantly, the Taliban do not appear to propose any clear political or governance ideas and policies and seem to lack a broad strategic overview.[44] There seems to exist minimal interest in, or understanding of, wider global issues that could potentially assist them. As medical and food aid as well as reconstruction efforts reach larger parts of the country, the Taliban argument which claims foreign and government forces seek to cause destruction in Afghanistan are beginning to lose weight amongst the population. In addition, the messages are often muddled and contradictory. A spokesman would claim an attack only to have another spokesman counter the claim, particularly if the incident resulted in civilian casualties. In June 2005, then Taliban spokesman Hakimi, denied that the group had carried out a suicide attack at a funeral in Kandahar that killed at least 20 Afghans. He instead falsely claimed that the Taliban had only assassinated one target at the funeral, the man for whom the funeral was being held.[45]

However, little effort has been made to counter Taliban propaganda, particularly in rural regions. Opposition propaganda (chiefly American propaganda) has only assisted to further the Taliban’s cause as it is severely limited in terms of both quantity and quality. American anti-Taliban propaganda has often backfired, where any efforts to portray a negative image of the Taliban have instead resulted in insulting Islam or local values, something the Pashtun people cannot tolerate. For instance, in early 2017, American forces distributed leaflets to homes in Parwan province (north of Kabul). The leaflets depicted a lion representing the American-led coalition forces, chasing a dog (an animal considered impure in Islam) wrapped in the Taliban flag. The writing on the flag is the shahada, the most sacred of texts in Islam, the foundational declaration of faith in God. The leaflets worked in the favour of the Taliban, sparked anti-American anger and violence, and led to the suicide bombing at the American air base in Bagram[46].

Arturo Munoz, studied American anti-Taliban propaganda in Afghanistan and found that most efforts produced no significant results. Munoz argues that early propaganda disseminated in 2001, immediately after the War on Terror was declared, attempted to justify the war to the Afghans but failed to gain local support as they felt Al-Qaeda was to blame and not the Taliban. The Afghans held the “Arabs” accountable and felt the war was unjust. American propaganda then evolved to include pictures of the plane crashes of September 11. Munoz states that due to lack of televisions and other media outlets, many Afghans had never seen tall buildings before and could not comprehend the images. Furthermore, the concept of commercial airplanes did not resonate with the locals who had largely seen American fighter planes in their skies. Therefore, many Afghans were perplexed as to why American fighter planes were crashing into their own buildings. Eventually American anti-Taliban propaganda sought another approach by portraying pictures of the Taliban crossed out with bright red ink or images of rockets directed toward a talib. Figure 6 shows an American anti-Taliban leaflet where Afghan men are seen to be buried in underground caves due to American missiles. The images do not distinguish these men as Taliban fighters and to the average Afghan it seemed like the Americans were targeting ordinary Afghan men. Several variations of these leaflets emerged with images of Taliban members however, since the locals had not seen the faces of any of the Taliban members, they could not recognise them, and the leaflets were misinterpreted[47].

However, the opposition’s costliest propaganda mistake had been made before the Taliban even came to power. Beginning in the 1980s, the Americans spent millions of dollars to produce anti-Soviet textbooks for Afghan children, which served as useful propaganda against the Soviets during the cold war.[48] The very books examined previously in the paper under “messages of Taliban propaganda” became part of the core curriculum of Afghan schools and encouraged a jihadist outlook against Soviet “infidels.”[49] They were produced with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and smuggled into Afghanistan through networks built by the CIA and ISI, Pakistan’s military intelligence agency.[50] The very tools created by the Americans to influence Afghan opinion on the Soviets were later used by the Taliban to shift public opinion against Americans. The Taliban continue to use the millions of copies still circulating in the madrassas they control.


The Taliban have demonstrated remarkable success in projecting themselves as much stronger than they actually are in terms of numbers and resources. The group seem to be learning from its mistakes and is quick to exploit the weaknesses of its opponents. The Taliban are increasingly controlling more land and constructing a parallel administration, while Afghans in conflict-hit areas are evaluating options amid a sense of insurgent momentum.

American and Afghan government forces tend to view information operations as complementing military operations, whereas for the Taliban information objectives tend to drive military operations:  most military operations are designed to influence attitudes or perceptions. The American War on Terror has focused on military victories and neglected the fight to win Afghan hearts and minds. The Americans are highly capable of producing effective propaganda as demonstrated by the extensive textbook program of USAID. However, recent efforts have been careless and ineffective. The Taliban, on the other hand, cannot win on the battlefield, but they do not have to. All they must do is wear out their opponents and influencing perceptions at home and abroad are a vital component of this strategy.[51] For the Taliban, the battle for the Islamic emirate of Afghanistan is one worth fighting, and all efforts are directed toward achieving this goal.

The Taliban have proved skilful at fuelling existing grievances and uncertainties in their attempt to turn the Afghan people against the “puppet” government and its international supporters. However, the Afghan government and American forces did not make much of an effort to exploit Taliban weaknesses and winning over the population. The Taliban must be confronted to explain their actions, tactics and intentions as well as their authority and interpretation of Islam.  The Afghan government must be truly accountable and act in the best interests of the people. It must work on development of institutions and provide services and security in the rural areas which will garner public support and thus deny any opportunities for insurgents to exploit local frustrations and grievances.

Simply increasing military troop numbers is pointless if there is not a strategic plan in which building local capacity is the priority. US President Donald Trump recently announced that he will be sending more troops to Afghanistan as part of his strategy to “win” the war. Trump stated that “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” Such a policy is bound to create further destruction and instability as well as alienate the rural population even more.[52] International forces must also demonstrate accountability to the public for their actions and create more transparency in investigating civilian casualties. If this is not achieved, talks of long-term foreign military presence will only feed into nationalistic resistance and further strengthen Taliban support.

Afghans are a pragmatic people and flexible with their allegiances, therefore their assessment as to the strength of the Taliban is crucial in determining whether they will take a pro-, anti- or neutral stance towards them. The focus must shift from a military victory towards a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.


[1] James Fearon and David Laitin, Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War, American Political Science Review.97, no. 01 (2003): 85.

[2] Kareem Kamel, Understanding Taliban Resurgence, 2015, p. 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tim Foxley, The Taliban’s Propaganda Activities, (Stockholm, SIPRI, 2007), p. 2.

[5] Kamel, Understanding Taliban, p. 3.

[6] Erinn Banting, Afghanistan the People. (Crabtree Publishing Company, 2003), p. 14.

[7] According to the 2018 statistics provided by UNESCO, literacy rates in Afghanistan are as low as 13.3% for individuals aged 65 and above and 42% for those aged 15-65 years. http://uis.unesco.org/country/AF.

[8] Neamatollah Nojumi, The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (New York, Palgrave, 2002), p. 126.

[9] Home Office, Country Policy and Information Note Afghanistan: Unaccompanied children, 2018, p.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges, 2016.

[12] Ibid., p. 128.

[13] Mohammad Gohari, The Taliban: Ascent to Power, (Karachi, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 101.

[14] Lianne Gutcher, Turnaround by Taliban Gives Girls a Chance: News, (The Times Educational Supplement Scotland , 2219:11, 2011). https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/docview/881110471?accountid=14511.

[15] Nojumi, The Rise, p. 128.

[16] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda; Winning the War of Words?, (Kabul, ICG, 2008), p. 21.

[17] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Thomas Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact, 2011, p. 4.

[20] Ibid., p.3

[21] Ibid., p. 6.

[22] Thomas Johnson, The Taliban Insurgency and an Analysis of Shabnamas, 2007, p. 321.

[23] Ibid., p. 320.

[24] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 16.

[25] Johnson, Shabnama, p. 321.

[26]  Reuters, Taliban beheads two boys in southern Afghanistan, (Kabul, 2013).http://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-beheadings/taliban-beheads-two-boys-in-southern-afghanistan-idUSBRE9590PA20130610

[27] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 18.

[28] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 8.

[29] Al-Emarah, Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure (2017).

[30] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 109.

[31] Syed Hazrat, Pashto for the fourth grade, (Afghanistan: Ministry of Education, 1999).

[32] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 17.

[33] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 10.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Abubakar Siddique, Afghan Aid Worker Not Blind To Taliban Threats, Radio Liberty, 2017. https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan_aid_worker_not_blind_to_threats/24312830.html.

[36] A.H. ‘Not Yet History’, (Bamyan, The Economist, 2012), https://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/11/textbooks-afghanistan.

[37] Strick van Linschoten et. al., Poetry of the Taliban, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), p. 115.

[38] Ibid., p. 157.

[39] Jason Motlagh, Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War, (Kabul, The Times, 2009). http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1895496,00.html

[40] Rod Nordland, Taliban Threats to Afghan Journalists Show Shift in Tactics, The New York Times, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/world/asia/taliban-threats-to-afghan-journalists-show-shift-in-tactics.html

[41] Al-Emarah, War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries, (Kabul, 2017).

[42] Londono, Ernesto. Taliban steps up propaganda war. The Washington Post. 2010. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/01/AR2010100107298.html

[43] Dorronsoro, Gilles. “Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power Of Stories In The Afghanistan Conflict.” Politique Etrangere, no. 4 (2018), p. 27.

[44] Foxley, The Taliban, p. 14.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Mujib Mashal, Afghan Anger Simmers Over U.S. Leaflets Seen as Insulting Islam, The New York Times, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/08/world/asia/afghanistan-leaflets-islam-american-military.html

[47] Arturo Munoz, U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010. (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2012), pp. 44-112.

[48] News Rescue. Genesis of Islamic Radicalism: The US Textbook Project That Taught Afghan Children Terror, 2012. http://newsrescue.com/genesis-of-islamic-radicalism-the-us-textbook-project-that-taught-afghan-children-terror/#axzz4xD14hbbe

[49] Joe Stephens and David Ottoway, From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad; Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts, The Washington Post. (2002). ttps://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2002/03/23/from-us-the-abcs-of-jihad/d079075a-3ed3-4030-9a96-0d48f6355e54/?utm_term=.b47f5aacbbba

[50] Ibid.

[51] International Crisis Group, Taliban Propaganda, p. 33.

[52] David Nakamura and  Abby Phillip, Trump announces new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for a troop increase. The Washington Post. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-expected-to-announce-small-troop-increase-in-afghanistan-in-prime-time-address/2017/08/21/eb3a513e-868a-11e7-a94f-3139abce39f5_story.html?utm_term=.05af673ea94e


A.H. The Economist. “Not Yet History”, 2012. https://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/11/textbooks-afghanistan.

Al-Emarat. Intelligence Ploys of the Enemy, a Sign of their Despair and Failure. Kabul. 2017.

Al-Emarah, War crimes of savage foreign invaders and their internal mercenaries, (Kabul, 2017).

Banting, Erinn. 2003. Afghanistan the People. Crabtree Publishing Company.

Dorronsoro, Gilles. “Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power Of Stories In The Afghanistan Conflict.” Politique Etrangere, no. 4 (2018).

Fearon, James D, And David D Laitin. Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War. American Political Science Review.97, no. 01 (2003): 75-90.

Foxley, Tim. The Taliban’s Propaganda Activities How Well Is the Afghan Insurgency Communicating and What Is It Saying? Stockholm: SIPRI, 2007.

Gohari, M. J. 2000. The Taliban: Ascent to Power. Karachi: Oxford University Press.

Gutcher, Lianne. 2011. “Turnaround by Taliban Gives Girls a Chance: News.” The Times Educational Supplement Scotland (2219) (Jun 17): 11. https://search-proquest-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/docview/881110471?accountid=14511.

Haltiwanger, J. (2018). America’s ‘war on terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people, and there’s no end in sight. [online] Business Insider. Available at: https://www.businessinsider.com/the-war-on-terror-has-cost-the-us-nearly-6-trillion-2018-11?r=US&IR=T.

Hazrat, Syed. 1999. Pashto for the fourth grade. Afghanistan: Ministry of Education.

Home Office, ‘Country Policy and Information Note Afghanistan: Unaccompanied children’, 2018.  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/697275/Afghanistan_-_Children_-_CPIN_-_v1.1__April_2018_.pdf

Human Rights Watch, Afghanistan: Taliban Child Soldier Recruitment Surges, 2016. https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/02/17/afghanistan-taliban-child-soldier-recruitment-surges

International Crisis Group. 2008. Taliban Propaganda Winning the War of Words? Asia Report, No. 158. Kabul: International Crisis Group.

Johnson, Thomas H, and Ahmad Waheed. 2011. Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact.

Johnson, Thomas H. 2007. “The Taliban Insurgency and an Analysis of Shabnamas (Night Letters)”. Small Wars & Insurgencies 18 (3): 317-344.

Kamel, Kareem. “Understanding Taliban Resurgence: Ethno-Symbolism and Revolutionary Mobilization.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 15, no. 1 (2015): 66-82.

Kolhatkar, S., & Ingalls, J. Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, warlords, and the propaganda of silence (Seven Stories Press 1st ed.). New York: Seven Stories Press. (2006). 

Londono, Ernesto. Taliban steps up propaganda war. The Washington Post. 2010

Motlagh, Jason. Why the Taliban are Winning the Propaganda War. Kabul, The Times. 2009

Mujib Mashal, Afghan Anger Simmers Over U.S. Leaflets Seen as Insulting Islam, The New York Times, 2017.

Munoz, Arturo. 2012. U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Naheed Bashardost. 49,000 girl students enrolled in Kabul-based religious schools. Kabul, Pajhwok News. 2016.

Nakamura, David and  Phillip, Abby. Trump announces new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for a troop increase. The Washington Post. 2017

Nojumi, Neamatollah. The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan: Mass Mobilization, Civil War, and the Future of the Region. 1st Ed. ed. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Roggio, Bill. Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahideen’. Long War Journal. 2017.

Siddique, Abubakar. “Afghan Aid Worker Not Blind to Taliban Threats”. Radio Liberty, 2017. https://www.rferl.org/a/afghan_aid_worker_not_blind_to_threats/24312830.html.

Stephens, Joe and Ottoway, David. “From U.S., the ABC’s of Jihad; Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts.” The Washington Post A.01 (2002): 01.

Strick van Linschoten, Alex, Felix Kuehn, Mirwais Rahmany, Hamid Stanikzai, and Faisal Devji. 2012. Poetry of the Taliban. New York: Columbia University Press.


A map from a Taliban report which accurately replicates results as those from the Long War Journal depicts the extent of Taliban control in Afghanistan.

Source: Roggio, Bill. Afghan Taliban lists ‘Percent of Country under the control of Mujahideen’. Long War Journal. 2017.

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