Truth wars in Afghanistan

Both sides in the conflict are trying to influence civilians with a “narrative” of victory. The truth is that Afghans have more savvy about what they want.

Afghans who fled their home due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces gather at a park in Kabul, Aug. 9.

Two wars are now being heavily waged in Afghanistan as a Sept. 11 deadline nears for the withdrawal of American forces. One is a military contest between Taliban insurgents and the U.S.-trained forces of the elected government in Kabul. The other is for the truth.

A good example of the latter was the Aug. 6 killing by the Taliban of a top government spokesperson, Dawa Khan Menapal. He had become effective in countering the radical group’s narrative that its victory was inevitable. Mr. Menapal “was a young man who stood like a mountain in the face of enemy propaganda,” one official said.

For his part, President Ashraf Ghani has tried to score points against the Taliban in this “information war” by expressing confidence in government forces. His claims of victories – many not verified – are meant to counter what is called a “narrative of abandonment,” or the impression that the withdrawal of foreign allies would lead to defeat.

Both sides are clearly trying to influence the actions and attitudes of Afghan civilians, who remain crucial to the outcome of this war – perhaps even more so than bombs and bullets. In fact, it is their discernment of the truth about the war – cutting through the fog of war propaganda – that must be as closely watched as reports of battlefield gains.

Truth does not have to be the first casualty of war. Over the two-decade conflict in Afghanistan, many Afghans have struggled to assert their self-governance in shaping their society. The population is better educated, more organized into civic groups, and more digitally connected. Many do not want to be passive or ignorant, or become victims of a truth war. 

“We wanted to have heroes that are ... changing the narrative, giving people the opportunity to imagine something different,” says Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of the ArtLords, an artist-activist group that uses public art to gently tease both officials and the Taliban to be tolerant, empathetic, and honest. The group has painted nearly 2,000 murals in most provinces to spread its messages.

One unexpected expression of civilian empowerment has been the rise of local militias – some led by traditional warlords but others newly organized. “The emergence of the public uprising forces is now an obstacle to the Taliban narrative – a narrative that was more important for the Taliban than military victories,” states the Afghan newspaper Etilaat e Roz.

Even if the Taliban take control of most cities, they will face a very different Afghan population than they did in the 1990s, when they last held power. A good example is one ArtLords mural painted after the 2016 bombing of a Kabul university by the Taliban. The image depicts young people picking up their books, saying, “I am back, because education prevails.” The deeper message: Truth prevails.

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