Who owns the Taliban storyline?
One can draw many conclusions about the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Here are three:
- The Taliban defeated the United States.
- The United States’ role in the world is weakening.
- Domestic anti-American sentiment is growing.
These themes have credibility and dominate many places on the internet. Many people support the Taliban organization taking maximum advantage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. What can the U.S. do to counteract these stories and perceptions of Taliban strength and U.S. weakness?
First, understand that the Taliban is a fiction. It is not something physical, like land or a person or ink on paper. The “Taliban,” like all other ideas, becomes powerful – or weak – as a narrative would.
People hear a story and feel compelled to take action — to join, support, ignore, oppose or quit. Once a narrative like “the Taliban” becomes popular, people will use it to gain power, wealth and revenge. The U.S withdrawal has given some individuals the opportunity to claim Taliban ascendancy. But who are these individuals? Who owns the Taliban storyline?
Second, recognize that the Taliban is not a unitary actor and that infighting poses a significant threat to the strength of the Taliban fiction. A recent article points out the internal divisions playing out in Afghanistan. “There is a new battle taking shape in Afghanistan,” Princeton Professor Jacob Shapiro writes. “This one within the Taliban political movement.”
Think of those vying for political power in Afghanistan today because of the power vacuum created by the U.S. departure. Some see this as their big opportunity to make a move up the political ladder; others in leadership now must look over their shoulders to see who might challenge their incumbency. Afghanistan today looks more like a competitive marketplace, one where people use violence and coercion, engage in corruption, spin stories of victory and righteousness, all to fulfill personal ambitions. Many political entrepreneurs who would like to grow in power, wealth and stature think now is the time, but not all of them will succeed.
Since the Taliban is a firm in turmoil (competing entrepreneurs seeking personal gain on the narrative of Taliban defeat of the United States in a competitive Afghanistan market), then the path to defeating the Taliban is clear.
- Analyze like a business executive
Many firms fail; only some succeed. How can the U.S. cause the Taliban to fail? Like a business, the Taliban pays salaries to their fighters and leaders. As an organization, it generates $400 million in revenues from the opium trade. But competitors such as the Haqqani Network, the Islamic State and the Afghan government still occupy mindshare and market share and control populations in the Afghanistan political market.
While $400 million in opium revenue may sound like a lot, when considered against the costs of payroll, supplies, provisions, food and gas for vehicles, it likely falls far short of the funds needed to consolidate power around the “we defeated the U.S.” narrative.
The U.S. must ensure the Taliban does not gain state recognition and, therefore, access to massive amounts of additional funds. The reality is: The Taliban needs more money. As Shapiro notes, without foreign aid, the Taliban will begin “an inexorable slide into another round of fighting, and eventually a government with little power outside the Pashtun heartland where it has the most legitimacy.”
- Define victory in market terms
“Victory” isn’t the moment when the enemy surrenders; there won’t be a Taliban surrender. Instead, “victory” in this case means that there are firms within Afghanistan that successfully compete against the Taliban and the Haqqanis, backed by competing narratives of human rights, human dignity, freedom and democracy. The Taliban narrative won’t be extinguished, but the firm behind it will struggle for power in a market of competing firms. The United States must now support those who seek to rise on the narratives of freedom, democracy and respect for human dignity.
- Fight like an entrepreneur
Good entrepreneurs consider all resources available when engaging in a competition. President Biden withdrew our military forces from Afghanistan, but he has considerable power beyond kinetic force. The U.S. has financial power and can provide and deny access to capital and trade. It can sanction individuals and firms and can lead the world in coalition economic policies designed to constrain abusive leaders and promote democratic leaders.
Finally, the United States can create a cacophony of voices expressing and supporting narratives to counter the Taliban. Freedom and respect for human dignity matter, and those who fight for these values will benefit from friendship with the American people.
By diminishing the Taliban’s narrative, brand and funding, the U.S. can have an impact on what happens next in Afghanistan.
Gary M. Shiffman, Ph.D., is a Gulf War veteran, a former chief of staff of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. He is the founder of Giant Oak and Consilient and author of “The Economics of Violence: How Behavioral Science Can Transform our View of Crime, Insurgency, and Terrorism.”