Taliban Narratives

The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict

January 2018 9781849048439 336pp
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Why has the Taliban been so much more effective in presenting messages that resonate with the Afghan population than the United States, the Afghan government and their allies? This book, based on years of field research and the assessment of hundreds of original source materials, examines the information operations and related narratives of Afghan insurgents, especially the Afghan Taliban, and investigates how the Taliban has won the information war.

Taliban messaging, wrapped in the narrative of jihad, is both to the point and in tune with its target audiences. On the other hand, the United States and its Kabul allies committed a basic messaging blunder, failing to present narratives that spoke to or, often, were even understood by their target audiences. Thomas Johnson systematically explains why the United States lost this ‘battle of the story’ in Afghanistan, and argues that this defeat may have cost the US the entire war, despite its conventional and technological superiority.


‘Important . . . this book has true utility . . . it has no rival in the body of research on the conflict.’ — The Strategy Bridge

‘A powerful corrective to casual Western assumptions of military superiority . . . Johnson’s research is exhaustive.’ — Survival

‘A very timely investigation.’ —  International Affairs

‘Thomas H. Johnson’s book is important and significantly advances academic understanding on the Taliban. The painstaking translation of a range of Taliban communique including poems, stories, diktats, in a sense, becomes a treasure trove for researchers . . . a refreshing effort.’ — Small Wars and Insurgencies

‘Explains how and why the Taliban’s clever use of propaganda has enabled the insurgency to flourish.’ — Arab News

‘Fascinating.’ — Choice‘

‘This book is not only extremely informative about an important topic, but its thesis is challenging and… substantially correct.’ — Religious Studies Review

Taliban Narratives is a much needed and detailed look at how the Taliban has consistently outperformed the US and NATO in getting across its message. We and our Afghan partners could do much better if we use this guidance. Valuable lessons for the future as well.’ — Ronald Neumann, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2005-07

‘Deeply original and utterly authoritative: a captivating study of a vital subject.’ — Richard English, author of Does Terrorism Work? A History

‘This is a very useful contribution to the analysis and studying of the Taliban and also Hizb-i Islami, in particular propaganda and how the Taliban have been portraying themselves. This rich analysis is based on material gathered in the field over the years.’ — Antonio Giustozzi, author of The Army of Afghanistan: A Political History of a Fragile Institution

‘Thomas Johnson has spent much of the past two decades thinking about how narratives and messaging are used in the Afghan conflict. Taliban Narratives examines both the insurgency’s development of a “strong story” as well as the weakness of international efforts to do the same. This empathetic reading of Afghan voices should be mandatory reading for international military forces working in Afghanistan.’ — Alex Strick van Linschoten, co-editor of The Taliban Reader

‘Thomas Johnson smelled trouble in Afghanistan years before scepticism became fashionable among lesser experts. He raised the alarm from the inception of the war, warning that the world’s most powerful military forces were blundering into the country with little understanding of the local context. This excellent book chronicles his painstaking efforts to understand the war from an Afghan perspective, making a rigorous inquiry into the motivation of the insurgents. His book will find a well-deserved place on the bookshelves of any soldier, diplomat, or other student of South Asia.’ — Graeme Smith, author of The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War In Afghanistan

Taliban Narratives provides a fascinating look into the propaganda war between the Taliban and the United States in Afghanistan. Packed with primary sources in translation, it deepens our understanding of the Taliban, of information operations, and ultimately of why the war has lasted so long.’ — Thomas Hegghammer. editor of Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists

‘In this meticulous assessment of primary sources, gathered over numerous years of research in Afghanistan, Thomas H. Johnson elucidates how the Taliban outflanked America and her Afghan allies in Kabul to win the war of ideas. This book deserves wide and considered attention.’ — C. Christine Fair, Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and author of Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War

‘Johnson cuts through the mythology and misinformation about the enemy in America’s longest war. A superb book by one of our foremost experts on Afghanistan.’ — Michael Weiss, CNN National Security Analyst, and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror


Thomas H. Johnson is a Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School (Monterey, California).  He has conducted research and published widely on Afghanistan and South Asia for three decades. In 2009, he served as the Senior Political and Counterinsurgency Advisor to Gen. Jonathan Vance, Commander of Canadian Forces in Afghanistan (Task Force Kandahar).

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