Poetry as a Weapon of War in Afghanistan


According to two new reports by a leading Afghanistan watcher at the Naval Postgraduate School, one of the U.S. military’s premiere educational institutions, “the Taliban blow us away” in getting its message out to the Afghan public by using poetry and music — means the United States does not understand or take into account.

According to the studies, the Taliban uses “historical narratives, symbology, and iconic portraits…to engender emotions of sorrow, pride, desperation, hope, and complaints to mobilize and convince the Afghan population of the Taliban’s world view.”

Thomas Johnson, a co-author, says that although it’s difficult, the United States can learn from the Taliban about how to communicate with the Afghan people. Jeffrey Brown recently spoke with Johnson in Washington, D.C.:

[A transcript is after the jump]

JEFFREY BROWN: Taliban fighters glorifying their struggle against the United States and other forces through song. Can music and poetry win or lose a war? Well, no one goes quite that far in the Afghanistan conflict, but as spring approaches and the Taliban are expected to intensify their attacks on U.S. and coalition forces, the role of poetry and chant as a means to recruit fighters and rouse public support are explored in two recent scholarly papers. Examples can be viewed on YouTube. Here a man sings a motivational chant for Taliban fighters glorifying the exploits of a warrior. Another chant tells of Malali, an Afghan woman war hero who fought against the British a century ago, encouraging people to join today’s war against foreigners. A third chant warns the death of a top Taliban commander killed by coalition forces in 2007.

Thomas Johnson a research professor and director of the Program for Culture and Conflicts Studies at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School is co-author of the recent studies.

How did you first get involved in looking at poetry in Afghanistan?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I’ve been to Afghanistan many times, but in the summer of 2003, I was interviewing tribal elders and village elders in Kandahar City at a hotel. And during one of the breaks, I went out into the lobby and I noticed people Bluetoothing things from one cell phone to the next. Bluetoothing, electronically transferring data within a short range, and I went to one of my colleagues and I asked him, what are these people doing? And he says, oh, they’re transferring Taliban music from one cell phone to the next. And I was intrigued. I was in the country studying the Taliban and the general conflict in the country, and I had my colleague get me a DVD or a CD-ROM of these chants and we had them translated and they were absolutely fascinating.

JEFFREY BROWN: The paper says it offers “valuable insight into the power of poetry within the Afghan battle space.” First reaction is: poetry in a battle space. What’s the connection?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. Many people conceive of the conflict in Afghanistan as an insurgency-counterinsurgency. I conceive insurgency-counterinsurgency basically as an information war supported by military action or what people call military kinetics. So the message that this two sides are using to try to win the trust and confidence of the people — we like to say hearts and minds — but to win the hearts and minds of the people becomes an incredibly important weapon, if you will.

JEFFREY BROWN: And poetry is part of that?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Poetry is part of that. Afghanistan is basically an illiterate society. Before the war maybe 10 percent of the country was literate. The statistics now say maybe 23 percent, and parts of the south of Afghanistan, maybe 1 percent of the females are literate and maybe 5 percent of the males are literate. But Afghan history is very important from generation to generation, so the Afghans came up with a scheme to be able to transmit knowledge from father to son, from generation to generation, and poetry is a perfect means of doing that. The rhyme and rhythm makes it easy to memorize, much like advertisers do on Madison Avenue in the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so give me an example of how the Taliban would use a poem or a chant.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, in Kandahar City, for example, the Kandaharis will go out into…some of the district areas on Sundays for picnics, literally picnics. And musicians will show up, people that are chanting. We’ve seen on YouTube and other places where people will show up and start chanting. Through the translations we found out that these are actually Taliban narratives — what we like to call pop propaganda. But also if you go into CD stores in Kandahar City and parts of Pakistan, they sell these. They’re for public consumption.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example. What does the poetry say? You’re referring to it as propaganda. Is it overt?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Their themes are very simple. Some of the themes are such as this: that Islam can never be defeated, but the foreigners and the apostate Afghans are here to destroy Islam, and that the jihad, fighting against them, is an obligation for all Afghans. Another theme that you’ll see in the poetry and in the chants is that, we’ve had foreign invaders many times in our history, but we’ve always defeated them. And again, it’s everybody’s duty to play a role in the defeat of the foreigners who want to destroy our religion and our way of life. Another theme that’s very prominent in the chants and in the poetry is Afghans love of freedom. And they don’t want to be under the thumb of anybody else.

JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the evidence that it’s effective for the Taliban in their fight?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think it’s used for recruiting. Let me give one example. They’ve even focused certain demographics. One of the chants that I’ve analyzed talks about, Afghan young men, don’t waste your time playing football or soccer or volleyball or eating chocolates, follow the legacy of your fathers and your grandfathers and defeat people that are here to destroy your way of life. So it’s used for recruiting. Now, the effectiveness — there’s not pre- and post-studies that have been done on this that I know of — but I’ve talked to numerous village elders and tribal elders and I’ve asked about this poetry, I’ve asked about the chants, and they say that it’s very effective in recruiting and instructing the local populations on what to do and what not to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but if we know it, so what? What do we do with it?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, ideally you would think that we or our Afghan allies could put together information messages that are similar to what the Taliban are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean counterpoetry?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Counternarratives, if you will. Counterpoetry. Exactly. And rather than some of the mundane information operations that I think we’re pursuing right now that don’t’ resonate with the people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not to make light of it, but you’re suggesting we need better poetry or a better story?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. This is a war of narratives. That’s an excellent way to put it. We’re in a battle over the story. So I think there’s much to be learned from the Taliban in how we approach conflicts like this in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how far do you want to push this? Is the argument that unless we do a better job of countering the narrative through poetry and chant, we lose?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think that if you buy this notion that this conflict is 95 percent information and 5 percent military actions, yeah, then I think that we cannot win this unless we have a story to be told.