Small Wars Journal

What is Your Narrative, and Why?

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As the transition draws near, the attack on the [Intercontinental] hotel has only reinforced the belief of Afghans and foreigners that Afghan forces are not ready to take over security responsibilities.         - John Wendle, TIME Magazine, 29 June 2011 

But in opinion polls and interviews, Afghans nearly always declare the [Afghan National Army] to be the institution they respect the most, in sharp contrast to the police who tend to be locals and therefore mixed up in tribal disputes…Three years on, what one US official in Kabul calls "Caldwell's New Model Army" has done much to complement the security gains won by the huge number of US troops sent to Kandahar and Helmand.             - John Boone, The, 20 July 2011 

The above quotations, taken from two articles written less than a month apart, illustrate a divide between media perceptions on what exactly the ‘story’ is on the ground in Afghanistan, and more importantly, how readers should think how it will end.  There is little doubt that differing politics, social agendas, culture, and a variety of other factors generate a perpetual clash of narratives over what happens in the world, and Afghanistan is no different. Furthermore, the inevitable influence of profit and economics with media organizations is too pervasive and unwieldy a topic for this venue. It is taken for granted that media organizations and rivaling military organizations all struggle to frame wartime events within a complex web of truth, advantage, prosperity (profit), and influence- the enormity of that subject nearly blinds us to what should matter when reading media accounts of conflicts. We readily digest vivid descriptions of events in a conflict such as Afghanistan, yet we often lose sight of the core reasons why such vastly different stories battle over establishing ‘the truth’ on understanding reality. We need to explore beyond the ‘what’ of media content through description, and try to think critically and creatively about the ‘why’ of these dueling narratives.  Instead of focusing on the individual articles under standard reductionism, perhaps a more abstract and holistic perspective could contribute better to understanding?

Why does a media editor, reporter or an organization promote a certain storyline and craft that structure onto an incident in Afghanistan, and why do consumers tend to prefer one narrative over another despite the topic being the same incident?   This article attempts to think critically not only about Coalition national and regional media narratives in general, but also consider why the Coalition and Afghan nationals prefer their separate narratives as well. As any cursory view of recent headlines on Afghan topics demonstrates, there are a witches’ cauldron of distinct and often rival narratives produced by western and non-western Medias, Afghan Medias, as well as the understandably antagonistic narratives of Coalition Forces and the Taliban.

While it is quite easy to differentiate between a Coalition Public Affairs report and a Taliban propaganda rebuttal on the same incident, it becomes increasingly complex when one also includes Coalition national media narratives, regional media narratives, and Afghan media perspectives as well. Readers of this article will be provided a conceptual framework on Afghan narratives to promote a theory. This theory of ‘dueling Afghan narratives’ is an attempt to provide deeper explanation so that when consumers encounter future articles, they possess a holistic awareness that goes beyond the mere immediate details of the specific Afghan incident.  Newsworthy incidents frequently abound in war, yet their purpose and method for promoting one reality over another requires a reader to go beyond just passively following a promoted narration.

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About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is a retired U.S. Army Infantry Officer with over 22 years combined service to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ben is currently the Course Director of Design Programs at the Joint Special Operations University and is pursuing his doctorate in philosophy with the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia. He has recently lectured on advanced design theory at the USAF Air War College for their Grand Strategic Studies Program as well as at the Canadian Forces College for an October 2016 Design workshop. He has upcoming design articles in the Canadian Army Journal (Spring 17), the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies (Spring 17), as well as several other military academic journals. Ben resides in Tampa, Florida with his family and can be reached at   


Pepe LePew

Sat, 01/28/2012 - 4:29am

Would be interesting to consider this article in the context of the USMC incident of late with enemy corpse desecration. The media from the west, Afghan, and Taliban (as well as the military PAO) all took interesting positions...