Those who tell stories, rule the world.
Daykundi Province, Winter 2010
“We need help.” This was the call that came from the besieged villagers of Tamazan Village. Within the last forty-eight hours they had pushed out Taliban insurgents from their village in the south central mountains of Afghanistan. Now, a few hours north, a small Special Forces Team was scrambling to push south and assist the villagers.
This southern tip of the Hindu Kush was the forgotten zone of Afghanistan. Deep in the mountains, clans and tribes functioned just as they did in centuries past. This uprising had been building for a while like a mountain blizzard. The Taliban who controlled the village had been abusing the people of Tamazan for several years.
They came into the villages and just took what they wanted. They threatened the villagers, and at times beat them if they didn’t provide what they demanded. The last incident involved a Taliban fighter stealing a truck from a Tamazan villager at gunpoint. That was the final straw, which set events in motion. Now it was time to help the people of Tamazan push the Taliban out, once and for all.
The Green Berets arrived in time to help drive out the remnants of Taliban fighters, but the extremists would be back, and they would bring more guns and more men. Through local support, the Green Berets helped the Tamazan villagers to stand up against the Taliban.
Over the next few months the Taliban indeed returned. The people of Tamazan pushed them out again. Word quickly spread throughout Day Kundi Province, and even south into the former Taliban sanctuary of Oruzgan Province, that local villages were standing up to the Taliban. Afghans walked in from dozens of mountain redoubts to request similar assistance in reclaiming their communities.
By June 2010, this grass-roots movement was spreading so quickly that Special Operations leaders in Kabul had to bring another battalion of special operators to open new village stability platforms in Day Kundi and Oruzgan. Special Forces were getting so many requests from villages that they were splitting up from their basic twelve-man team configurations into two-and three-man teams. This split-team concept had not happened on this scale since the Vietnam War.
By the end of 2010, the bottom-up Village Stability Operations, which had started in the little village of Tamazan, had spread almost seventy-five miles south through formidable enemy safe haven into the upper parts of the Helmand River Valley. This was a stretch of terrain Special Operations had tried to fight its way through for nearly a decade and failed to control. Now, in response to fast-moving oral stories, locals were stepping up to take control of it on their own.
This rapid-growth event was one of the major events that caused ISAF Commander General Petraeus to throw his strategic support behind Village Stability and the Afghan Local Police program. The trajectory of these narratives of local Afghans standing up for themselves continued for several years.
The absence, however, of a coherent U.S. and Afghan master narrative finally caused the program to falter in 2013. President Karzai started to question the presence of special operations advisors, with no response from Coalition senior leaders, and by 2014, all SOF were out of these remote villages. In the end, Village Stability was but a memory in the reclaimed Taliban lair of Day Kundi and Oruzgan provinces, followed by brutal retribution against locals who had stood against the Taliban.
Learning from narrative failure
The absence of narrative was a big reason for the rise and fall of one of the most successful stability strategies in Afghanistan. Storytelling?! Really?! This is the 21st century, not the ancient age of the Iliad. Is storytelling really that important in this hyper-connected, fast-paced world? You bet your Rudyard Kipling ass it is.
Just look at the influence of ISIS versus the U.S. in the Islamic world today. Whose story has framing and explanatory power right now? Theirs, or ours? Whose story is winning new recruits from all over the world? Violent extremists are running circles around us on YouTube and Facebook, as we fumble for symbols and narratives to explain our policies, actions, and operations to ourselves, let alone the Muslim world.
Here is the deal: If we don’t have a narrative that resonates with people, if we can’t tell a story that people believe, then we will not defeat violent extremists. Instead, ISIS and groups like them will narrate the history of the 21st century.
A game changer narrative model
We don’t have to accept the current trajectory of narrative defeat. The rise and fall of Village Stability for example, tells us all we need to know about how story and narrative can change the game in defeating violent extremists. The U.S. has an amazing storytelling capacity that matches its capacity for meaningful action. We have proven throughout our history that we are capable of crafting a narrative that speaks to a higher purpose. This mobilizes people and groups to take meaningful action in spite of arduous conditions, and to achieve the desired outcome of this master narrative.
For some reason we don’t do this against violent extremists. This has to change if we are going to defeat extremists where they live. “The fulcrums for change even in ideological systems that appear rigid and unyielding are conversations and stories,” write Tretheway, Corman and Goodall. These stories should be told locally, and bottom-up through persistent engagement in marginalized areas where extremists thrive. There are five practical steps we can implement to strategically enhance narrative and story:
1. Craft narratives that stick and tell them well.
Locals standing up for their way of life is a very powerful narrative in almost any honor-based clan society. The rapid spread of Village Stability throughout Day Kundi and Oruzgan provinces shows just how powerful it can be.
Local autonomy is a potential master narrative to bridge two very different cultures of East and West. It resonates with the Islamic audience, especially in informal clan areas beyond the reach of the government. This is because it empowers locals to stand on their own which rings true as historically appropriate. Local autonomy also resonates with the U.S. because it involves indigenous populations, not large formations of U.S troops, standing up on their own. This means less commitment of U.S. blood and treasure. The narrative can also show how it makes our country safer. Local resistance to violent extremism is much less invasive to clan society. Therefore, it is less likely to invoke clan revenge in the form of terror attacks against our homeland.
This narrative can be further expanded to include fragile governments that lack trust with their clan societies. It would look something like this: Clan societies are standing up for themselves, supported by their government. I get it. It is a tough sell. But, this is no tougher than trying to persuade unruly clans to support a Western-style government they don’t understand or trust. In fact, it’s easier. Working with partner nations, like the Shia-based Iraqi government, we can bring to bear our instruments of power, such as foreign aid and military support, to persuade governments to be more inclusive of narratives that mobilize Sunni Tribes and other minority ethnic groups.
Many powerful narratives already exist, if we get out of our own way and open our eyes to the possibilities, even if they don’t fit our biased Western lens. This is a paradigm change for our intelligence community as well. They have to get well beyond the threat networks and into the world of narrative. This is a very important collection requirement that is not happening.
We should also highlight the contradictions of the violent extremists in violation of their religion and their professed ideology. Violent extremists prey on local villagers they beat them, they behead them, they take from them, they marginalize the roles of resilient leaders and commit many other violations. This is often the reason that many groups, like some Sunni tribes, resist ISIS. We should show the extremists honestly as the thugs they really are.
Extremist groups and malign actors behave badly all the time; we’re just too biased or politically correct to embrace how the game is played and call them out on it. Our focus on dismantling terror networks and top-down counterinsurgency programs like ‘government in a box’ are what blinds us. We need to take the blinders off and amplify these extremist narrative contradictions locally and internationally until as with the FARC in Colombia they are no longer viewed as ideologues, but irrelevant thugs who prey on the people. This can be replicated as part of larger narrative anywhere in the world, and it’s high time we did so.
2. Make narrative design and storytelling a team sport
We should stop outsourcing and overspecializing story. We have made story too hard. It has become extremely confusing to influence people or to gain permission to do so. We have divested ourselves of this requirement to a handful of organizations that have built firewalls around their own domain.
I recall numerous times in Afghanistan when we waited over forty-eight hours to disseminate local facts about Taliban bombings that killed innocent local Afghans. By the time we gained permission from senior headquarters, the Taliban had long since blamed it on us and garnered local support.
Story is timeless and runs deep within each of us. When working in at-risk areas, however, we dilute it with our Western biases and tech-speak. This simply widens the trust gap between community and government that is already there. We have moved away from what is instinctive and compelling through storytelling to what must be learned through a PhD and is as dry as the Sahara sand. We have lost the ability to move people at emotional levels to achieve a higher purpose. I am not crashing down on those who influence for a living. I am coming down on the rest of us who have devalued the element of story. Narrative, is a team sport.
3. Build a narrative tribe.
How do we get State Department representatives, NGOs, Green Berets, moderate Islamic leaders, and Village elders around the same table to establish a master narrative? We can’t do that “talking to ourselves,” as one Afghan Soldier cautioned me. To craft a narrative and tell stories skeptical audiences will believe, we need narratives and stories that cross cultural and organizational boundaries. This is a big challenge. Parochialism rears its ugly head when different cultures try to smash out a master narrative. We can’t let that stop us.
We have great storytellers among us. When building our ‘narrative tribe,’ we should bring in narrative, storytelling and marketing expertise from outside the government, as well. The U.S. has Madison Avenue, Hollywood, academia and others who could provide significant contributions to this tribe. Why aren’t they part of our solution? Why aren’t we asking for their help? With all the hyped-up talk about private-public partnership, wouldn’t this Madison Avenue–Hollywood–U.S. government tribe be a great opportunity for that?
And let’s not forget including members who can help us gain local clarity on pre-existing master narratives. There are plenty of resilient groups and credible voices standing up to extremism under narratives that already resonate with local communities. Our own embedded advisors, such as Marine special operators and Green Berets, are also critical to this group of local storytellers. They must be trained and positioned to live and work among the people conducting the bottom-up actions that carry their own powerful story from ridgeline to ridgeline.
4. Build a capacity for narrative design and storytelling.
Storytelling is an inherent skill set needed for going local, yet we spend very little effort on it. In my experience, narrative and story are some of the most neglected tradecraft for going local. Yet done well, story can produce strategic results from policy levels of an embassy all the way down to an isolated clan community. How can story have such a prolific effect in both societies?
Story affects our actions through deep-seated biological connections to emotion. If we get in touch with our clan roots and employ story as a primary influence tool, we can achieve powerful outcomes from foreign diplomats at policy levels just as we can convince village elders to stand up against extremist intimidation.
5. CREATE stories by matching activities on the ground with the narrative objectives.
We have to ‘walk our talk.’ Social proof is critical to advancing a master narrative that promotes relative stability and makes violent extremists irrelevant. This proof is needed universally across the vast network of key audiences. It is important at local levels where violent extremists establish safe haven and with our own citizenry as they decide whether to support a far-flung military campaign. Every day there are resilient community leaders who stand up to extremist intimidation, local government leaders who connect to rural communities, and violent extremists who overtly brutalize innocent civilians. Why aren’t we maximizing these powerful stories?
These actions simply dissipate like the proverbial tree in the forest unless we capture these events, attach them to stories, and amplify them as poignant memories within the soul of a master narrative. While a peasant defending his home, in spite of a public threat of extremist retribution, might not seem like much, it is a powerful force of nature when told as a story that feeds a larger narrative. This is how our enemy does business and how we must change our game to defeat them.
Conclusion – It begins and ends with story.
In this long war our use of narrative and story have failed. This resulted in our own people calling us home from Iraq and Afghanistan before the mission was complete. The extremists, meanwhile, have returned to their former safe havens, and are gaining strength. We are now facing even more ominous extremist threats, and with no guiding narrative as to the exact danger we face, or a call to action.
We must consider this reality when dealing with shadowy threats embedded in rough places. If key audiences, including our own people and our own leaders, don’t believe our story, then we should consider doing nothing as our first option. Our blood and treasure are too precious to spend on campaigns that have no winds of story behind their sail. After watching the botched efforts of narratives over the last decade, conducting no intervention is the best plan until our narrative is set.
Creating narratives in this chaotic world is hard, but we can do it. Our past failures reflect a distinct opportunity to change the game. Past mistakes are merely teaching points for future action. “It is important to remember that there is no good reason we can’t beat the extremists at their own game,” say experts from the Center for Strategic Communication. “After all, the U.S. is home to the best storytellers in the world from Hollywood to Any Town, USA.”