Small Wars Journal

What is Your Narrative, and Why?

Sat, 10/15/2011 - 9:47am

Download the Full Article

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.

Download the Full Article

About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is the Program Director for Design and Innovation at the Joint Special Operations University and is a doctoral student at Lancaster University. A retired U.S. Army Infantry officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has provided design education across USSOCOM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government, academia and industry as well as internationally. He was named “design conference ambassador” for the second year in a row for the upcoming IMDC, and has recently lectured on design at the Polish and Danish War Colleges, the Canadian Forces College, NATO Schools at Oberammergau, the National Counterterrorism Center, the IBM capstone SPADE conference for NATO in Copenhagen, as well as numerous Special Operations and strategic level defense assets in 2018. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He 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...