Canada spent billions of dollars on military might and development aid in its efforts to wage war and make peace in Kandahar, but throughout the five-year mission, the battle of words was just as important.
It’s a fight the Taliban won, experts say.
The insurgency’s parting message to Canadians in Kandahar marked the pinnacle of the Taliban’s ongoing information campaign, which made many Afghans think twice about supporting foreign soldiers and also kept Canadians on their toes.
Their latest statement, issued to mark the end of Canada’s combat mission, was notable also for its tone.
Gone were the usual religious exhortations, exaggerated accounts of bravery and brazen demands that had generally characterized their public communications.
Instead, the Taliban asked the very same question many Canadians are asking themselves.
“The people of Canada have to ask their government and military chiefs what are the objectives and achievements that they have obtained during the past decade, apart from the innumerous losses in life and equipment,” reads the English translation of the statement, posted last week to the Taliban’s website.
“If they have no answer, then why (do) they allow them to continue their illegitimate intervention in Afghanistan under another title in the name of military training.”
With the end of the combat mission, Canadian soldiers have now moved to Kabul to assist in getting Afghan national security forces up to speed. That training exercise is destined to end in failure, the insurgents predict.
“We are sure, the new mission of Canada under the name of military training will bring in only losses and (a) bitter outcome like the precedent of their war mission, which has had self-same consequences.”
Thomas Johnson, a professor in the program for culture and conflict studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., said the news release was remarkably different than anything the insurgency has issued before.
“I found it very unusual,” Johnson said in an interview.
“You don’t see a lot of Taliban statements that are retrospective and almost inquisitive in nature. Usually, they are telling you what you should think.”
That could be a sign the Taliban is trying to reinvent itself as a kinder, gentler organization, rebranding an image that is as much a tool of the insurgency’s trade as rifles, suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.
“The Taliban believe that they are winning and they are emboldened,” Johnson said. “That allows them to be able to change part of their message because they think they are in a very good position.”
Proof of the success of their campaign is in the fact international soldiers are still in the country in the first place, suggested Johnson.
“A counterinsurgency is basically an information war supported by military kinetics,” he said.
“One way to be able to assess why we are in the position that we are is that our information campaign has just been so poorly conceived. We haven’t understood the cultural nuances, we haven’t understood a lot of the medium and we’ve had too many themes.”
The Taliban’s information campaign began with the very old-fashioned tactic of distributing night letters — missives slipped under doors or pinned to walls containing harsh warnings for any Afghans crossing Canada’s path.
“If you are seen working, you have no right to complain,” warns one 2008 letter that gave readers two days to quit their jobs working in connection with foreign military or Afghan government efforts.
“If anyone is seen tearing up this paper, very soon you will be dealt with.”
The Canadian military decided to wage its own version of a night-letter campaign last year — a testament to how successful the Taliban tactic has been.
“Brothers and sisters, sleep soundly,” the Canadian letters began, echoing enemy letters that were typically addressed to “Muslim brothers.”
Canada’s letters were an attempt to assure locals that Afghan security was patrolling at night.
Canada and the international forces also attempted to reach out to Afghans via text messages on their cellphones and Pashto-language radio programs.
They didn’t go quite as far as the Taliban did, though: the insurgency is also on Twitter.
The challenge Canada and international forces faced in Afghanistan is that is the Taliban have a much clearer message to sell, one expert said.
The Taliban are pushing a narrative of being there to protect the Pashto in the south, said Thomas Hammes, a retired U.S. Marine and counter-insurgency war specialist.
Meanwhile, the Canadians and others are telling Afghans to side with their governments and a national security force that locals dismiss as corrupt and dysfunctional.
“My narrative is, ‘I’m bringing you corruption and a slowdown in your life; issues will be decided by outsiders,'” Hammes said.
“The Taliban narrative is, ‘We’re Pashtun like you, we have a harsh code but you know what it is and it’s not corruptible.’ That’s the information success they are having.”
When it came to the mission in Kandahar, Canada’s communication challenges weren’t just in the field — they were at home as well.
The 2008 Manley report, which changed the direction for Canadian aid involvement and restructured the way the mission was managed, urged Ottawa to better explain to the Canadian public why its sons and daughters were fighting so far away.
To some extent it worked, said Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda, who suggested in a recent interview that a number of grassroots organizations connected to Afghanistan have emerged from Canada’s outreach efforts.
“On a national scope, has the public awareness been brought to light about what’s really happening at the community level?” she asked.
“I would say that could be improved.”
Oda gave the interview to mark the transition of Canada’s aid focus in Afghanistan to projects that are national and not focused in Kandahar.
But Canadian politicans were conspicuously silent on the day Canada transferred control of the combat mission over to the U.S. The Prime Minister’s Office issued no formal statement to mark the official end of the combat mission.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s trip last month to Kandahar, where he hailed the mission as a success, was intended to serve as his final goodbye, a spokesman said.