On Aug. 14, a day before armed fighters swarmed into Kabul, a Twitter account for one of the Taliban’s magazine posted a video of six nervous Afghan government soldiers sitting in a truck surrounded by Taliban warriors. The post included a snippet of text, in Pashto, one of the two main languages of Afghanistan: “While the mujahedeen behave generously to soldiers, the children of the village threw stones at them and called them dogs. That’s what happens in response to their atrocities.” The same day, a spokesman for the Taliban posted another Twitter message, this time in English, promising that the group would create “a secure environment” for all diplomats, embassies and nonprofits, both domestic and international. It ended with the Arabic benediction, “Inshallah,” God willing.
For months, on social media, the Taliban have sought to project an image of strength and moderation, an aura of inevitability within Afghanistan and an air of legitimacy to the outside world. Through text messages and encrypted apps, they have targeted government soldiers directly, depicting them as mercenaries and urging them to surrender or face the brutal consequences. At the same time, they have attempted to assure the international community that the Taliban of today are more enlightened than the Taliban that once staged grisly public amputations and executions in a Kabul soccer stadium. As they have racked up a string of victories over the past few weeks, they have also trumpeted their respect for women and girls, within Islamic law, of course. Have they changed? Well, they’ve changed their messaging. It’s too early to know whether that’s just better marketing.
Americans have questioned how roughly 70,000 Taliban soldiers can seemingly demolish a well-funded, U.S.-trained government security force listed at 300,000 on paper. The answer is not about training or firepower, but hearts and minds. The Taliban understand Sun Tzu’s familiar dictum that every war is won or lost before it is fought and that the ultimate victory is to break the enemy’s resistance without fighting. That’s what they did.
For years, on social media and in analog publications, the Taliban have claimed that they are the true heirs to Afghanistan, that their fighters are martyrs, that the Americans are “invaders,” and that government soldiers are the immoral “hirelings” of foreigners. Their primary theme going back to the 1990s is that Afghanistan is a Muslim nation occupied by non-Muslims and that Allah has blessed their fight for liberation. There’s just not much the United States can do about such claims — these are Afghans talking to Afghans. They have waged the kind of modern war — an old-fashioned local insurgency coupled with a rapid-fire media strategy designed to intimidate the enemy — that the United States is not much good at fighting. As the Taliban marched through the country inviting government soldiers to surrender or die, those soldiers complied by the tens of thousands. Most never fired a shot.