Bad Taliban, good Taliban: Britain falls victim to its own propaganda

Having viciously smeared the Taliban for over two decades, Britain now faces a challenge in the global race to establish influence in resource-rich and geographically-critical Afghanistan.

On July 18th, prominent UK lawmaker Tobias Ellwood posted a surreal video to Twitter. While roaming Helmand province – the site of one of London’s most embarrassing military failures in history – the British MP and former army officer effusively praised the Taliban’s stewardship of Afghanistan, calling it “a country transformed.”

“Security has vastly improved, corruption is down and the opium trade has all but disappeared,” Ellwood declared. He went onto mention how “local elders” told him of “a calm to the country…they’ve not experienced since the 1970s”, Ellwood wrote, adding:

“After Nato’s dramatic departure, should the West now engage with the Taliban? You quickly appreciate this war-weary nation is for the moment accepting a more authoritarian leadership in exchange for stability,” he added. “Our current strategy of shouting from afar, after abruptly abandoning the country in 2021, is not working.”

Ellwood’s proposed rapprochement with the Taliban was viciously ridiculed and condemned in every conceivable western quarter, and has caused such consternation among his fellow Conservative MPs that he now faces a vote to remove him from parliament’s influential defence select committee.

Nonetheless, Ellwood is not the first high-ranking British figure to urge peaceful, constructive coexistence with the Taliban, despite two decades of bitter conflict and occupation. It is largely forgotten today that in the weeks prior to NATO’s chaotic retreat from Kabul, London’s foremost military chief General Nick Carter made an extraordinary intervention, which likewise elicited widespread accusations of Taliban apologism:

“You have to be very careful using the word enemy…people need to understand who the Taliban actually are. They are a disparate collection of tribes people…They are country boys and the plain fact is they happen to live by a code of honour which has been their standard for many years. They want an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all.”

Of course, despite the Taliban celebrating the second anniversary of its lightning-fast recapture of the country two weeks ago, an Afghanistan “inclusive for all” has yet to materialize. The BBC made this point repeatedly in an August 14th article, Should world leaders start talking to the Taliban?. No definitive answer to the titular conundrum was forthcoming, although the question was posed so bluntly by the British state broadcaster can hardly be considered insignificant.

It is reasonable to assume the question of whether enough time has elapsed for western citizens to accept peaceful accommodation with the Taliban is much-discussed in Britain’s corridors of power. After all, London has for centuries been determined to one way or another control Afghanistan for geopolitical gains. As long as its interests are upheld and furthered there, it matters not who or what is in charge locally.

As we shall see, Britain’s quest for dominance in Afghanistan may have at one point extended to providing arm’s length support to a local division of ISIS.

‘Complex Web’

Leaked files reviewed by The Cradle show that in mid-2017, the British Foreign Office launched a secret operation in Afghanistan that would continue for at least two years. Contractors were asked to formulate campaigns to discredit the Taliban, and deter locals from assisting or joining the group.

One of the contractors pitching was Global Strategy Network, a British intelligence cutout founded and then-led by MI6 veteran Richard Barrett. In October 2021, The Cradle exposed how this firm played a pivotal role in the west’s dirty war on Syria, manipulating events on-the-ground and disseminating propaganda against President Bashar al-Assad both domestically and globally, in service of violent regime change.

Global Strategy was a natural fit for the project due to Barrett’s close relationships with senior Afghan government officials. Some of these ties were cultivated through his high-level role within the UN’s Al Qaeda/Taliban Monitoring Team. The firm’s Foreign Office submissions boasted of how he had “already secured endorsements and expressions of support” for Global Strategy managing the operation from these individuals, who further pledged to “support us in navigating the complex web of the Afghan government.”

It pledged to partner with a welter of western-funded NGOs in Afghanistan, most prominently the Afghan Justice Organization, which at that time was reportedly in talks with government ministers about recruiting 60,000 Mullahs “as agents of change,” who could covertly influence the content of their Friday sermons. It is surely no coincidence that the organization concurrently conducted research into how to counter local perceptions Afghanistan was un-Islamic, “guided by Western interference rather than Shari’a Law.”

Many passages in Global Strategy’s Foreign Office submissions indicate a keen awareness of the western-backed Afghan government’s lack of local credibility, support, “influence beyond Kabul,” and ability to cater to the needs of the country’s diverse population – facts that were never acknowledged by British or other western leaders during the 20-year occupation. There are also numerous references to the brazen criminality of local officials:

“Real power remains in the hands of regional warlords. [The government] is struggling to make progress in tackling security, economic and political challenges. Corruption is rampant…Growing of opium poppies and marijuana is widespread and national and provincial level organisations are known to profit from narcotics trafficking.”

Such gross failures and misdeeds on the government’s part motivated many Afghans to “live and act locally,” and support “whichever group is the strongest in their area,” Global Strategy observed. In most cases, that group was the Taliban, as the movement could “meet political, economic, cultural and security-oriented expectations of disenfranchised or marginalized groups better than the state.”

‘Competent Professionals’

In characteristic British intelligence style, rather than materially and substantively addressing the identified “drivers” of the Taliban’s appeal, Global Strategy’s solution to the problem was to conduct a wide-ranging covert psyops campaign, train the unpopular Western-backed Afghan government in the art of information warfare, and use local civil society organizations in Kabul as conduits for British-concocted propaganda.

While the effort was to be regularly coordinated with the British Embassy in Kabul during monthly meetings to discuss progress, publicly Afghans would be led to believe that their government – in conjunction with grassroots NGOs – was independently engaged in a well-meaning drive to “turn individuals away from violent extremism and violent extremist groups.” It was repeatedly underlined that “wider public knowledge” of London’s central role “should be avoided” at all costs.

The date of the project’s launch gives rise to even graver suspicions about its true objectives, given that at this time, the Taliban’s battle against ISIS Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) was significantly intensifying. The group’s effectiveness at fending off the terrorist menace significantly bolstered its credibility as a security provider among the local population. In turn, the Taliban’s success on this front was heavily dependent on regular Afghans providing them information and other formal and informal assistance.

The question of whether Britain’s covert operation was ultimately concerned with sabotaging the Taliban’s fight against ISIS KP, and imposing on Afghans a replacement security provider of London’s own choosing is all the more urgent given that the two Global Strategy staffers proposed to manage the project had also been central to the development of the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) “strategic media office.”

Funded lavishly by London from the first days of the Syrian crisis, the express purpose was to “soften” the FSA’s brutal image with western audiences by “rebranding” it both locally and internationally as a professional, pro-democracy fighting force, unaffiliated with violent extremist groups. Along the way, its representatives were tutored in public relations management, and slickly extolling pro-intervention, pro-regime change narratives to western journalists and policymakers.

As the leaked Global Strategy files note, these two staffers helped the FSA establish “a sustainable strategic communications capability of their own … with competent professionals capable of effectively developing and amplifying coherent messaging in line with a clear strategic communications plan across multiple media, social media, and microblogging platforms.”

The pair were now tapped to design an identical “strategic media office” for the Afghan government with British funding, along the way “working closely” with Kabul’s Office of National Security Council to develop “counter-narratives” that would discredit the Taliban. The FSA’s “strategic media office” does not actually serve as a blueprint for any initiative genuinely looking “to turn individuals away from violent extremism and violent extremist groups,” but is, in fact, geared toward exacerbating conflict that is both psychological and physical in nature.

Moreover, it was avowedly well-understood by Global Strategy that Afghans typically tended to support “whichever group is the strongest in their area.” Were the Taliban to be rejected by the population, ISIS-K would inevitably be strengthened.

Geopolitical Real Estate

In February, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published an extensive investigation into the spectacular collapse of the Afghan armed forces, which the US spent two decades and $90 billion building.

One of its most scintillating sections detailed how puppet-President Ashraf Ghani did not take seriously the prospect of total western withdrawal from the country, despite repeated high-level warnings of exactly this possibility in the months leading to the fall of Kabul.

An anonymous State Department official told SIGAR how Ghani interpreted these repeated cautions as a diplomatic bluff intended to “shape his behavior.” Declaring Afghanistan to be “the most important piece of real estate in the world,” Ghani asked the official airily, “How could you leave a territory as important geopolitically?”

Ghani wasn’t wrong. Afghanistan’s significance on the Grand Chessboard, in Zbigniew Brzezinski’s infamous phrase, hasn’t diminished a whit since August 2021, despite all consideration of the country vanishing from western consciousness following the Fall of Kabul.

Now, in the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them,” London and Washington may be more confident that the coast is sufficiently clear to start priming their public for engagement with the Taliban – perhaps in advance of a much-mooted war with Iran, or another West Asian adversary.

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