Poetry News

Can "counterpoetry" win the war in Afghanistan?

By Harriet Staff

PBS NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown talks to Thomas Johnson, director of the Program for Culture and Conflicts Studies at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, about the role of poetry in galvanizing support for the Taliban and what it should teach US forces. Johnson recently co-authored two studies in which he found that "'the Taliban blow us away' in getting its message out to the Afghan public by using poetry and music—means the United States does not understand or take into account."

THOMAS JOHNSON: ...Many people conceive of the conflict in Afghanistan as an insurgency-counterinsurgency. I conceive insurgency-counterinsurgency basically as an information war supported by military action or what people call military kinetics. So the message that this two sides are using to try to win the trust and confidence of the people -- we like to say hearts and minds -- but to win the hearts and minds of the people becomes an incredibly important weapon, if you will.

JEFFREY BROWN: And poetry is part of that?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Poetry is part of that. Afghanistan is basically an illiterate society. Before the war maybe 10 percent of the country was literate. The statistics now say maybe 23 percent, and parts of the south of Afghanistan, maybe 1 percent of the females are literate and maybe 5 percent of the males are literate. But Afghan history is very important from generation to generation, so the Afghans came up with a scheme to be able to transmit knowledge from father to son, from generation to generation, and poetry is a perfect means of doing that. The rhyme and rhythm makes it easy to memorize, much like advertisers do on Madison Avenue in the United States.

Recent coverage of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia has made some mention of poetry, but it's been dwarfed by the emphasis on social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. As Johnson mentions, the tradition of poetry and song as political tools has been passed down through many Middle Eastern cultures for thousands of years, so even though poetry plays a much larger part in the "information war" in all of these conflicts than smartphones do, it doesn't have the same novelty to hook Western reporters. But as these conflicts have also shown us, there is now a rapidly developing area where poetry and technology intersect.

JEFFREY BROWN: ...Examples can be viewed on YouTube. Here a man sings a motivational chant for Taliban fighters glorifying the exploits of a warrior. Another chant tells of Malali, an Afghan woman war hero who fought against the British a century ago, encouraging people to join today's war against foreigners. A third chant warns the death of a top Taliban commander killed by coalition forces in 2007.

So why, if it's considered a known (even mundane) fact that poetry is the form of choice for spreading political messages, has it taken so long for the US to recognize that it's ill-equipped for this style of conflict? Perhaps the media coverage itself is a good indicator; it wasn't until the poetry was wrapped up in a story about something that played a major role in our own current cultural climate—gadgets, YouTube, Twitter, Bluetooth—that people began to take note of the importance of the underlying message. It shouldn't come as a surprise that the devaluing of poetry in one culture leads to the inability to recognize its significance in another.

THOMAS JOHNSON: Well, ideally you would think that we or our Afghan allies could put together information messages that are similar to what the Taliban are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN>: You mean counterpoetry?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Counternarratives, if you will. Counterpoetry. Exactly. And rather than some of the mundane information operations that I think we're pursuing right now that don't' resonate with the people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not to make light of it, but you're suggesting we need better poetry or a better story?

THOMAS JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. This is a war of narratives. That's an excellent way to put it. We're in a battle over the story. So I think there's much to be learned from the Taliban in how we approach conflicts like this in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how far do you want to push this? Is the argument that unless we do a better job of countering the narrative through poetry and chant, we lose?

THOMAS JOHNSON: I think that if you buy this notion that this conflict is 95 percent information and 5 percent military actions, yeah, then I think that we cannot win this unless we have a story to be told.

Originally Published: March 28th, 2011