(U//FOUO) Open Source Center Master Narratives Country Report: Afghanistan

The following document is part of a series of “Master Narratives” reports compiled for the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center.  A text version of this document was published by Public Intelligence in August 2011.

Master Narratives Country Report Afghanistan

  • 56 pages
  • For Official Use Only
  • January 2011
  • 5.33 MB


Understanding master narratives can be the difference between analytic anticipation and unwanted surprise, as well as the difference between communications successes and messaging gaffes. Master narratives are the historically grounded stories that reflect a community’s identity and experiences, or explain its hopes, aspirations, and concerns. These narratives help groups understand who they are and where they come from, and how to make sense of unfolding developments around them. As they do in all countries, effective communicators in Afghanistan invoke master narratives in order to move audiences in a preferred direction. Afghan influencers rely on their native familiarity with these master narratives to use them effectively. This task is considerably more challenging for US communicators and analysts because they must place themselves in the mindset of foreign audiences who believe stories that — from an American vantage point — may appear surprising, conspiratorial, or even outlandish.

This report serves as a resource for addressing this challenge in two ways. First, it surfaces a set of six master narratives carefully selected based on their potency in the Afghan context and relevance to US strategic interests. Second, this report follows a consistent structure for articulating these narratives and explicitly identifies initial implications for US communicators and analysts. The set outlined here is not exhaustive: these six master narratives represent a first step that communicators and analysts can efficiently apply to the specific messaging need or analytic question at hand. For seasoned Afghanistan experts, these narratives will already be familiar — the content contained in this report can be used to help check assumptions, surface tacit knowledge, and aid customer communications. For newcomers to Afghanistan accounts, these narratives offer deep insights into the stories and perceptions that shape the Afghan political context that may otherwise take years to accumulate.

Some master narratives cut across broad stretches of the Afghan populace, while others are held only by particular audience segments. This study divides Afghanistan into six audience segments that demonstrate how different master narratives resonate with different sections of the populace. Each of the six master narratives aligns with one or more of the following segments: Central Government Supporters, the Taliban, Pashtun Nationalists, Tajik Nationalists, Turkic Nationalists, and Hazara Nationalists. (See the Appendix for a detailed description of these audience segments.)


The table on the following page summarizes the six master narratives highlighted in this report. For each narrative, it specifies the relevant audience segments as well as the narrative’s core themes. The condensed narrative description simulates the voice of someone who believes in the narrative itself, helping communicators and analysts immerse themselves in the mindset of the foreign audience.

Narrative Title & Audience Segments Condensed Master Narrative
A description of the master narrative as it might be articulated by one who ascribes to it
Core Narrative Themes
The Great Game
Broadly held across
For centuries, foreigners brought violence, instability, and corruption as they fought over Afghanistan’s prized location. The Americans are just the latest in a long series of foreign powers trying to control Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan has always been and will always be unconquerable, protected by warriors defending the homeland and the faith. Afghans must remain committed to their independence, and should not place their trust in foreigners who will inevitably leave. Occupation, Pride, Independence, Resistance & Struggle, Nationalism, Inevitability
Liberators of Afghanistan
In the face of foreign crusaders seeking to conquer Afghanistan, Afghan freedom fighters have always protected the people and liberated the country. Today the Taliban has inherited this jihad, leading the people against the most powerful army in the world. As their grandfathers and fathers did before them, Afghans must fight against the foreigners and their puppet government in order to restore the Islamic Emirate and Afghan independence Nationalism,
Righteous Cause,
Preserving Local Rule
Pashtun Nationalists,
Tajik Nationalists,
Turkic Nationalists,
Hazara Nationalists
For hundreds of years, local and tribal leaders have provided peace and stability to the Afghan people, guided by their own laws and customs. When power-hungry rulers have tried to steal authority from the tribe or village, these rulers have brought instability and violence to the country. Today, the Kabul government is trying to rule from afar, ignoring the authority of local leaders. Afghans should take control over their own destiny by remaining loyal to their local leaders and customs. Tradition, Independence, Order
& Continuity,
Power & Control
United Afghanistan
Central Government
Afghanistan’s progress as a modern democratic nation was destroyed by the Soviet invasion and the subsequent civil war and Taliban rule. With the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghans finally have an opportunity to restore the modernization and progress first established by Zahir Shah, peacefully uniting the country behind a central government representing all Afghans. Afghans must support the central government if they hope to restore this glorious period and avoid civil war. Restoration,
Unity, Nostalgia,
Order &
Pakistan Takeover
Broadly held across segments, excluding Taliban
The creation of Pakistan brought with it a new enemy bent on controlling Afghanistan at all costs. Since its founding, Pakistan has used secret plots and extremist agents to destabilize Afghanistan. Today, Pakistan is waiting for an opportunity to retake control of the country, playing an elaborate game in which it takes American money with one hand and arms extremists with the other. Afghans must remain vigilant against Pakistan and its ongoing plots. Enemy Encirclement, Threat, Conspiracy, Vigilance, Survival,
Right to Rule
Pashtun Nationalists,
Pashtun history in Afghanistan predates any other group, and Pashtun rule brought periods of great prosperity and security in Afghan history. Today, however, jealous and power-hungry minorities collaborate with foreign invaders against the Pashtuns and deny them their rightful place as Afghanistan’s rulers. Pashtuns must demand that their power is restored if Afghanistan is to experience peace and prosperity once again. Victimization,
Pride, Restoration, Order & Continuity,
These master narratives were developed and validated through extensive open source research and subject matter expert outreach within the United States and in Afghanistan, and were further vetted by USG Afghanistan analysts.



Afghanistan’s master narrative landscape reflects the country’s instability, lack of centralized governance, and underdeveloped education and media infrastructure. As a result, the master narrative landscape highlighted here is different from those analyzed in other Master Narrative Country Reports. Afghan master narratives are hyper-localized: master narratives are recast to suit local conditions where there is no consistent, uninterrupted national dialogue about Afghan history and identity. In this respect, Afghan master narratives differ from those in countries where shared national identity or well-developed media environments enable greater consistency across broad audiences. How Afghan groups or communities describe or interpret these narratives can vary widely across regions. This report is a starting point for further exploring this array of localized master narratives, which would require investigating how each is reinterpreted according to cultural, political, and educational conditions at the local or tribal level. Furthermore, localization and underdevelopment leads Afghanistan to exhibit fewer broadly-held master narratives than countries such as Turkey, India, Pakistan, or Iran. Given persistently low levels of literacy, education, and media access, it is arguably more difficult for a diverse set of master narratives to solidify at the national level in Afghanistan than elsewhere.

Afghanistan’s master narrative landscape reflects a population capable of unifying in the face of shared foreign enemies or threats while simultaneously being susceptible to violent inter-group tensions. On the one hand, outward-looking narratives correlate with broad public consensus around sentiments of victimization at the hands of foreign powers and a deep-seated pride in Afghan independence. On the other hand, inward-looking narratives correlate with heated public debates over what constitutes legitimate authority in Afghanistan and who should hold that power. For communicators, outward-looking narratives (on the left in the figure below) present messaging challenges pervasive across Afghanistan, while inward-looking narratives (on the right) shed light on the political and cultural concerns of target audiences. For analysts, outward-looking narratives can be used to track shifting attitudes toward foreign actors such as the United States, while inward-looking narratives reflect domestic power dynamics.

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