Looking through the PR lens: 6 lessons business owners can learn as US troops withdraw from Afghanistan

By Jim James, Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur. 

In the recent episode of The UnNoticed Entrepreneur podcast, I took the slightly unlikely subject of American and allied forces withdrawing from Afghanistan and used that to share six lessons that business owners can learn about handling crisis and regime change.

August 31 was historic because, after 20 years, foreign forces have left Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. 

I did not talk about politics during the episode. However, I thought that there are some interesting clues about the narrative of the occupation of Afghanistan and how the Taliban have handled the recovery of the country. 

Why Look at Afghanistan Through the PR Lens

Afghanistan is no stranger to foreign occupation. 

Back in 1878, Scottish Highlanders had marched 320 miles from Kabul to Kandahar to defeat Emirati forces. Apart from the British, Russians also had a good go before they pulled out in 1989.

So, over the past years, the country has seen more than its fair share of foreign forces coming into their land. As I don’t want to be political, what I did was to look at some of the lessons that we can learn about how their story has played out — and what it has meant for the leadership on both sides and for a third party altogether.

Why is this important?

If you’re running a business, this is vital because it provides lessons about what you can do to either take advantage of a regime change (if you happen to be on the positive side of that) or to mitigate the circumstances (if you’re on the foul side of it).

The Cost of Conflicts 

On August 31, we saw photographs of the last American soldier, taken in an eerie green translucent light, leaving the airport. 

According to a report by Brown University, the US has spent some $978 billion in their 20 years in Afghanistan. The UK, on the other hand, spent some £22 billion. In Afghanistan, it’s been a long and expensive campaign for all concerned. 

These wars have caused grave damage not just to those forces that go in, but also to the domestic population. 

Image from Unsplash

There’s a war waged by former US President George Bush on the pretext of getting Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Arabian founder of Al-Qaeda, who was apparently hiding in Afghanistan. Later on, bin Laden was taken out by Obama. This campaign by the US has resulted in around 3,500 American troops’ death and some 20,000 injured soldiers. 

A monument honoring the Highlanders, which is located in the Edinburgh castle, states that during their 1878 to 1880 campaign, more men died of disease than those who died in the battlefield. 

Though estimates vary, around 60,000 to 80,000 Afghans have apparently perished over the past 20 years; millions have been displaced. 

The Taliban’s Stint on the BBC

A week before all American troops left Afghanistan, the Taliban came on to the BBC. Spokesperson Suhail Shaheen was talking to broadcaster Yalda Hakim via phone, live. 

Interestingly enough, he spoke in English. It was not a full press briefing. He had dialed in and I saw photos that he actually wore AirPods (it wasn’t a full mic set up). But he had some key messages conveyed.

One is that they want a peaceful transfer of power. Two, they want people to carry on as they were. Three, they want no revenge on those who worked with the Kabul administration. They’d like the embassies to remain open. 

They also offered assurances: They are the servants of the people in their country. They would adhere to the US deal of not supporting terrorism. Women’s rights would also be guaranteed under Sharia law. As we know, Sharia law is quite conservative in terms of what women have to wear and how they have to behave (In other parts of Malaysia and Middle East, the said law is also observed).

Suhail Shaheen said that these are not Taliban rules but Islamic rules. It was an interesting piece of reframing from a public relations perspective. He didn’t say that they will establish Taliban rules — he said that they’re going to follow Islamic rules as other nations do.

Screengrab from the BBC

He also pointed to Pakistan, which also has Islamic rules. He said that they wanted to have a new chapter of cooperation with the country.

During his stint on the BBC, he got a very well-scripted list. I was also interested because he spoke in English. I’m not saying this in prejudice, but with interest in how he demonstrated their understanding of needing to speak not through a translator but in the language of the listeners.

On Uniformity

A quick look on social media would also let us see Taliban forces in the airport, taking selfies in cockpits. These are young men with beards who don’t look frightening; they’re certainly not in full combat gear. 

The Taliban leadership also came onto the tarmac, all wearing their trademark “uniform”: a black hat, a scarf or waistcoat, a white shirt and trousers, and simple shoes. There is uniformity in the clothing, which shows a uniformity of purpose. 

It was interesting to also see some of the troops who wore the same outfit. And it evokes this idea of an absence of hierarchy. 

What the Taliban forces obviously did was to take what the American left behind: combat fatigues, armaments, an amazing number of Humvees, helicopters, and millions of rounds of ammunition.

Changing Narratives

As part of the American analysis of the situation, CNN did a quick review of the past 20 years in five minutes. 

The video talked about how Obama had gone in after Bush, with the view of destroying Al-Qaeda. It had also spoken of Afghans building their own nation. This is after Bush talked about building democracy in the Middle East. 

So there was a change from building democracy to destroying Al-Qaeda. As written in his biography, Obama went in and, with a drone strike, was able to kill bin Laden.

Trump changed the narrative again as he said that the US and Afghanistan could be partners. However, he met with the Taliban in February 2020 and, in front of the troops, said that they’re not nation building. It’s a complete about-face to what Bush has talked about some 15 years ago.

On August 31 of this year, Biden had to withdraw the troops because Trump had previously agreed with the Taliban that that would be the date for the withdrawal. While Biden didn’t really have anywhere to go, he also declared that everybody must be ready on the ground.

In the UK, the British parliamentarians have been complaining about a lack of notice to move all of the staff and materials out of Afghanistan. This is why so much has been chaotic on the ground — many pieces of equipment, hardware materials, and people have been left behind.

Image from Unsplash

The Taliban and China Talk

Other than the Taliban, the people who made the most of this are the Chinese.

On July 28, a month before the final US troops withdrawal, State Councilor Wang Yi met the head of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Tianjin. 

Bear in mind that COVID restrictions do apply (it’s very difficult to get in and out of China). However, there’s a full delegation who was taken to the said coastal city. The place was also an interesting choice because geographically, Tianjin is on the east side. And it would have been geographically much better if they’d gone, for instance, to the west such as Chengdu. 

China is Afghanistan’s biggest neighbour. Wang Yi said that China respects Afghan sovereignty and they support an Afghan-led and owned nation. 

He also went on to criticise the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the US for their role over the past 20 years.

A Smart and Peaceful Approach

It also turns out that there were some Taliban escorts for American citizens (I don’t think the same courtesy was extended to the British, or maybe it was, but we just haven’t found out about it yet). However, what we see over the pace of a highly rushed withdrawal process is how the Taliban have conducted themselves in a smart and, by and large, peaceful manner. 

We haven’t seen looting and gunfire by all accounts. It seems as though the whole Afghanistan fell without any firefights at all — much to the annoyance of Americans who blamed Afghan forces for not standing and fighting in what would have obviously been an inevitable bloodshed.

What the Taliban have been quite carefully saying to their domestic audience is that they want to have business as usual. They want people and embassies to carry on; for the Afghan people to stay and keep working. It will be an Afghan-led nation with Afghan principles, which, of course, are not going to be the same as the foreign principles.

We’ve seen a transition where the Taliban forces have taken power, but where the leadership has also shown themselves to be fairly egalitarian, at least, in their clothing. They seem to be well-structured in their messaging. They’re also already engaging with other international powers for the benefits that they can give in terms of foreign aid (e.g. security around their land borders). 

What Business Owners Can Learn

If you’re in a crisis — for instance, there’s going to be a handover of power between you and the next CEO, or you’re taking over from someone — here are six key lessons that you can learn.

Image from Unsplash

    • Prepare key messages. The Taliban, plainly, had continuity of the country as their overall key objective, and that’s what has come across.
    • Have the team in uniform. While it seems a strange thing to say, what the Taliban have done is use photo opportunities to look like a united front. They know that most people around the world will not understand the language that they speak. They acknowledged that and what they’ve carefully done is to look very clean, with their uniforms all looking smart and disciplined.
    • Take photo opportunities with allies. By meeting with the Chinese a month in advance of the withdrawal — not after the withdrawal — they got photo opportunities with allies to show that regardless of what will happen with the US and other forces, they already have a main piece of support in their pocket. This means that, if you’re transitioning, you can have a photo opportunity with a client, a customer, or some key partner.
    • Reach out to the media. The Taliban reached out to the BBC and other channels to provide legitimacy. They didn’t have a media blackout though they didn’t have a press briefing either. I would imagine, partly, it’s because their English skills are good but not on the level of having a full-on press briefing. 
    • Speak the language of the audience. While the dominant languages in the world are English, Spanish, or Mandarin, most opinion leaders would understand what the Taliban say if they speak in English.
  • “Your enemy is my enemy.” This is an old Chinese saying. The Taliban knew that the Chinese currently (perhaps, along with Russia) are in a camp of their own when it comes to international democracy. China also lends a huge amount of weight militarily, politically, geographically, and financially. And they are the counterweight to America in the way that the Russians used to be during the Cold War. 

Wrapping Up

As American and European troops withdraw from Afghanistan, let’s think about some of the lessons that we can learn. Because when we look at it as an event — a handover of power from one group to another (which happens more often than we think) — there are key lessons that the Taliban can teach us just by observing what they’ve done. 

This is neither a compliment nor a political statement. It’s simply an objective observation about how a transition of power can be handled.

If you have questions about public relations, reach out to me at jimjames@eastwestpr.com. You can also listen to my podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. I’ve also recently launched my book, The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, now available via Amazon and Barnes and Noble both in print and Kindle format. The book offers 50 interviews that I’ve conducted with leading entrepreneurs and thought leaders around the world. 

This article is based on a transcript from my podcast The UnNoticed Entrepreneur, you can listen here.


Cover image by Mohammad Rahmani on Unsplash