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‘Enemies of Afghanistan’: The importance of military language

‘Enemies of Afghanistan’ is the terminology now used by the US military in its announcements in Afghanistan, to describe assailants such as the Taliban[1]. The phrase came into force on May 26, 2013, replacing the word ‘insurgents’, and highlighting the importance of language to military operations.

Like all dialects, military language is constantly changing. Slang words and phrases will, of course, develop by accident, but terms like ‘Enemies of Afghanistan’ are introduced to serve strategic purposes.

Col. Christopher Garver, a Military Spokesman in Kabul, explained that the new wording matches the announcements made by the Afghan authorities. Aligning the language used by US and Afghan forces is a means of building stronger relations between them, while showing this solidarity to the rest of the world.

‘Enemies of Afghanistan’ also leaves little room for misunderstanding – it implies that members of the Taliban are ‘traitors’, according to Loren Thompson, a Military Analyst for the Lexington Institute. The term ‘insurgents’ is laden with ambiguity, and avoids placing outright blame on the aggressors, whereas ‘Enemies’ is considerably clearer, and represents a more hard-line stance, aimed at reflecting the animosity felt by Afghan civilians towards the Taliban.

The manipulation of language by military establishments undoubtedly has an influence on how they are perceived both at home and in the countries where they fight. Military language can motivate, inspire, and drum up sympathy – just look back to the famous Lord Kitchener poster of the First World War.

It can also be used to have a more direct impact on operations. In 2010, the Ministry of Defence embedded extra journalists in its units and briefed the local media in advance of Operation Moshtarak – at the time the largest joint operation in Afghanistan[2]. The aim was to invite the Taliban to surrender, and to prepare the Afghan civilian population for the Operation. This simple strategy helped ensure the Operation’s success, while securing positive publicity in the aftermath.

Like any organisation in the public eye, the military’s communications are vital to its reputation, and the success of its operations. But as lives are at stake, getting the language right when it matters is even more important.

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