The Taliban Were Afghanistan’s Real Modernizers

ResoluteSupportMedia/A Taliban insurgent listens during a shurra

Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

David B. Edwards, Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017).

If there’s one thing Americans have always known about the Taliban, it’s that they are relics of a dying past.

In 2001, The Atlantic contended that the Taliban’s “program of medieval stultification” justified liberal support for America’s invasion of Afghanistan. Failure to pose tough in the face of this “mob of medieval ragheads,” Salon argued a year later, lost Democrats control of Congress. At the height of the surge, Blackwater CEO Erik Prince would describe the Taliban as “barbarians” with “a 1200 A.D. mentality.” His language was echoed by politicians, generals, and op-ed writers a decade later, who described the victorious Taliban as “a medieval band of degenerate savages,” “a marauding and medieval religious cult,” and a retreat “back to the stone age.” Only two months ago the Middle East Institute concluded that attempts “to soften the Taliban’s extremist ideology by exposing them to modernity” through years of diplomatic engagement had failed, for “their medieval thinking remains just as rigid” as it has always been.

This language of medievalism and modernity is natural to Americans, who have long equated the U.S. with the frontline of the future. The debates between the Americans who disparaged and who defended the intervention in Afghanistan were conducted entirely inside this frame. Both sides assumed that the United States had embarked on a grand project of liberal transformation to drag Afghanistan into the future. Those on one side argued that American-led modernization was either a defense necessity or a moral obligation. Their critics described any attempt to liberalize Afghanistan as an exercise in futility. 

But both arguments were premised on a fantasy: the most successful modernizers were on the other side of the conflict. The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan spent two decades shoring up faltering traditionalist remnants against political modernity. It was the men of the Taliban that fought and died for a revolutionary future.

Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History is the first history to adequately capture this story. Malkasian deployed as a civilian officer in Kunar and Helmand provinces in the aughts, and then returned to Afghanistan as an advisor to General Joseph Dunford in 2013, and stayed at Dunford’s side through his tenure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Malkasian speaks Pashto fluently, traveled widely across Afghanistan conducting interviews, and participated in the Trump era negotiations with the Taliban.

Malkasian’s account of American error builds on these personal experiences. His catalog of American mistakes and miscalculations is long. There was the Bush administration’s refusal to negotiate with the elements of the Taliban who attempted to surrender between 2001 and 2003 while simultaneously refusing to resource an Afghan Army capable of defending the country from these same Taliban; the years wasted fighting in the remote mountain valleys of eastern Afghanistan even as the Taliban gained ground in their traditional southern heartland; the Obama administration’s embrace of a counterinsurgency strategy that—while successful in stabilizing the areas that received a surge of troops—reduced U.S. support for the war effort; that same administration’s subsequent decision to restrict the use of American airpower during the critical Taliban offensives of 2015; and, finally, the Trump administration’s unwillingness to keep troop levels in Afghanistan stable while negotiating with the Taliban, thereby removing the only leverage U.S. diplomats had at the negotiating table.

Malkasian’s judgments on all of these points are incisive and persuasive. But a singular focus on American error fundamentally misreads the course of the war. Most accounts of the conflict are one-sided portrayals of the American experience in Afghanistan. Malkasian’s fluency in Pashto allows The American War in Afghanistan to escape the limitations of the genre. Entire chapters are built on Afghan sources that other histories of the war ignore. From their perspective, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was not really American at all. Over the last two decades, it was Afghans, not Americans, who have done the majority of the killing, bleeding, and dying. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a civil war. Any account of the Taliban’s victory must start with what each side of this civil war was fighting for.

Remaking Afghanistan

There was a logic to the Afghanistan that existed before the Taliban, the Mujahedeen, the Soviet invasion, and communist usurpation. In this Afghanistan, the king reigned but did not rule. The state was stable but its reach was short: public order was preserved by the leaders of the village and the tribe. Tribal life mattered most to Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns esteemed those who lived according to Pashtunwali, the Pashtun code of honor. One conviction coursed through the social world of Pashtunwali: A Pashtun bows to no man. 

In this system, the job of the village elder and tribal khan was to provision their clans, secure their womenfolk from outside eyes, and resolve disputes without slighting or belittling the other men of their community. Elaborate customs of hospitality and lengthy council meetings allowing every man equal say were the main tools khans used to quash quarrels and share honor. Failure to resolve a quarrel through council led to resolution by feud. Tribesmen had no compunction exchanging eyes for eyes. The goal was less punishment than parity: feuds would end when both sides had equal red in their ledger. Experienced leaders balanced the demands of corporate honor with the urgency of ending the violence before it engulfed the entire tribe. Abstract moral rules did not guide their decision-making. As Malkasian comments: “Whatever was in the interests of the tribe was right: Pashtun realpolitik.” 

Under the traditional order young men sought distinction through acts of courage and daring. Old men, in turn, were distinguished from their peers by demonstrating the wisdom, foresight, and persuasive power needed to constrain their young men from taking reckless action. Neither stage of life found much value in martyrdom. A man’s renown was measured by the deference his presence produced in other men—a reward that can only be enjoyed by the living. But such distinction was not durable. The Pashtuns were levelers: any man that climbed too high above his fellows would be pulled by his peers back down to earth. What was true of men was also true of tribes: no tribe could be allowed to grow too strong without consequence. The kings of Afghanistan would use this impulse to their advantage, playing one tribe off of the other to secure their power. The savviest tribal leaders would intentionally curb the ambitions of their kinsmen before any leveling was necessary.

Sociologists, historians, anthropologists, and political scientists have identified “honor cultures” with similar sensibilities across the Earth. Only rarely do the honor-bound tolerate strong state structures or develop integrated market economies. The ethos of honor tends anarchic. Formal hierarchy is an anathema to the reputation-obsessed. Large-scale cooperation is difficult if society is divided along narrow clan lines. Such societies are predisposed to a patchwork politics where autonomy is celebrated, authority is diffuse, and identity congeals around dozens of separate kinship groups.

This describes the traditional Afghan order neatly—with one prominent exception: the village mullahs, traditional pillars of Afghanistan’s religious establishment. A mullah began his career in a village as a stranger. Madrassas enrolled children from all social classes and sent their graduates across the country. This was by design: a mullah’s outsider status kept his mosque independent from village feuds. His loyalties transcended the local. Where the tribesman bowed to no man, Afghan religious students began their spiritual journey with an oath of obedience to their teachers. This oath, the bayt, bound student to teacher for life. As students of prominent teachers taught their own students, vast multi-generational networks of allegiance spread across Afghanistan. The mullahs were the only representative of a national institution living at the village level. Their influence and reach rivaled that of the central government. 

It was from the world of the mullahs that the Taliban was born. The war with the Soviets left two million Afghans dead—almost ten times the number that perished over the course of America’s war in Afghanistan. The scale of the violence destroyed the Afghan state and uprooted the traditional communal structures used by Afghans to maintain order absent strong centralized government. Terrific violence followed the Soviet retreat. The Taliban movement was organized by mullahs and religious students (talib) to end this violence—and cleanse the moral sickness that led Muslims to kill their fellow Muslims in the first place.

The movement’s strength reflected its origins. Where the ex-mujahadeen warlords were distrustful of their own subordinates and prone to infighting, the talib fought with the same commitment to hierarchy, unity, and religious purpose that had guided mullahs across Afghanistan for decades. One Taliban account of this era describes how new fighters were, in an echo of the traditional bayt, required to “swear obedience to his emir or commander, distance himself from tribal, party, and communal prejudice, and serve only the will of Allah and the goodwill of the people.”

One did not become a talib for the sake of tribal honor or personal renown—and the talib made sure that the forces they led did not fight for these things either. Instead, they fought for a unified Afghan nation. They saw Islam, the one source of authority that cut across tribal and ethnic lines, as the only sure foundation of new national order. The austere regime they imposed to realize these ideals elevated village mullahs over village elders, emphasized Sharia over customary law, and placed restrictions on all sorts of traditional customs, including dress and music. Justice, obedience, and oneness were the motive virtues of this new order. 

The commitment to unity, hierarchy, and self-sacrifice that defined Taliban rule would not survive the American intervention—except among the remnant Taliban themselves. The 2001 invasion gave partisans of more traditional values a chance to reset the clock. Hamid Karzai was a throwback to the world before the Soviets: his father and grandfather had served as prominent royalist politicians, and as a member of the Popalzai tribe, Karzai claimed kinship with Ahmad Shah Durrani, founding king of Afghanistan. Three centuries before Ahmad Shah had been put in power by a ground council of prominent tribal leaders known as a loya jirga; the same institution would select Karzai as president and affirm the new Afghan constitution. 

Once again power was dispersed among a decentralized patchwork of competing centers of authority. At the center was Karzai himself, a master consensus builder who governed through the traditional art of face-to-face persuasion. In true Pashtun style, he was also a master leveler. “It is the policy of Karzai and his appointees,” one khan reported, “to try and break up all tribes to keep them weak.” Karzai’s policy was successful. As one governor appointed by Karzai admitted to Malkasian, “I can solve a tribal split in one day but I will not—because then my position would be weaker.” Karzai took a similar approach to the Afghan state itself, continually maneuvering to limit the power of any governor, general, or police commander whose effectiveness might invite a future challenge.

The contrast with the Taliban, centralizers and state builders par excellence, could not be greater. This was a contest between two different visions of authority in Afghan society. Each of these visions grew from a different conception of Afghan manhood. These differences would be resolved on the field of battle. The Afghan national government brought an unwieldy structure to the war. One of the government’s most effective commanders explained his frustrations with this structure like this: “The government has no loyalty to a single leader. There are thirty-four provinces, each with its own leaders: a governor, army commander, police chief, and NDS [intelligence] director. The Taliban do not have these different organizations. Taliban are just Taliban.” The history of America’s war in Afghanistan is rife with battles where Afghan police, army units, or tribal militia fought against the Taliban alone, lacking the coordination or the will to fight in unison. 

Infighting among the various branches of the Afghan national government and between the anti-Taliban tribes was incessant. Enormous amounts of American energy were spent mediating these conflicts—most prominently in 2014, when Secretary of State John Kerry directly intervened in an election dispute that threatened civil war. The Taliban never dealt with such dissension.

Only once did conflicts between Taliban commanders threaten to derail the war effort. This occurred after Mullah Omar, founding emir of the Taliban, died in 2013. The two-year coverup of his death scandalized many in the Taliban. A small number revolted against Akhtar Mansour, who had been leading the Taliban behind the scenes. But the revolt never spread. “All Taliban accept unity, oneness, no matter who is the leader,” one Taliban memoir recalled. “This is the Taliban strength,” Time and again Taliban commanders buried private resentments for the sake of the greater cause. As one Taliban representative boasted to Malkasian: “The Taliban follow an emir. Our system is of obedience. We must do as he says. We are not like other Afghans.” 

This distinctive Taliban trait extended down the ranks. At the level of the common soldier, Taliban unity was less a matter of organization than ideology. Mullah Omar motivated the movement with declarations that freely mixed faith with nationalist fervor. In a typical 2009 proclamation, he declared that “The enemy upon our soil will not be content as long as we do not completely accept being their slaves. Freedom from slavery is the only path that the Quran has shown.” No matter what tribe they hailed from or what part of the country they served in, the Taliban insurgents knew they were engaged in the same project as their fellow Taliban: national liberation and jihad. 

The presence of foreign soldiers made it difficult to build any comparable sense of nationalist consciousness among the Afghan Army and police. Survey data shows that only ten percent of Afghans believed their soldiers joined the army out of patriotism. This caused a recurring crisis of morale: most men in the Afghan Army did not wish to serve far from hearth and home. The most determined anti-Taliban forces tended to be the tribal militias tasked with protecting their home neighborhoods. These Afghans warred with rare ferocity. Things could hardly be otherwise: their family, their honor, and their tribe’s autonomy were at stake.

Here the values of the old order did buttress the war effort—but their impact was limited. Tribal militias were fierce but brittle. The Taliban could replace their losses in a critical front with reserves drawn from anywhere in the country. The local militia had no reserves: they could draw only on locals. If enough local tribesmen were killed to break local resistance to Taliban rule, their resistance stayed broken. This was one way the Taliban’s ideological fervor hastened tactical success. 

The New Cult of Martyrdom

Nothing encapsulates the ideological commitment or modernizing tendencies of the Taliban better than the suicide bomb. In the early days of the American intervention, it was assumed—by Afghans and outsiders alike—that no Afghan would ever kill himself for the sake of holy war. The code of the Pashtuns honored the living, not the dead. A man who killed himself forfeited the esteem of his peers. He abandoned, shamefully, his responsibilities to his kin. The taboo against suicide was so strong that when in 2004 the Taliban succeeded in setting off a car bomb outside of a government ministry in Kabul, the Taliban released a statement proclaiming that the bomber had detonated his charge by remote control. The official government description of the bombing as a suicide attack was denied by Taliban spokesmen as a slander against their movement. 

The Taliban’s aversion to suicide bombing would soon change. Through a collection of Afghan poems, songs, online videos, Facebook posts, and personal interviews, anthropologist David Edwards was able to patch together the story of this transformation. His Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan also begins in the world before the Soviets. Afghan poetry of that era lionizes battle with bolt-action rifles. This was the weapon of choice for feuding tribesmen. Each shot of a bolt-action rifle involved carefully aiming the gun and deliberately pulling its trigger. Feuding was less about violence than balance: bolt-action heroics did not just give young men the chance to gain renown, but also allowed tribal councils to keep the score.

Machine guns are not made for keeping score. When the Soviets invaded, Afghan fantasies of individual heroics were dashed against the brutality of industrial war. Edwards compares the Afghan reaction to Soviet artillery bombardments and carpet bombing to the shock that English poets experienced in the trenches of the First World War. In the age of mechanized warfare, death is random and indiscriminate. The role of the individual shrinks: personal prowess or courage means little when the bombs start falling. As Afghans died in the millions, Afghan war poetry changed. It stopped celebrating heroes and started honoring martyrs. 

The American way of war was far less destructive than the Soviet’s industrial manslaughter, but it too eroded the values of the traditional Afghan order. The American war machine was risk-averse: its preferred operation was stealthy and surgical. This meant drone strikes from the air or raids of suspected Taliban households by American forces late at night. The latter was especially humiliating—night raids involved foreign soldiers forcing their way inside women’s quarters—but both tactics imposed upon Afghans a deep sense of shame and vulnerability. Under the traditional schema, the man dishonored at home could restore the balance by dishonoring his enemy at his home. But how to dishonor a drone? The longer war dragged on the less relevant traditional ethics of honor became.

The path of martyrdom provided one solution to this problem. Those following this path could replace the unceasing hunt for worldly honor with something simpler and purer. Instead of the esteem of men, the Taliban offered the glory of God. Taliban thinking on this point would be powerfully shaped by both the rhetoric and operations of Al-Qaeda. The ideologues of Al-Qaeda celebrated the suicide attack as the most magnificent form of martyrdom. The martyrs of the Soviet war, they pointed out, had chosen their cause but not their fates. The moment of their death was decided by the enemy. The suicide bomber was different. His death was an act of his own choosing. This message appealed to hundreds of Afghan men who believed that mechanized war had stripped them of their agency—and represented a fundamental shift in Afghan conceptions of purpose and honor.

The Taliban’s embrace of suicide bombing reflected a newfound engagement with the global jihadist movement. As awareness of other Islamist organizations spread throughout Afghanistan, the Taliban faced powerful pressures to measure up to the competition. Nowhere was this truer than with the Islamic State. Spreading one viral video at a time, Islamic State propaganda had a special appeal to Afghan youth raised in disordered urban centers like Kabul and Jalalabad. By 2017, large numbers of these young men were blowing themselves up. Afghan adherents of the Islamic State were adept propagandists of their own right, staging and streaming extreme acts of brutality that the Taliban would never countenance. Most notoriously, the Islamic State released a video that showed their fighters forcing a group of village elders to kill themselves by kneeling on improvised explosives. It was a gruesome portrayal of the traditional order’s eclipse by a revolutionary Islamic future.

The Islamic State posed a direct threat to the legitimacy of the Taliban. Extremists could now choose which master they would serve. The Taliban was desperate to keep jihadist hardliners within their fold. Malkasian describes the contest that followed as a “free-market competition in terror.” The Taliban defeated Islamic State detachments in several pitched battles—and then unleashed a wave of bombings to appease their own extremists. The campaign culminated with Hibatullah Akhundzada, emir of the Taliban, sending his 23-year-old son to Lashkar Gah in a truck loaded with explosives. Taliban spokesmen celebrated his attack as a success. Much had changed since the days when the Taliban viewed association with the suicide bomb as slander.

“Willing to Kill and Be Killed”

Suicide bombers represent the outer edge of a broader trend. “Every Taliban commander is willing to die,” one Taliban religious scholar told Malkasian. “How can the army and police compete with the Taliban?” A religious leader in Patikya had a similarly dismal view of the government forces: “I hear every day of an incident where police or army soldiers are killed. This means they are fighting, but it does not mean they are good at fighting. They seem well equipped… but I do not know if they are committed to fighting the Taliban. Many of the police and soldiers are there only for dollars. They are paid good salaries, but they do not have the motivation to defend the government.” 

These judgments were widely shared. One in five Afghan soldiers surveyed admitted that they served primarily for the pay. When the general population was polled, one in two Afghans stated that they believed the majority of policemen and soldiers were fighting only for money. “Taliban morale is better than government morale,” one Afghan commander admitted. “Taliban morale is very high. Look at their suicide bombers. The Taliban motivate people to do incredible things.”

In war, greed is a poor motivator: the self-interested will gladly fill the ranks where success seems sure, but have little incentive to stick things out when the outcome of battle looms uncertain. It is for this reason that the story of modern warfare is closely entwined with the development of modern nationalism. The charnel house of industrial war was not possible until millions of people embraced shared identities worth dying for. Modernity relegates mercenaries to the margins.

This same story played itself out over the last two decades of Afghan history. The tale can be told through statistics. By every measurement, Taliban fighters were willing to experience greater hardship, expose themselves to greater risks, and suffer greater casualties than their opponents. Afghan government forces required 1,800 soldiers to safely hold Sangin; the Taliban controlled the town with less than 800. The government needed 3,000 men to garrison Zharey. The Taliban, only 600. When the U.S. Marine Corps partnered with the Afghans to recapture the village of Marjah in February of 2010, the last Taliban were not cleared out until December. One in five Taliban in Helmand died in the fighting—and the rest retreated in good order. 

In contrast, the Taliban operation to retake the city in 2015 lasted only one week. After a breach opened up in the defenses, hundreds of soldiers and police abandoned the frontlines, leaving their heavy machine guns and armored Humvees to be captured by the enemy. Other defeats were even more embarrassing: when 500 Taliban assaulted Kunduz City that same year, the 3,000 soldiers and policemen defending the city fought for a mere 12 hours before a disordered retreat.

Popular explanations for Taliban success do not adequately explain these failures on the battlefield. Ultimately it was these failures—not the Taliban’s safe haven in Pakistan, or the corruption endemic to the government—that explain the course of the war. The contest between the two visions of Afghan society was decided on the field of battle. The Taliban control Afghanistan today because on that field their men fought longer and harder than their opponents. Malkasian attributes Taliban hardiness to ideological commitment. “More Afghans liked the government than the Taliban,” he concludes. “But more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed on behalf of the Taliban.”

This is an old story. The conquest of weak kingdoms and tribal orders by unitary state builders, fielding armies full of nationalist fervor and religious passion, was central to the West’s own journey to modernity. In the twenty-first century, the U.S. saw the same process repeat itself in Afghanistan—and fought it every step of the way. But American money and manpower could never have saved the old Afghanistan. In 2021, disciplined and united Taliban forces swept through the country. It was the end of the U.S. experiment in bringing the liberal order to Afghanistan. As Taliban fighters entered city after city, they arrived as the forces of a new and very different modernity.

Tanner Greer is the director of the Center for Strategic Translation and a correspondent for Palladium Magazine. His writing focuses on contemporary security issues in the Asia-Pacific and the military history of East and Southeast Asia.