Learning From Our Defeat: the Madrassas and the Modern

In all of my reading on Afghanistan, two books stand out. Both were highlighted in my list of the best 10 books I read in 2021: Carter Malkasian’s The American War in Afghanistan: A History and David Edwards’ Caravan of Martyrs: Sacrifice and Suicide Bombing in Afghanistan. Both authors are fluent in Pashto. Both draw plentifully from Taliban primary sources. Both have had hundreds of conversations with Afghans of all classes. Together they provide a powerful picture of the way the war has changed Afghan—especially Pashtun—society. The war in Afghanistan was first and foremost a war within that society. America chose to back one side of this civil war. These books lay out exactly what each side of this war was fighting for.

Or so I write in an essay published this weekend in Palladium.  To understand the Taliban’s victory, I argue, you must understand what made the Taliban different from the wider Pashtun society from which they sprang. In many ways Pashtunistan operated on the sort of honor culture common to many weak-state societies found throughout human history (see my review of Eye for an Eye for more on this). “There was a logic” to traditional Afghan society, I write:

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.1


Tanner Greer, “The Taliban Were Afghanistan’s Real Modernizers,” Palladium (15 April 2022).

 Industrial war upturned this system. The Soviet invasion killed two million Afghans and created six million refugees. Many traditional institutions did not survive this upheaval. But the Soviet war—and the American one that followed—also were an attack on the values of the old system:

Afghan poetry of [the pre-Soviet] 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 their 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.2



The Taliban embodied a different ethos:

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 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. 3



              The competition between the Taliban and the forces of the national government usually fell along these lines. One side clothed itself in the trappings of traditional Afghanistan; the other, in the trappings of political Islam. One enshrined freedom and honor as the marks of Afghan manhood. The other valued obedience, justice, and commitment to God as the ideal male virtues. One identified itself with tribal autonomy and tribal interests; the other sought to subsume local identities in a larger Afghan nation. As a way of life, my sympathy lies with the traditionalists. But the Taliban value set gave it powerful advantages. Their revolutionary commitment to their ideals, centralized decision structures, and unshakeable unity gave them consistent a military edge over their enemies.

              All of this should be prefaced with large caveats that did not make their way into the final essay. My focus in this essay is on the Pashtuns; many Afghans are not Pashtun, and draw on a more Persianate understanding of politics and manhood. Government figures like Ismail Khan, who came to power leading an Islamic political party turned mujahadeen outfit, were less throwbacks to “traditional” Afghanistan than steppingstones to the sort of authority the Taliban embody.  

              Most controversial will be my description of the Taliban as representatives of “modernity.” Modernity is a word of myriad definitions: every field has its own. I am not overly interested in those debates. My use of the term was originally intended to subvert the usual American framing of the war, which pits America’s futuristic forces and our liberal civil society allies against the “medieval” Taliban. This simply is not an accurate description of the war in Afghanistan. Islamism is a modernist ideology par excellence. There is nothing medieval about it. More important still, of the two Afghan factions, the designs of our side were the more conservative. There were few Afghan liberals warring against the Taliban. No matter what we told ourselves, we spent our time in Afghanistan shoring up a faltering traditionalist order, not revolutionizing Afghan society for a liberal future.  

              At a deeper level, there are parallels between the process of nation and state building the Taliban embody and other “modernizing” events human history. It is not an accident that integrated market economies and strong state structures usually advance at the expense of honor culture norms.4 “The conquest of weak kingdoms and tribal orders by unitary state builders, fielding armies full of nationalist fervor and religious passion,” I write, “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.”


I have explored these ideas tangentially in “Vengeance As Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of “Eye for an Eye,Scholar’s Stage (26 January 2018) and “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture,” Scholar’s Stage (16 September 2015).

              This fight was not doomed from the beginning: the downside of words like “modernity” is that they imply a teleology that history simply does not have. The Taliban’s structure and ideology gave it important advantages over the Afghan national government, but their victory was not inevitable. America’s overwhelming military firepower could, and many times did, tilt the balance against the Taliban. But we consistently underestimated just how large these costs would be. After reading Malkasian’s account of the surge I am convinced that at the provincial level the surge worked. Had we surged our way through one province after another over the following decade we could have brought stability to the country. That is what it would have cost—or at least, that is what it would have cost us. The Taliban managed accomplished the same feat with a fraction of those forces, and did it in six years.

          Less effort would have been needed in the early days: Malkasian identifies a critical window between 2002 and 2005, when the Taliban only numbered less than 8,000 men.5 At this point the Afghan people still smiled on the American presence. The Taliban controlled no territory. They sought a negotiated surrender: we rejected it. After guaranteeing the Taliban had no choice but to fight, we did not properly finance the Afghan Army or Police to carry that fight out. None of that seemed necessary: we assumed we had won. We discovered too late our error.


Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021), 153-156.

              Where did this error come from? They partially reflect the preoccupations of Donald Rumsfeld, who made clear at the time that the stability of Afghanistan was not one of America’s war aims.6 But there was another fault in our thinking, one broader than Rumsfeld or his office. We were believers in modernity. Our occupation of Afghanistan was built on the assumption that history’s direction was both discernible and decided. Modernity itself would do the heavy lifting. All America had to do was remove the tyrants that stood in modernity’s way, and allow historical forces to do their work.7


Tanner Greer, “Learning From Our Defeat: The Assumptions of Donald Rumsfeld,” The Scholar’s Stage (7 September 2021).


One of the clearest statements of this attitude from an official of that era is George W. Bush, “President Bush Discusses Freedom in Iraq and Middle East,” Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy, 6 November 2003.

On this count there are many parallels between our misadventure in Afghanistan and the failed UN intervention in Cambodia. As I wrote about that intervention last year:

Cambodia exited the Cold War a poor and broken country, economically isolated from the wider world, scarred by forty continuous years of war, unable to exercise sovereignty over its own territory, and still suffering from the depredations of the totalitarian experiment that killed around one-fifth of its people. Bringing this country in line with the purported international standards of democratic liberalism was a titanic task. It could never have been accomplished except through colossal expenditures and unceasing attention on the part of liberal powers. 

But in a world where liberal democracy was an inevitable product of history itself, that sort of investment was never thought necessary. The guardians of the liberal order were caught in a trap: driven by moral strictures to support Cambodia’s liberal development, liberal powers could not accept a Cambodia that fell below their standard. When presented with the actual costs of bringing the kingdom up to this standard, they balked and looked for ways to remove Cambodia’s problems from the agenda. Confident that history would do the job they could not afford, the “international community” uncritically accepted and paid for any faux-reform or fake democrat that made it look like Cambodia was finally moving towards liberalism…

The closest parallel to Cambodia’s post-Cold War development is thus America’s ill-fated attempt to remake Iraq and, especially, Afghanistan. There too, a liberal power sought to transform lands torn by war and state terror into model democracies. There too, we find well-meaning Westerners assuming that historical necessity would do most of the hard work of liberal development. There too, we find outsiders passing off Potemkin reforms as moral victories. There too, we find foreigners unwilling to accept illiberal realities caught in a cycle of delusion. 8


Tanner Greer, “The Forgotten UN Intervention to Build Democracy in Cambodia,” Palladium (20 January 2021).

 And this is why I use that word “modern” to describe the Taliban. So much of our strategic thinking in the war on terror was premised on false notions of the modern. Terrorism was a refusal to come to terms with the modern world.9 If allowed to do so, the modernizing forces of globalization would turn hotspots of terror into pools of stability.10 We though the modern our friend in Afghanistan. Now we see that it was our enemy.


See the comments collected in Corey Robin, “Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Play: Fear in the Contemporary Imagination,” Social Research 71, no. 4 (2004), 955.


For a particularly strong and influential statement of this belief, see Thomas P.M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Road Map: War and Peace in the 21st Century (New York: Berkley Books, 2004).

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Hello Tanner,



I thought you might appreciate this quote from the book of a self-described racist Donbass rebel regarding battle cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ and a bearded man holding a Kalashnikov being the future, in light of the Kadyrov Chechens being the most effective Russian social media warriors.

The excerpt was selected by Twitter Russianist Peter Nemets. Unsure if you two ever tried to meet in RL. I reached out to Nemets once, but the Vegas occasion for my proposed meet up did not happen.

Also for those wondering what course the Russian Donbass offensive may plow through the thicket of Ukrainian zig zag trenches and strongpoints, past is prologue, and both sides generals have studied these maps:


The current Russian BTGs plus Donbass native allies forces are 1/4th smaller than the 1943 Soviet Army group that attacked the Wehrmacht. The Ukrainians — despite being far better entrenched as the ‘Panther Line’ barely existed when the Soviets attacked during the Kursk battle further north — are also fewer in numbers with less than 100,000 men (50-60,000 estimated in the core Donbass / SW Kharkov oblast pocket, not counting Kharkov city limits defenders themselves under round the clock shelling and air strikes) available to fight.

Thanks to Russia’s weeks of destroying munitions warehouses and refineries and RuAF command of the skies, the UAF has far less available fuel or room for maneuver (without being shelled or bombed at night) than OKW had. Unclear how few Starstreak SAMs the UAF were able to get into the pocket before the big push started. Dear US Army/NATO master logisticians, where is Ukraine’s ‘Red Ball express’? The worst UAF supply crisis is a shortage of diesel fuel for tanks/trucks and artillery shells. Going to be weeks before we see 155mm French Army ‘Caesar’ guns appearing on the battlefield, assuming they don’t get incinerated in Kalibr strikes on some railroad siding outside Lviv…

Western conducted public opinion survey on support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine in China:

Off topic but related to Tanner’s interest in how RU-UKR conflict is playing out in China and impacting (read: hardening) already anti-Western or state media trusting Chinese worldviews:


‘To our knowledge, this is the first representative survey of online public opinion in China regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (n = 4, 886). We find that 75% of respondents agree that supporting Russia in Ukraine is China’s national interest, and that roughly 60% of respondents support China mediating an end to the conflict. By examining the individual correlates of these positions, we demonstrate that higher education, more consumption of state media, and more consumption of social media are correlated with higher support for Russia.’

Not much info on the main page of the pollsters though: https://uscnpm.org/about-us/

Point, from the Russiagate promoting magazine The New Yorker and a retired US Army colonel at the New America Foundation:





‘Russian Army’s logistics in Ukraine are terrible I don’t see how they can win even in the Donbass or Southeast’ is the new ‘any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be more complex and harder to pull off than the Normandy landings’.

But “any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would be more complex and harder to pull off than the Normandy landings” is true. Of course it would be more complex. Just think of all the things that have been added to Joint stack since 1947: long range missiles and rocketry, EW, air assault landings, helicopter units. 73rd Group Army is going to have to coordinate the landing of their two amphibious combined arms brigades with PHL03 and PCH191 launchers in their artillery brigade on the coasts of Fujian using data collected in from their reconnaissance or SOF brigade across the strait! That is a hard thing to coordinate at the Army Group level!

The heart of the issue whether you’re New Right, Left or just consider yourself a skeptical moderate whatever that means to you is the one Tucker Carlson is asking almost nightly: can you really trust the same generals and bipartisan (or rather Blob uniparty) political class that so badly botched the exit from Afghanistan after twenty years of failed nation building there with successfully waging a land war against RUSSIA on its doorstep? The reports that the US has given away 1/3rd of its Javelin stockpile and that it can’t simply restart the Stinger production line due to chip shortages don’t bode well for a ghastly expensive but somewhat hobbled by reliance on Chinese parts defense industrial base.


People can say apples to oranges and I would agree that conventional conflict is more to the USA’s forte, certainly on the intel side. The problem is manifold but could be summed up this way: the best intel in the world has been a huge force multiplier for the Ukrainian military. But can NATO get sufficient pallet loads of 155 mm shells from the Polish border hundreds of miles to the east re-routed around Kalibr missile destroyed Dniepr bridges and de-electrified tracks to the front lines where they are needed, without getting major stocks destroyed at the railroad siding by Russian strikes (and the corruption endemic in Ukraine makes for plenty of bribe-able and GRU/SVR recruitable supply officers).

The unconventional hearts and minds aspects are not as entirely in favor of a nationalist insurgency as presented, judging by the weakness of Ukrainian partisan actions in the pacified coastal territories and bulk of Donbass oblasts seized by the Russians easily in the opening days of the war. While war fatigue could set in on the Russian side with Putin very historically read up on the collapse of Tsarist Russian Army in 1917 peremoga and false claims ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ dead generals turning up very much alive and ‘current thing after COVID’ fatigue can set in for Westerners too. The collective West also incurs a moral cost for the open Bandera cult / racialist predilections and civilian hostage taking / POW torturing of its proxies, as well as Ukrainian desperate hectoring of nations for more financial aid (requiring nearly a billion dollars per month just to pay salaries pensions etc) particularly in Europe where Communist and socialist parties still have institutional memories of WWII and which side the western Galician core of the Ukrainian state ideology was on in that war.

The NATO plan appears to be creating another bloodier Afghanistan for the Russians in Ukraine, the Russian plan oversimplified is to create a second Vietnam for the collective West by with time as their ally first to grind down the Ukrainian Army in Donbass through artillery attrition (including destroying or capturing Western volunteers where they can be found on the battlefield — gloating about US intel contributing to RU generals deaths doesn’t incentivize the Russians to downplay US/UK ‘volunteer’ KIA/POWs) and second, attack Western resolve through inducing and exacerbating inflation and supply chains pain headed into the fall and winter harvest / EU gas drawdown season. The notion that the US/NATO can suffer bare minimal ‘volunteer’ losses without having to risk recently ‘deenlisted’ or ‘resigned’ personnel directly alongside the Ukrainians as Kyiv is tasked with maintaining increasingly complex NATO equipment and most critically the supply chains for them with calibers that don’t match their Soviet legacy stockpiles in an artillery-centric fight is about to be sorely tested. I expect rumors to start flying in the next several weeks of shady PMCs in northern Virginia offering $30-50k a month contracts to former US and British Army artillery officers who specialized in shell logistics and battlefield dispersal. What we know now is that several NATO/EU country citizens have been killed or badly wounded.

For now we simply can’t evaluate when or how the Iranian or Chinese cards (this of most interest to Tanner) yet to be played will be dealt. But India already shows that a large number of governments representing the bulk of the world’s population will simply refuse to take sides in the Great Bifurcation and thus the stronger Washington’s death grip over Europe appears the weaker its dollar diplomacy gets outside of the EU/5Eyes zones.

Specific examples of states and blocs rejecting the choose a side demands of Washington, beyond India: Russian fertilizer reliant Brazil, where Lula is poised for a comeback, ASEAN, hell even Mexico has rejected the sanctions, though they don’t do much trade with Russia (Fast and Furious style worries about Russian payback in the form of Javelins and Stingers turning up in Cartel hands notwithstanding).

> 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.”

Beckwith’s spin on the comitatus rears its head again.

The best I could do is, of all things, the Look Inside feature for an Amazon Kindle book. The book where I read it first is Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present.


The Comitatus is at 53% of the sample, and the Islamicized Comitatus appears at 66% or so.

An extremely shortened version: the lord and his friends who swear loyalty to him unto death. In the primordial version, this is extremely literal; the sworn warriors will commit suicide should they outlive their lord (archeological evidence comes from the young, healthy, well-armed men found in burial mounds that aren’t related to the person being buried). It is the real custom underlying the hero-and-his-friends origin myth. The consistent criteria are these:

– An oath of loyalty unto death to the lord
– These oaths take priority over kinship ties
– The lord provides entirely for the welfare of these warriors

In the story as Beckwith tells it, this is a key coordination mechanism that allows the Indo-Europeans their spectacular migratory success (though I note Indo-Europeans aren’t the only ones included in his “Central Eurasian Cultural Complex” of which this forms the centerpiece).

He also traces it as being adopted by the Arabs during the Islamic conquest, and as the origin of the ghulam and mamluk systems.

It also sounds like the “Peach Garden Oath” of Romance of the Three Kingdoms:

When saying the names Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, although the surnames are different, yet we have come together as brothers. From this day forward, we shall join forces for a common purpose: to save the troubled and to aid the endangered. We shall avenge the nation above, and pacify the citizenry below. We seek not to be born on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. We merely hope to die on the same day, in the same month and in the same year. May the Gods of Heaven and Earth attest to what is in our hearts. If we should ever do anything to betray our friendship, may heaven and the people of the earth both strike us dead.