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).