The following is an elaboration of the author’s editorial from the September 3rd edition of Science magazine.
“We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies. We gave them every tool they could need. We paid their salaries, provided for the maintenance of their air force …. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for the future.”
When, in September 2014, the Islamic State was at the height of power after routing US-backed Iraqi government forces despite vastly inferior manpower and no air force or heavy arms, then-US President Barak Obama endorsed the judgment of his Director of National Intelligence: “We underestimated the Viet Cong… we underestimated ISIL and overestimated the fighting capability of the Iraqi army… It boils down to predicting the will to fight, which is an imponderable.” Now, after the Taliban – with no air force, heavy arms, or billions spent on training – crushed US-backed Afghan government forces, we hear much the same refrain from politicians, pundits, and military leaders about overestimating an ally’s will to fight and underestimating the enemy’s.
Many in the intelligence and defense community had worried about possible collapse; however, as recently as early last month, their consensus gave the Afghan government perhaps two years to meet the challenge. Some Afghan forces, such as Unit 03 and other Commando Corps fought bravely, if ruthlessly (and having killed too many Taliban they couldn’t contemplate surrender); and still now resistance persists in the Panjshir valley, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, son of the Taliban’s most renowned adversary. [He was assassinated by Al-Qaeda on 9 September 2011; Bin Laden, who had sought safe haven in Afghanistan, believed this curried enough favor with the Taliban to allow an attack on the US to go forward two days later].
America’s announced withdrawal was dispiriting, and corruption and supply shortages were critical these last months; however, this reflected rather than caused a fragile fighting spirit unwilling to defend supply lines and suppress corruption. The bulk of the Afghan army -- beholden to a feckless government, competing warlords, and a web of family ties with the other side -- collapsed in short order.
Various segments of Afghan society, from regional warlords down to the family unit, have always hedged their bets. A good strategy, particularly for families, has been to place sons strategically in the security services, the insurgents, business (including illicit) and, if skilled or lucky, in foreign NGOs. These family members collect and share information so that they can make the right decisions in an insecure environment. Foreigners working in this environment, including military, know that their “partners” are sharing information with the other side. On the battlefield, this can involve people talking on cell phones to those they're supposedly fighting, so as to coordinate ways to make it through the fight: although they may fight the Taliban, they don’t want to fight their cousins. Savvy foreign military, NGO workers, and even researchers learn to tap into these networks for situational awareness.
But when the tide of war begins to change, these networks of trust enable families, communities, and tribal segments to shift political and military allegiance fairly rapidly to the winning side. Ideally, the shift is negotiated to avoid personal harm, pay compensation for past misdeeds, acknowledge insults, and so forth. When the Trump administration elbowed out the Afghan government in negotiations with the Taliban, people understood very clearly that the US was about to dump President Ashraf Ghani and his government, having recognized after a decade of futile effort that the Taliban would eventually triumph. Prudent elements of the government's coalition and fair-weather supporters predictably opened negotiations to prepare for it. In the aggregate, this looks like a cascade of defections, which is often how wars end. Granted, then, that the Talibans’ ability to reconstitute and strengthen after defeat and barrel on to victory, as with ISIS before it was overcome by the massive coalition force arrayed against it, involved a host of internal and external causes. In the end, however, the Taliban stayed afloat and eventually rolled over government forces because they were more committed to their cause.
Taliban and supporters we interviewed consider that it’s worth dying for the sacred and non-negotiable establishment of an Islamic Emirate – not global jihad – involving territorial sovereignty under strict Sharia law (locally colored by Deobandi Islamic revivalism and select aspects of traditional Pashtunwali tribal codes). Decades-long fighting by Taliban as brothers-in-arms even after military defeat and continued attack by the world’s paramount military power attests to their spirit and willingness to sacrifice.
Understanding will to fight in the face of lethal danger will remain imponderable—and attendant security challenges seemingly intractable—so long as we view such actions through a narrow lens of instrumental, utilitarian rationality. Indeed, throughout human history, the most effective revolutionaries, and those most willing to engage in and sustain extreme conflict, have been “Devoted Actors” fused together by faith in defending or advancing their non-negotiable “sacred values,” whether religious or secular, like God or country. This contrasts with a dominant paradigm in military, political and economic circles of combatants and competitors striving to be optimal “Rational Actors” who focus on the most materially cost-effective way to achieve their most realizable goals. In fact, just since World War II, on average, revolutionaries and insurgents willing to sacrifice for their cause and comrades fused to that cause under external threat, often persisted and prevailed with as little as ten times less firepower and manpower than opposing state armies and police forces that mainly rely on material incentives and disincentives such as pay, promotion, and punishment.
For several years now the Minerva Initiative of the US Department of Defense and National Science Foundation have supported a research partnership between Artis International, Oxford University’s Changing Character of War Centre, and Spain’s Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona that focuses on understanding willingness to fight and make other costly sacrifices: from giving up a job or other material benefit to abandoning family and carrying out a suicide attack. Consider studies in Iraq of frontline combatants, including ISIS, Kurdish PKK and Peshmerga, Iraqi army, Arab Sunni militia. In 2015 when the ISIS frontline was relatively stable, and again in 2016 when the offensive to retake Mosul began, psychological measures in field surveys indicated that willingness to fight and die is greatest for those who fight for sacred values, and who also perceive "spiritual strength" (ruhi bi ghiyrat, in both Arabic and Kurdish) – whether of their own group, allies or enemies – as more important than material strength (manpower, firepower). Only the secular (Marxist-Leninist) Kurdish PKK fighters matched the religious ISIS fighters for commitment to their beliefs and willingness to sacrifice (validated in terms of casualties, time at the front, and so forth). The US considers both ISIS and PKK to be terrorist organizations.
In 2017–2018, we followed with studies of young Sunni Arab men emerging from ISIS rule in the Mosul region. Most people we interviewed initially embraced ISIS as “the revolution” (al-Thawra) against perceived oppression by the US-backed regime. Although many came to reject ISIS’s brutality, a series of psychological measures revealed that ISIS had imbued about half of our sample with its two most sacred values, for which they expressed willingness to self-sacrifice: strict belief in Sharia and in a Sunni Arab homeland. Those believing in these values expressed greater willingness to fight and die than did supporters of a democratic or unified Iraq. Whereas ISIS had lost territorial control, it had not necessarily lost the allegiance of young Sunni Arabs to its core values.
Further brain and behavior studies of supporters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani associate of Al-Qaeda, and with Moroccan immigrants in Spain who profess support for armed jihad and strict application of Sharia, complement these findings. We identified participants’ sacred values and then probed willingness to sacrifice for values. Participants showed significantly greater willingness to sacrifice for sacred values (for example, opposing caricatures of Prophet Mohammed) than non-sacred values (for example, opposing women refusing the veil), with neuroimaging during the processing of sacred values showing inhibition of activity in brain areas associated with deliberative reasoning and cost-benefit analysis but heightened activity in areas associated with subjective value and rule-bound judgments (“just do it because it’s right,” whatever the costs or consequences). Moreover, we found that perception of social exclusion among the radical immigrant group resulted in sacralization and heightened readiness to sacrifice for hitherto important but non-sacred values. This somewhat parallels our findings in Iran that material incentives and disincentives (such as international sanctions, a form of political exclusion) to abandon the country’s nuclear energy program only increases support for it as a sacred mission linked to national sovereignty and religion.
Most recently, collaborating with the US Air Force Academy, we found in studies in Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, and Spain that perception of spiritual strength is more strongly associated with willingness to fight and sacrifice than physical formidability. Additional study among Air Force cadets revealed that this effect is mediated by a stronger loyalty to the group, a finding replicated in a large sample of ordinary European citizens. This indicates that spiritual formidability is a primary determinant of will to fight across cultures, and this propels citizens and combatants to fight at great risk through loyal bonds where trust between group members’ trust is maximized. But history shows that however strong the esprit du corps of one country’s fighting units, no amount of arms or training ensures its transference to foreign forces.
The research findings are clear, but uptake by decision-makers – including many who have solicited briefings from us at the White House, Congress, and Departments of Defense and State – is constrained by fear of sunken costs (lives and treasure spent in vain) and institutional reliance on programs with tangible costs, fungible options and relatively short time horizons: that is, everything the sacred and spiritual are not.
Adversaries’ and allies’ core values must be faced as they are, not as some might wish them to be (and generally not be denigrated, which tends only to backfire). Only then might commonalities and conflicts across cultures, values, and interests be effectively navigated. For example, few outside Afghanistan’s urban minority value democracy or women’s rights (which the Soviets also pushed) – however worthy of outside support – and most vehemently oppose foreign forces imposing such values.
The Soviet push for women's rights was a significant factor in motivating rebellion against them. It was also significant in the 1929 revolt against Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan's first Emir and King. Amanullah was lionized for definitively forcing the British from Afghanistan in 1919, but then attacked by the Pashtun tribes for following Turkey's secular leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in trying to quickly modernize, particularly regarding women's education. Indeed, in 1975, I interviewed elderly Afridi and Waziri tribesmen who had fought the British then Amanullah; and they told that me it was Amanullah’s education policy that moved them to revolt.
But most Afghans consider their homeland sacrosanct and oppose any foreign interference, including foreign jihadis using Afghanistan to attack other countries. In fact, there is no evidence that Taliban leadership ever consented to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, so the United States might realize a security goal if the Taliban abide by their long-standing offer to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base of operations against the West (whose air forces would help ensure agreement).
Both before and after 9/11, Taliban leader Mullah Omar warned Bin Laden that using Afghanistan as a base of operations for foreign attacks could violate the sanctity of sanctuary (nanawatai), which he had been accorded. After 9/11, the Taliban offered to judge the case against Bin Laden, with the US present, and if found to have ordered an unauthorized attack in a formal hearing, then he would be expelled. The Taliban also offered to negotiate with the US assurances that the country wouldn’t be used as a base of operations for foreign attacks. The US summarily rejected these offers, with then-US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld responding: "The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders."
True, Haqqani tribesmen and their allies, who in 1996 gave an oath of allegiance (bayat) to the Taliban, may have known of Bin Laden’s 9/11 plans. The Haqqani have engaged in armed resistance against secular and women’s education since the mid-1970s, after Mohammed Daoud Khan deposed his cousin, Mohammed Zahir Shah, to install a socialist government. Then, in the 1980s, the Haqqanis invited foreign jihadis to fight the Soviet-backed hardline communist government, while also welcoming US military aid. After the Soviet expulsion, the Haqqanis arranged for the Taliban to give sanctuary to Bin Laden. The Taliban acknowledged that Bin Laden, having organized a fighting force to help liberate Afghanistan from the Soviets, deserved sanctuary after he was ousted from Sudan under enormous American pressure, and also refused the possibility of returning to Saudi Arabia. To this day, the Haqqani maintain ties with Al Qaeda and other foreign and global jihadi groups, likely including ISIS-K. For the most part, however, these are alliances of convenience intended to bolster the nationalist and religious fight for an Islamic Emirate rather than a global Caliphate.
Moreover, despite the likely dominance of hardline elements in any future Taliban government, Taliban today are different than a generation ago. Then, most had never seen a television or witnessed a wide range of modernizing Muslim lifestyles. The Soviet and American models were as alien to the Taliban as Taliban life would be to people in Moscow or Washington. Now, however, Taliban leaders have visited, talked to, and negotiated with people from all over the world, including Europe. They have visited places like Qatar repeatedly and seen how traditional and progressive elements might live side-by-side. And it’s likely they’ve pondered the devastating consequences of allowing Al Qaeda and its ilk leeway to attack outside the country. Having suffered near-death and two decades of war and loss, they won't want to go through that again.
There is a non-negligible possibility that, without the US presence to unify the various factions of the Taliban coalition, the country could devolve into a morass of fractious fiefdoms and even civil war, as happened after the expulsion of the Soviets. But if the clerical leadership remains strong by holding fast to its strict Islamic values, it may well endure. Moreover, surrounding countries, including Russia and China (which is considering the Taliban joining the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor projects as part of its global Belt-and-Road) would arguably prefer the stability of a harsh clerical regime, no matter how unlike their own, to continued chaos and spillover, including from Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Renewed calls by some in the US Congress and media for continued armed resistance to consolidation of Taliban governance in Afghanistan risks increasing rather than reducing the terrorist threat against the West.
By failing to recognize the limits of our ability to impose values that we’ve attained only after a long history of our own, the US and its partners will continue the last half-century’s habit of building up the wrong kind of allies and armies – weakly modeled in America’s image but devoid of spirit arising from their own values and cultures. as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. To honor Western democratic values by example, advancing them through financial, media, and moral alliances, and using force only to defend rather than dispense, is a surer way forward.
There is faith that the US can infuse other cultures with our values, which are supposedly universal. Thus, George W. Bush introduced the 2002 National Security Strategy stating there is but one "single, sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.... These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society -- and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common call of freedom-loving peoples across the globe and across the ages." It is a pretension as vainglorious as that of Iran’s then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “[Muslim] religious democracy is the only path toward human prosperity and it is the most advanced type of government that humans can ever have.” (M. Slackman, “Victor in Iran vows to press atom work, International Herald Tribune, June 27, 2005.)
In fact, the values of freedom we cherish are intellectual creations of 18th-century European, and colonial American, Enlightenment and far from "self-evident" in the preceding 200,000 years or so of our species existence (where cannibalism, slavery, infanticide, oppression or extermination of minorities, and so on, were more common fare than freedoms). Moreover, as Taliban leader Mullah Omar reminded veteran journalist Arnaud de Borchgrave in June 2001, it took Western nations another two hundred years to approach equality between the sexes. (The Taliban leader also wanted to know why the US kept pushing the Taliban on women’s rights but not the Saudis). In sum, successive US administrations have repeatedly overestimated the fighting spirit of foreign forces to defend our freedoms -- all the more so because of material advantages we provide (artillery, air forces, salaries, training) -- while underestimating the power of alien values to motivate willingness to fight and die no matter the costs or consequences.
In sum, without rigorous attention to non-material sensibilities, cultural mores, and core values of peoples in conflict, winning or attenuating conflict can seem intractable or only resolvable with massive force. Yet, despite intermittent awareness of the importance of non-material factors in war and other extreme forms of intergroup conflict, focus on material factors and defeating adversaries through what the national security establishment terms “cost-imposition” remain the dominant concerns of US and allied military training, decision making, and related academic literature. This optic tends to disregard what Darwin, in The Descent of Man, deemed “highly esteemed, even sacred” spiritual and moral virtues that “give an immense advantage” to one group over another when possessed by devoted actors who “by their example excite… in a high degree the spirit” in others to sacrifice for cause and comrades, for ill or good.
Image: Mujahideen loyal to Yunus Khalis, Afghanistan, October 1987, by Erwin Franzen via Wikimedia Commons.