Mismatch of mindsets: why the Taliban won in Afghanistan

Show caption Taliban acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi speaks at a press conference in Kabul. Photograph: Reuters Taliban Mismatch of mindsets: why the Taliban won in Afghanistan Analysis: the west tried to impose its alien values and it is time to try a new approach, as Joe Biden has indicated Laura Spinney Fri 24 Sep 2021 12.45 BST Share on Facebook

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Some years ago, in Afghanistan, the anthropologist Scott Atran asked a Taliban fighter what it would take to stop the fighting, because families on both sides were crying. The fighter replied: “Leave our country and the crying will stop.”

The crying may not have stopped, but the Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan without an air force, heavy arms or expensive training, against US-backed Afghan government forces that outnumbered them four to one. In doing so, they have taken an important step closer to realising their stated goal, which is the creation of an Islamic emirate governed according to their interpretation of sharia law.

For decades, Atran, who holds academic posts in the UK, US and France, has been trying to understand what it is that makes ordinary people willing to fight to the death. He concludes that it is sacred values – values that may be religious or secular, such as God or country, but that are always non-negotiable, meaning they cannot be abandoned or exchanged for material gain.

Sacred values, according to Atran, are the reason that since the second world war, revolutionaries and insurgents have frequently triumphed over state armies and police forces that boast up to 10 times their personnel and firepower. Ultimately, the negotiable things that motivate such armies, such as pay and promotion, are no match for the sacred.

The surprise is no longer that this happens, but that western governments have failed to learn it – at great cost to the populations they represent. “It is sad to reflect that, after four recent wars, Britain has suffered, in effect, four defeats,” says Rob Johnson, who directs the Changing Character of War Centre at the University of Oxford. “This must surely beg the question: who has presided over such a dreadful track record?”

The blame, Atran suspects, lies less with individuals than with the democratic institutions that western governments often seek to export. These favour responses whose costs and benefits can be quantified, that fit the relatively short time horizons imposed by elections and institutional turnover, and that assume all opponents are “rational actors” who will negotiate and compromise: “everything the sacred and spiritual aren’t”, he says.

This mismatch of mindsets, along with politicians’ tendency to persist with an inappropriate response, rather than change tack and admit that lives and money were lost in vain – what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy” – has resulted in the Taliban’s victory, he believes.

The group of academics who have ventured to the frontline to ask fighters what brought them there is understandably small. Atran is one of them, having done fieldwork in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another is the University of Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse, who has quizzed Libyan rebels, British special forces and tribal warriors in Papua New Guinea.

Atran and Whitehouse actually disagree about the primary motives driving these fighters. Sacred values are important, says Whitehouse, but more important is group belonging – a visceral sense of oneness with others that often comes about through shared suffering, and that can be strengthened when the group is confronted by an external threat.

His research suggests that, when push comes to shove, fighting comrades will abandon their values before they abandon each other; Atran finds the opposite. The two models have different implications in terms of how outsiders might engage with such groups, but Atran and Whitehouse agree that treating those groups as rational actors does not work. It was to try to persuade western governments that in many conflicts they are dealing with a different phenomenon, “devoted actors”, that in 2013 they and others created the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC) at Oxford.

Eight years on, the message still has not got through. “It’s strange, we keep being invited [to meetings] yet it all seems to go in one ear and out the other,” says Atran, who has briefed at the highest levels of the US government.

Ashley Jackson, the Oslo-based co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute, and author of a recent book, Negotiating Survival, based on hundreds of interviews with Afghans, has had a similar experience. In government circles, she says, people are often aware that a given, usually military response is not working, but they are not prepared to discuss alternatives. “The mindset is ‘you’re either with us or against us’,” she says. “There is no middle ground.”

One problem, according to CRIC’s founders, is a lack of self-awareness in western societies about the values they themselves hold sacred. They want to export democracy and its many advantages, which include a greater potential to generate wealth than non-democratic societies, but they seem to forget that democracy is a relatively recent invention of nation states. It took time to achieve, it is not perfect even where it prevails, and it is in retreat in many places. A recent poll showed that one in four Americans would prefer an authoritarian system of government, and the level of dissatisfaction is similar in the UK.

Lacking a firm grasp of their own values, westerners often have an even shakier grasp of the opposition’s. In the case of Iraq, the US Congress commissioned research from private companies that indicated that most Iraqis wanted democracy. “When we did our studies, on the frontline and in the region, it was exactly the opposite,” Atran says. “We got 2% support for democracy.” Democracy has never yet been successfully imposed on tribal societies, he adds, which is not to say that such societies could not one day choose to adopt it.

Richard Davis, another CRIC co-founder, who directed terrorism prevention policy under President George W Bush, has a different interpretation. He says that people in government and the military want to understand the cultures they are fighting, which is why the US Department of Defense funds the Minerva Research Initiative for social science – albeit with a tiny fraction of its budget. The problem, Davis says, has been in the implementation. Governments lack models for how to engage with devoted actors.

And yet, such models exist. CRIC’s fourth founding fellow is John Alderdice, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. That agreement came about, Alderdice says, because of a paradigm shift – a realisation that it was not enough to engage only the rational actors on each side; the devoted actors, or “extremists” as they were often referred to, had to be brought to the table too. “That involved listening to them, even if you disagreed profoundly with them, and asking what it was they were right about,” he says.

One thing devoted actors are often right about – or at least more so than foreign powers – is how the local communities they are embedded in think and feel. The Taliban’s success in Afghanistan owed a lot to tribal links that cut across their own and government forces, for example, and that they were able to leverage once the US had announced its impending withdrawal.

The Taliban may control Afghanistan, but the US and its allies still need to engage with them going forward, and soon, if the west wants to avert a humanitarian crisis and perhaps further conflict there, as well as exacerbating the risk of international terrorism. President Trump may have unwittingly shown how. The deal he initiated with the Taliban in 2020 has been criticised (his administration also tried and failed to cut Minerva’s funding), but at least he forced the two sides to the table. “It was precisely because he didn’t care that he was immune to the narratives that held us all hostage, and that fuelled a war that kept killing Afghans,” says Ashley Jackson.

President Biden’s declaration on 31 August that the US had had enough of nation-building abroad could open the way to a more lasting paradigm shift, if western governments are prepared to be guided by the evidence. Whitehouse, for one, says it’s long past time the problem was posed differently: “Rather than trying to foist alien value systems and group alignments on to populations that are already committed to different values and group alignments, how can we build on what’s there in a more consensual way to create enduringly peaceful and prosperous futures?”

The rewards of such a shift could extend to healing some of the fractures that have opened up in western societies too – partly due to the polarising effects of social media. The Trump supporters who attacked the Capitol, and those people who refuse Covid-19 vaccines on grounds of personal freedom, both fit the profile of devoted actors. Rational argument has not changed their minds, and governments have turned to force – in the form of vaccine mandates, for example. What these researchers are saying is that there may be a third way, and that science also holds the key to understanding those who reject it. “In the end,” says Whitehouse, “science-driven approaches are likely to do far more … to stem the tide of radicalisation, and to defuse those already committed to extreme pro-group action.”