Small Wars Journal

The Taliban's Weaponization of Moral Authority in Afghanistan - Part 1 of 3

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 10:39am

The Taliban's Weaponization of Moral Authority in Afghanistan - Part 1 of 3


By Doyle Quiggle

"A warrior code is the centerpiece of the majority of tribal men, young and old, that I have known on a personal level. This code and their conception of honor is the tribe’s collective center of gravity, as well as each individual’s."


-- Major Jim Gant

Ethnic/tribal identity is so sensitive an issue in Afghanistan today that neither the CIA nor any other entity monitoring demographics in Afghanistan (or its Diasporas) can provide even ball-park statistics about how many or which specific individuals belong to what ethnic, tribal, clan, or sectarian groups (genetic testing is, however, beginning to secure some reliable ethnic data[i]). While Taliban and most other violent extremists proudly self-identify as Pashtun, the tribal, clan, and ethnic identity of the other Afghan today tends to change depending on which side of the street he's standing, which goat path he's using, or the immigration agent to whom he's relating his refugee narrative.[ii]   


Hypersensitivity to the "ethnic question" is, as so many things Afghan, a matter of personal survival.


Afghans deceptively identify themselves with groups to which they do not belong for various reasons of micro-survival (the struggle not to get killed from one day to the next): they've betrayed (or otherwise lost the trust of) their home group; they now find themselves surrounded by a group hostile to their original group (usually Taliban loyalists); they believe that resource-rich, powerful outsiders (NGOs, US, International Forces, visa and asylum granters) won't help them unless they belong to a "victim" group; they want to gain protection, assistance, training given only to other groups; they're spying on a rival group; they're involved in drug-guns-human trafficking and on the run from the law. Afghans who have been discovered committing shameful practices (usually homosexuality and blatant violations of Sharia) will also typically falsely identify their ethnic background, so that their shame (banang) debt will not accrue to family, clan, or their own ethnic group.[iii] However, the main reason Afghans lie about their ethnic identity is to avoid getting ethnically cleansed, a sideshow of this war that has received far too-little attention.[iv] (I'll analyze the Taliban's bio-cognitive motivations for ethnic cleansing in a separate report.)  


When an Afghan, especially a teenager, has reached the point he's lying about his ethnic identity, his identity, his loyalties, his entire moral being are all up for grabs. The Taliban figured out both the short-game tactical and long-game strategic values of that psychic fact long before we did. And they've fiercely exploited now endemic Afghan confusions about moral authority to subjugate nearly the entire country to their pseudo-Salafist narcocracy. While we were droning wedding parties and overpaying HTT social scientists to study the brands of tennis shoes worn by kite runners in Kabul, the Taliban were systematically identifying, locating, and co-opting (or assassinating) the local moral authorities (such as Mullahs, Khans, Imams, and  Arbabs) in even the remotest, meanest villages and qalats of Afghanistan, swiftly replacing them with their own version of "post-tribal" moral authority.


With the socio-psychological force of that co-opted traditional, moral authority, the Taliban have been able to redefine the meaning, content, forms of expression, and especially the means of embodying the single social-identity that matters most to most young Afghan males of war-fighting age: The honorable warrior. Unfortunately for young Afghan males, the key cultural terms "honorable" and "warrior," receive highly context-specific definition in today's Afghanistan.[v] And context has always been sand shifting under the running waters of Afghanistan; another reason Afghans increasingly lie about group identity.


Without the traditional moral guidance and education of jirga-approved elder warriors, the average Afghan youth is unable to define, let alone fulfill, the terms of honorable or warrior. He often finds himself tormented by the cognitive dissonances typically associated when pre-modern tribal minds confront the chaos of modernity. When youth innately compelled by honor-shame-warrior moral imperatives are not given the psychic resources (traditional tribal forms, symbols, rituals, collective narratives) to cope with the torments of the conflicting identity loyalties begat by modernity, "progress," and development, they become highly vulnerable to extremist recruiters.[vi] And the Taliban have ruthlessly exploited the cognitive torments -- a moral vacuum ensuing from social fragmentation -- of Afghan youth.[vii]


Traditionally, an honorable man among the Pashtun, as among most tribal Afghans, embodies "ghariat." The honorable man used to be defined, pre-Taliban, as a man capable of upholding, defending, and abiding by tribal forms of justice to the end of helping the broader tribal social system maintain the ability to govern itself independently from any central or outside political or moral authority. As a behavioral model, ghariat was a vital stabilizer of Afghan society. 


A Pashtun expert made these basic features of traditional tribal, pre-Taliban honor-shame-structured Afghan society available to us over a decade ago:  

Patterns of political authority in Pashtun tribes traditionally reflected a shifting internal balance of power, conditioned by these phenomena of balanced opposition, generalized reciprocity, honor (nang), extremely warlike behavior, the fusion-fission cycle of response to external threat, primary group cohesion, and a desire for partial or total independence from government control. The authority system was well adapted for maintaining social order and collective security in an inhospitable frontier environment which typically saw little government presence, if any. Like other forms of tribal organization, it was, in essence, a self-regulating social system for governance without government. extremely warlike behavior, the fusion-fission cycle of response to external threat, primary group cohesion, and a desire for partial or total independence from government control. The authority system was well adapted for maintaining social order and collective security in an inhospitable frontier environment which typically saw little government presence, if any. Like other forms of tribal organization, it was, in essence, a self-regulating social system for governance without government.[viii]

Where the Taliban have successfully subjugated villages and regions to their narco-Salafi credendum, they first co-opted and redefined the key stabilizing concepts of Afghan of moral and ethical character, ghariat (as well as the dishonorable, "beghariat") for aspiring Afghan warriors, thereby throwing off the "balanced opposition" of traditional Afghan institutions. They not only redefined the central moral concepts of Afghan honor-shame culture but reframed them, cognitively, so that "ghariat" (or honorable) now means, according to Taliban "news-speak," a man who is free of that which is disgusting (in Islamic terms, haram) as exclusively defined by Taliban leadership. (In a separate report, I'll conduct a bio-cognitive analysis of how the Taliban replaced Afghan honor with a political economy of disgust.)


For adepts in Afghan tradition, the Taliban's so-called fighter today is the photographic negative of the Afghan warrior that Malalai rallied to defeat the British at Maiwand. Were the Taliban's narco-Salafi to encounter an authentic, traditional Afghan warrior like Nazo, they'd scourge her to death her upon sight.[ix] 


Over forty percent of Afghans now living in Afghanistan are under age 14, with an additional 22 percent under the age of 22.  Like its non-identical twin failed-state in Africa,  Somalia, Afghanistan has become a teenager nation. Like teenagers in Somalia, Afghan teenagers eat poorly, drink too little water, get high too often, sling too many Kalashnivoks, and receive far too little education and parenting from tribally erudite, morally coherent elders. As in Somalia, traditional moral authority has long been in high demand and low supply.


In his groundbreaking report One Tribe at a Time (2009), Major Jim Gant asked the question of import at that moment in the war: 

Tribes offer their members security, safety, structure and significance. What other institutions do that right now in Afghanistan?[x]

His question was not rhetorical. It was tactical and strategic. He implores us to locate local Afghan moral authorities, win their trust, and help them defend their traditional political and religious institutions from the depredations of the Taliban. For the most part, we did not listen to him or those who informed his strategic analysis. Today, Afghan tribes and traditional moral institutions no longer "offer their members security, safety, structure and significance."[xi]    


The Afghan adults who should embody the most important male social-identity (the honorable warrior) and who should be defining the conditions of its fulfillment were themselves often poorly educated in traditional Afghan forms and expressions of the honorable warrior, the result of the brutal fragmentation of Afghan society, which began with the Soviet War in the 80s, not the "Great Game" of the 19th century. Post-colonial analysis of Afghanistan, inspired by Edward Said an his epigones, put the cart before that horse, which has led many Afghan analysts astray.[xii] 


To iterate for the edification of stability investors: While a "tribal" sense of honor and shame remain innately compelling and limbically compulsive to most Afghan youth, traditional tribal forms of mediating, channeling, educating, expressing, and living out an honorable warrior identity have long been unavailable to many Afghans. The woeful lack of tribal-warrior education has dangerously destabilized the social identity of most young Afghans. A moral vacuum emerged. The Taliban have not only exploited that moral/cognitive vacuum, they caused it. It is now a cardiac fiber of their long-term strategy for subjugating Afghanistan to their Salfist narco-cracy. 


An apt but sorrowful example of the Taliban's decimation of traditional Afghan institutions of moral authority is the figure of the "arabab," the village head of the relatively peaceful Hazaras. Social, economic, and political activity in remote Hazara villages used to revolve around the home of the arabab. The arabab was more than merely a "mayor." As a wealthy landowner and literate or semi-literate elder, he was also the chief arbitrator of disputes, the villager's primary "legal representative." The arabab could grant or deny the right to get a divorce, mediate conflicts, organize the defense of a qalat. The arabab was respected as a sort of hybrid of a mayor, warrior, and sheriff. He was the moral center of gravity of the village. If an arabab lost his moral authority through lack of probity, his villagers would often give their allegiance to an arabab of greater moral probity, an apt indication of the value traditional Afghans placed upon the integrity and authenticity of moral authority.[xiii]


Where are these arababs today? Most Hazaras can no longer identify (let alone identify with) their local arabab because, as with so many local traditional institutions in Afghanistan, the once-solid moral centers of gravity of Hazaras' have been battered into gravel by Taliban 82mms. The situation is much the same with traditional rural and urban Mullahs; many who resisted Taliban teachings have been assassinated. In due fairness, we must note that, in the case of the arababs, not only Taliban but also Iranian de-stabilization operators (confusion agents) have upended traditional Hazara moral institutions, replacing them with their own "moral agents," which has added yet another layer of identity confusion to Afghanistan.          


We must now come to terms with the fact that both US/NATO forces and traditional Afghan warrior codes (local moral authorities) have been defeated by a Taliban who now promiscuously commingle Salafism and gangsterism (drug-guns-human smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, etc..). Their success is the result of their ability to undermine and largely replace traditional moral authority throughout a country that have deliberately returned to the shatterzone. Refusal to accept the premise that the war in Afghanistan has always been primarily a war about gaining control of the moral centers of gravity of the countryside condemned us to being consistently alienated from the stubborn and irreducible post-tribal social-cognitive, and therefore, true political realities of Afghanistan.[xiv] By contrast, the Taliban learned this ironclad law of warfare by rote:  All armies are, first and foremost, moral constructs.


Taliban leadership figured out long before we did how to exploit that central dilemma of fourth generation war in Afghanistan: Moral victory trumps tactical, kinetic  success on the 4GW battlefield. Gain control of moral authority among honor-shame cultures, and you gain control of the deepest cognitive resources of their minds. The Taliban seem to have engraved this 4GW rule on their AKs: Fourth Generation opponents have strategic centers of gravity that are intangible. The Taliban figured out those intangibles, especially the pubescent warrior compulsions of Afghanistan's male teenagers. 


As a leading expert on 4GW notes, "These [intangibles] may involve proving their manhood to their comrades and local women, obeying the commandments of their religion, or demonstrating their tribe’s bravery to other tribes. Because operational art is the art of focusing tactical actions on enemy strategic centers of gravity, operational art becomes difficult or even impossible."[xv] It was the Taliban (with the help of Pakistan's ISI confusion agents), not ISAF, who fielded capable, culturally literate "social-science" assets all over Afghanistan. They were adepts at illuminating the invisible networks of loyalty that link local clan communities and villages to each other, to their past, and to their kith & kin on distant continents (their respective Diasporas).[xvi] They fielded assets who observed, leveraged, and removed the multi-dimensional stabilizers of multigenerational Afghan warriors, thereby unleashing violent communal conflict in all of the country's now godforsaken regions.


They capitalized on this ISAF error: Our obsession with professionalizing the ANA, while ignoring and, therefore, failing to educate the natural warrior impulses of Afghan males (including those living in the US), left a gaping psychic wound in Afghans, an "IO" opening for the Taliban to criminalize those innate, Afghan clan-compelled, warrior proclivities. Paramount to the success of the Taliban's "Village Destabilization Operations" has been their ability to co-opt and weaponize local moral authority. They found many devious ways, from poetry to witchcraft, to re-educate, "Salafize," and criminalize the innate warrior drives of local youth from within psycho-mythic parameters (symbols and collective narratives) their recruits recognized and in the direct presence and with the direct sanction of local leaders who commanded moral authority in the eyes of their young recruits.


The Taliban, not ISAF, understood that local Afghan moral authority must be persuaded, by any means necessary, to place their trust in their own Taliban leadership, before they could then ruthlessly exploit the honor-shame compulsions of the Afghan males who now populate their many militias. The moral authority with which they've replaced traditional Afghan honor codes is committed to instability, chaos, upheaval, mayhem. That fact should be heeded by all stakeholders in Afghan stability. 


Around 2009, Taliban leadership (assisted by Pakistani confusion agents) began focusing their intelligence efforts on figuring out how to gain direct access to local Afghan moral authorities across the country, local moral authorities who had been able within the traditional moral structures of tribe and clan, merely by pointing the finger of shame, to compel limbic complicity from Afghan teenagers seeking legitimate warrior identities. Except for Major Gant and a few others, we never took the power of that finger of shame seriously. The Taliban simply cut them off.


In 2008, the Taliban had already begun focusing their recruitment literature on co-opting village moral authority. They were running their own combined influence and village stability operations, as this now popular Taliban poem reveals:


  • Whether in the city or the mountains, it's our village; there are screams and forces in our village once more.
  • Our entire village has become a trench once -- a trench -- once more.
  • Somebody must have paid for them;
  • Our village has become Maiwand and Khyber once more.
  • The small stones of our village once more;
  • Our village has great tribes -- tribes -- once more.
  • I know they have strong intentions;
  • Where our village is in the east or the west.
  • Don't say spring won't come again;
  • Our village has this firm belief.
  • Stanizi isn't just making this up;
  • In fact, our village is actually this brave. (Stanizi May 2008).  

By 2010, Taliban like Stanizi had figured out how "to make it up," how to weaponize local moral (village) authority in Afghanistan; they had largely replaced it with their own blend of narco-terrorism and bastardized Salafism. 


Key to their recruitment success (strategic signaling) was giving Afghan teenagers the feeling, the deep-soul conviction that they had found a morally legitimate means by which to fulfill their tribally inherited, village-centered warrior compulsions. The means they provided is the Taliban fighter, a vague concept that is given starkly concrete detail in this popular Taliban lyric: "Death is a gift and I thank God for that." (Tariq Ahmadzai, 2007)


The Taliban are a death cult.[xvii] None of Afghanistan's pre-Taliban warrior cultures were death cultists. Again, that fact should be heeded by all stakeholders in Afghan stability. The security of your gas and mineral investments is largely dependent on leadership whose group fantasy is not the honorable warrior, let alone the social security of qalats and villages, but Istishhad: A Shia concept that the Sunni Taliban imported from Iranian fundamentalists. Taliban are enthralled by apocalyptic visions of the return of the global caliphate of Harun Al Rashid. Your investments have far less value (symbolic and real) to their hallucinatory leadership than bloody swords, bloody martyrs, bloody texts, and bloody hands.[xviii] 


To iterate: Not merely co-opting local moral authority, the Taliban took a sledgehammer to all load-bearing moral pillars in Afghan society. As a leading Taliban expert notes, the Taliban began systematically undermining and replacing the traditional Afghan moral authorities in 2008:

Often the first demand placed on elders when the Taliban start having influence in an area is to take over dispute resolution, as long as the environment is not conductive to the establishment of a Taliban court or the deployment of one of their mobile judges. For instance, in the summer of 2008 in the Sheniz area of Sayed Abad district of Wardak province, the Taliban asked community representatives to come to the mosque at a specific time. When the elders came to the mosque the Taliban's group leader asked them not to go to the state courts anymore, and to have disputes resolved instead by elders and ulema. When Taliban approach them, elders can either choose to accept what they are asked and assist the Taliban or refuse and leave the area and move to the place where the Taliban are weak and cannot reach them. The attitude of the Taliban towards local authorities depends on whether they have good relations with individual officials or not. If they have, the official can stay on with a guarantee that he will not be attacked. If not, he will be targeted in the assassination campaign. [xix]

Those open-source insights were available to us over a decade ago. But we ignored them.


Another popular Taliban poem, written in 2008, expresses the underlying emotional target of the Taliban's version of "VSO": "The lions of our village will come to the field in scores. Mansour! The brave nation of Ayyub will succeed/If the faithful villagers support the Jihad." Did ISAF ever make rhetorical use ("influence operations") of Mansour or Ayyub? Note in those lines that history is not "bunk" to the speaker of the Taliban's lyrical propaganda. Referencing the Caliphate of Saladin, the speaker reveals the Taliban's broader imperial, apocalyptic ambitions. How history gets told is hotly contested, like everything else in Afghanistan. Rewriting history and has been another cardiac fiber of Taliban "moral authority operations," because they manipulate collective histories (group-forming master-narratives) not to stabilize but to destabilize traditional epics, poems, tribe-bonding rituals (musical festivals and dances) specifically in order to confuse ethnic and individual identity.[xx] The Taliban have systematically "deconstructed" all cultural forms of Afghan tradition.   


Another now-popular Taliban poem, written in 2008 by Ustad Hayatullah Rafiqi, reveals the diabolical energy with which the Taliban targeted and engaged even the young "nerdy," scholastic Afghan male (a Talib is, after all, as "student"):


  • Move youth! Get ready for some committed work;
  • Make education your hobby and get ready with your pen.
  • Look at your culture; the foreigners are looting it;
  • Save history; destroy dust.
  • Our heroes are being condemned by worthless people;
  • Destroy this decision of the foreigners with your work...
  • So if you want to beat them, make them look bad in knowledge;
  • Their roots will be erased; get ready for knowledge and a profession.

That poem seeks to inspire and recruit influence operators, the makers of weapons of mass persuasion, even as it lies viciously about who's actually looted Afghanistan. The Taliban themselves have divested the Afghan people of the greatest cultural treasures (remember those Buddhist statues they dynamited into gravel?) and traditional wealth (from household goods to children for sex slavery), utterly destroying traditional moral institutions like the Jirga and even traditional forms of Afghan music. It's the Taliban, not ISAF or NATO, who have "erased the roots" of the Afghan people. Deracination has, in fact, been a key part of Taliban destabilization tactics. (The Taliban are now literally looting the country's mineral wealth: "A recent investigation by Global Witness revealed that illegal mining of lapis last year contributed about $4 million to the Taliban’s war chest."[xxi] For those investors who believe the Taliban will stabilize the country with their version of "Shari'a," Taliban looting and cultural destruction should be a pinch of Tabasco on the eyeballs.) 


Side-note: Perhaps nothing reveals the cosmic difference between traditional Afghan respect for Afghan tradition itself and the Taliban's bloody contempt for Afghan tradition than their respective attitudes toward music. Despite a general suspicion toward all music in Islam, all pre-Taliban regions of Afghanistan located music at the center of village identity. Pre-Taliban Islam in Afghanistan was so sophisticated it divided music into two categories: Folk music that was sung within folk gathering spaces without instruments and without professional musicians was not even considered music as such, and therefore of no concern to Islamic teachings. "Bad" music according to Islamic teaching was, nevertheless, highly popular. "Haram" music was anything played with the accompaniment of a musical instrument or played by a professional musician. Poetry itself was often sung or chanted during the once-renowned Atans (Pashtun dances) held for feasts and weddings. Again, this was a non-issue for pre-Taliban Islam in Afghanistan. The point is that music and poetry were deeply in the minds of pre-Taliban Afghans, reflecting highly sophisticated cultural cognition capable of tolerating contradictions and paradoxes and even mixed identities. Erstwhile, the Taliban have utterly destroyed these two traditional primary forms of village-bonding rituals, music and dance.[xxii] Another de-stability factor.


In this regard, the Taliban have even looted traditional Afghan poetry, swiping its forms, themes, metaphors, and symbolism, perverting, twisting it to the manipulative end of recruitment literature, thereby hiding their criminal enterprises under a gaudy shellac of "authentic" Afghan.


Like Somalia, Afghan has long been bedizened with the colorful rhetorical garments and lurid political trappings of the honorable warrior culture. Warrior symbolism, narratives, and group-identity-forming poems long abounded in every region of Afghanistan. Before the Taliban abolished the traditional musical culture of Afghanistan, popular songs often revered and celebrated the Afghan warrior. Every region in the country was saturated with warrior poems, songs, epics. But that was then, pre-Taliban.


We've heard pious mantras for decades from even our best anthropologists and Afghan analysts about how the famous "Paschtunwali" code regulates warrior behavior, mediates in-group and out-group relations, and places absolute constraints on inter-clan bloodshed; about how a Pashtun is Pashtun first, and Muslim second, and so forth.[xxiii] We've been implored by the best of our Afghan experts to understand the long history and the precise cultural, environmentally adaptive, conflict-limiting functions of the traditional Afghan warrior system (honor-shame-conflict dynamics in Afghanistan).


Philip Salzman rightly notes how in-tact tribal structures limit the scale of bloodshed and stabilize the broader society:

Every society needs order. Only predictability allows people to gauge the consequences of their acts, and thus to act purposefully. Without order, neither social relations nor the production and exchange required for an economy are feasible. Tribal organization provides that order. But tribal organization performs other important functions. It constrains conflict among members by imposing restrictive norms. There are, for example, limits on the kinds of weapons that can be used against fellow tribesmen. Women from the tribe are excluded from conflict. And tribal members are obliged to seek peaceful solutions, such as the payment of blood money, when it is a matter of conflict within the tribe. Another function is the defense of tribal territory, as well as, often, aggressive territorial expansion. Marshall Sahlins has even argued that segmentary lineage systems are themselves a mechanism for predatory expansion. This kind of organization allows social relations to be established among a large number of people spread across a wide territory. This is critically important for the many nomadic pastoralists in Africa and Asia who must move substantial distances across territory in order to find pasture and water for their animals. Arid lands are non-equilibrium environments in which rainfall, and thus pasture and water, are erratic over time and space, and thus unpredictable and unreliable. Nomadic movement, necessary in such an environment, is only possible if peaceful relations have been established among the mobile populations. Tribal ties establish those relations, and this is why tribes are always much larger than primary communities.[xxiv]

Caveat emptor: misapplying Salzman's groundbreaking insights to today's Afghanistan will cause stakeholders in Afghan stability to underestimate, fatally, the innate instability of a Talibanized society. Although Afghan tribal culture had been out of joint even before 911, largely the consequence of the Soviet War, the limb was still attached to the body. It was severed in 2010 when the neo-Taliban redoubled their influence operations and muscled up their engines of propaganda, and, concurrently, when we completely succumbed, for reasons of political ambition at home, to our own cognitive naval gazing.     


Many well-meaning allies of the Pashtun who are experts in the clan-binding moral authority of Pashtunwali have courageously promoted a countrywide return to that ancient code. However noble and stabilizing that code may once have been, it's only as viable, compelling, constraining, stabilizing as are the social identities of the warriors who embody it. And far too many of the men who once understood and embodied that warrior code were killed by the Taliban long before Pashtunwali adepts could pass on the expressive features of that social-moral code, fully in-tact, to their juniors. That's partly why a moral vacuum opened among Afghan youth. One reason for the dissolution of the Afghan warrior code, whether Pashtu or Pashai, is obvious: Four decades of waging fourth generation warfare, a style of warfare for which traditional Afghan warrior culture was not invented and to which it has been unable to adapt. Another reason is the Taliban's weaponization of Afghan moral authority which is perfectly suited to waging 4GW. 


The gravest mistake that recent Afghan regional analyses of the Taliban have made is assuming that the Taliban have simply absorbed, adopted, and then adapted the Pashtunwali code to the current grim realties of the Afghan shatter-state. They have not. Their warrior-code is not Pashtunwali. They obliterated that code and replaced it with a sub-moral syncretism, a witch's brew of naro-terrorism and a five-finger-death-cult version of Salafism that parasites off of the many different local interpretations of honor and warrior that had existed in Afghanistan before the Taliban usurped the roles of Mullahs, Imams, and all other moral authorities. The Taliban "warrior code" shares more cultural DNA with Pablo Escobar than with Ayyub Khan.


Afghanistan's would-be warriors today are no longer being educated in the traditional meanings, forms, or legitimate expressions of honor and warrior codes culturally appropriate to Afghanistan. Even in Pashtun territory, young men chronically lack reliable adult guidance into the arts of the traditionally honorable warrior from experienced, jirga-approved elders, because those jirgas have been co-opted or destroyed by Taliban.[xxv]


In the absence of proper warrior education, far too many young Afghans began to believe they become honorable warriors the first time they fire a Kalashnikov. And the Taliban have obviously encouraged that morally toxic belief, another cardiac fiber of their so-called political economy.


However, they began winning significant numbers of converts (along with the war in Afghanistan) only when, instead of sermonizing against music and dancing, they started

redefining the meaning of honor as "being free of disgust," when they, so to speak, Puritanized the Afghan warrior.[xxvi]


The Taliban replaced the key Afghan cultural concept of honor with cleanliness; instead of promoting the fear of shame among recruits, they started promoting the terror of contamination. As I will analyze in detail in a separate report, they figured out how to tap into the human insula, that part of the human brain responsible for disgust reactions and the primary brain mechanism with which Afghan honor-shame cultures had gained congruency and upon which they had constructed highly complex, sophisticated, and adaptive clan societies. Honor-shame, not disgust, focused and stabilized the behavioral norms of traditional pre-Taliban Afghans. Honor-shame cultures contain their own social stabilizers. Disgust-obsessed cultures do not.[xxvii]    


One of the main vehicles that the Taliban of all regions used by which to weaponize moral authority was a discrete weapon of mass persuasion never taken seriously by any US Command in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan War may go down in history as the war in which America was beaten by really bad poetry


Taliban poetry became popular all over Afghanistan, starting around 2008. The speakers of Taliban poems are typically young men imagining themselves as Afghan mujahed:


  • Gun in my hand and dagger under my arm, I am going to battle, I am Afghan mujahed
  • We hate the war, but we are fighting in the war
  • If war is imposed on us, the I am the man of the field."[xxviii]

Although American policymakers and strategic commanders typically dismiss poetry as the trivial pursuit of over-literate college students too stupid to major in medicine or law, Afghan males take poetry more seriously even than gang-bangers straight out of Compton used to take rap lyrics.


Taliban poetry supports Talibanic cultural constructions, especially projections of disgust onto that which the Taliban deem "haram" (anything that stand in the way of their criminal enterprises) similar to how the mariachi music of Northern Mexico circulates the Santa Muerta symbolism of narco-cults.[xxix] The Taliban have effectively used a medium as inexpensive, as simple, and as limbically compulsive as poetry to activate and re-educate the warrior impulses of their young recruits. Today's Taliban fighter does not seek honor. He seeks cleanliness. And he uses blood as soul bleach. The past decade of Taliban terrorism clearly reveals that any act, no matter how dishonorable it may have been to traditional moral authorities, has became possible for the Taliban fighter as long as he cleanses himself in the blood of those his soul master designates as haram Afghan ethnic or clan identities, a point to which I'll return in a separate article. 


The Taliban figured out what we should have known even before 911; what Charlie Wilson well understood when he first set foot in the country: Weaponized moral authority is the best, possibly the only feasible, means to achieve integrated regional control in Afghanistan. At the end of the Cold War, we had figured out that ironclad law of 4GW used it against the Soviets in Afghanistan them to topple empire. And then, sometime shortly after 911, we suddenly forgot the very lesson we'd applied to win the final act of the Cold War. Only a few extraordinarily anthropologically gifted Special Forces assets, like Major Jim Gant, managed to remain immune to our post-911 collective amnesia and cognitive solipsism, another point to which I'll return in a separate report.  


We've lost Afghanistan to the Taliban because we failed to take seriously -- failed to sincerely engage, educate, and channel -- the warrior impulses of young Afghans. We failed to help them find both an education and an occupation for their deep-soul need to be an honorable warrior. We failed to provide them the vital guidance of authentic, traditional Afghan moral authority. While we were spending billions to guard airfields the size of Chicago's west side, drone wedding parties, and get "massages" from Uzbek women at our mega-base hair salons, the Taliban were figuring out how to fulfill the deepest, most compulsive social-identity desires of young Afghan males. They extirpated and then redefined not only the meaning but the nature of the Afghan honorable warrior, radically changing the terms of its fulfillment, transmogrifying that once-honorable warrior into a hard-core sociopath, a rapist, a sex-slaver, a drug trafficker.  Or, as the lyrics of the popular pre-Taliban song (a poem set to music, "tarkib-band") lament:

You have tasted the blood of the oppressed and are intoxicated by it, what should I do?


You are riding on the devil's shoulder, what should I do?


Since the creation of this old world


The mother of time never gave birth to a butcher like you. What should I do?

What should today's Afghan do about the Taliban's destruction and weaponization of moral authority? Because we have not helped them, defend their traditional institutions nor provided any other institutions that offer them "security, safety, structure and significance," lying about their true identity has become their only protection.


Many thanks to Major Jim Gant, Dave Phillips, and all of the researchers at the Tribal Analysis Center. 


End Notes


[i] See, Di Cristofaro J, Pennarun E, Mazières S, Myres NM, Lin AA, Temori SA, et al. Afghan Hindu Kush: Where Eurasian Sub-Continent Gene Flows Converge. (PLoS ONE 8(10): e76748, 2013):

[ii] For deep analysis of the sources of Pasthun extremism, see Pashtunistan: Pakistan’s Shifting Strategy? at Tribal Analysis Center, here:

[iii] For close-quarter descriptions of Afghans lying, how they lie, why they lie, see Jennifer Dunham's memoir of her ISAF deployment in Afghanistan, There is No Goat.

[iv] For an instructive personal meditation on the confusions and complexities of Afghan social identity, one informed throughout by acute awareness of the threat of ethnic cleansing, see Fariba Nawa's Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan. (Harper, 2011). The "punch line" of Nawa's first-rate analysis is her choice not to settle in her homeland Afghanistan because she fears for the safety of her children. 

[v] For an excellent description of the once-adaptive cultural functions of that code, see Doing Pashto: Paschtunwali as the Ideal of Honorable Behavior and Tribal Life Among the Pashtuns (Kabul Analysts Network: Kabul, 2012).

[vi] See Doyle Quiggle's Analyzing the Bio-cognitive Substrates of Social-Identity Formation in Islamic Extremists. (Journal of Terrorism Research. 7(2), 2016).

[vii] We have witnessed with horror what happens to this instable personality when it is transplanted to the West, in, for example Germany, where a disproportionate number of Afghan refugees have been involved in brutal rapes, murders, and street crime. 

[viii] Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, 2009.

[ix] A female Afghan warrior (1651 - 1717), born in Qandahar. She gained a reputation as both a poet and a warrior. She also gave birth to Miriwais Hotak.

[x] See, Jim Gant, One Tribe at a Time: The Paper that Changed the War in Afghanistan (Black Irish Entertainment, 2014).

[xi] For the most part, we did not heed his analysis or his recommendations, which focused on shoring up and strengthening traditional village, tribal institutions, beginning with winning the trust of local Afghan moral authorities. Because we've largely ignored the deep sources of One Tribe at a Time, Gant's personal experience of tribal combat, and the social science of honor-shame cultures performed by remarkable, researchers like David Ronfeldt, Steven Pressfield, and Dave Phillips, the consequence to Afghanistan is now moral chaos.

[xii] Richard Landes, Edward Said and the Culture of Honor and Shame (Israel Affairs, Volume 13: 4 (October 2007)

[xiii] See H.F. Schurmannn's The Mongols of Afghanistan (Central Asian Studies, no 4. K. Jahn and J.R. Krueger's Gravenhage: Mouton, 1962).

[xiv] For a depiction of a Mullah struggling to stave off the Taliban and Al Queda, see Colonel Walker's remarkable chapter "The Troublesome Priest," in Goat Game: Thirteen Tales From The Afghan Frontier (Create Space, 2012).  

[xv] See William Lind and Gregory Thiele's 4th Generation Warfare Handbook Castalia House, 2015

[xvi] For the best exposé of Pakistan machinations in Afghanistan see,

Imtiaz Gul's The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan's Lawless Frontier . (Penguin, 2010)

[xvii] See Robert Pape's Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York, 2005).

[xviii] See Richard Landes's Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. (Oxford University Press, 2011).

[xix] Antonio Giustozzi's Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field (Columbia University Press, 2009).

[xx] For an intelligently useful rediscovery of the best practices of information operations, see Howard Gambrill Clark`s Information Warfare: The Lost Tradecraft (Narrative Strategies, 2017). 

[xxi] See, and

[xxii] See Hirome Sakata's absolutely remarkable field work, Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan (Smithsonian Institute, 2002).   

[xxiii] See above, Doing Pashto: Paschtunwali as the Ideal of Honorable Behavior and Tribal Life Among the Pashtuns (Kabul Analysts Network: Kabul, 2012).

[xxiv] Philip Salzman's Tribes and States here:

[xxv] For a powerful portrayal of now long-gone traditional tribal honor-shame dynamics in Afghanistan, slowly and carefully read The Wandering Falcon (2011) by Jamil Hamad, Pakistan's former Chief Secretary in Balochistan. See also Goat Game: Thirteen Tales from the Afghan Frontier (2012) by USA Lt Colonel Wickliffe Walker.     

[xxvi] The Taliban's destruction of the many rich Afghan musical traditions is perhaps the best example of the key cognitive differences between pre- and post-Taliban Afghanistan. See Hirome Sakata's Music in the Mind: The Concepts of Music and Musician in Afghanistan (Smithsonian Institute, 2002).   

[xxvii] See Paul Rozin, below.

[xxviii] See Poetry of the Taliban.

[xxix] Dawn Perlmutter is one of our best analysts of this symbolism, find her work here: See her book, Symbols of Terrorism (The Institute for the Research of Organized & Ritual Violence, 2007).


About the Author(s)

Doyle Quiggle (PhD, Washington University) has had the honor and privilege of being a professor to US Troops downrange, at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, Africa and at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, Afghanistan. He researches the anthropology of war from within the battlespace, focusing on counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency.