The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken

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 US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, boards an aircraft as he departs Doha, Qatar, to travel to Germany.
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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.

An Afghan man who was evacuated from Kabul sits on a wall at a temporary housing complex in Doha, Qatar.

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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.”

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