Corruption was part of the problem. As is well-known, the effectiveness of soldiers and police suffered because government officials or military commanders pocketed their pay, hoarded their ammunition and diluted rosters with ghost soldiers. Yet even after accounting for corruption, the police and army were usually still numerically superior to and better equipped than the Taliban in any given battle.
A stronger explanation was that the police and soldiers did not want to put their lives on the line for a government that was corrupt and prone to neglect them. Still, I knew a number of Afghan commanders who took great pains to care for their men. Could we really rest blame on corrupt, uncaring government leaders when Taliban were fighting for less pay, with fewer heavy weapons, far worse medical care, and leaders that for years hid out in Pakistan while their soldiers fought? Moreover, the Afghan special forces — which far and away have better leaders than the Taliban and are exquisitely supported — still had great difficulty fighting without U.S. air support and advisers.
The question nagged me as I left Afghanistan in August 2014. All of these factors were clearly important, but their sum amounted to something less than the hardship that was playing out before my eyes.
A few months after returning home, I attended a discussion at the State Department with Michael McKinley, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. We were having a lively debate about why the Taliban fight when the ambassador interjected. “Maybe I have read too much Hannah Arendt,” he said, referring to the 20th-century philosopher who argued that human action was spurred by fears and past experiences, “but I do not think this is about money or jobs. The Taliban are fighting for something larger.” McKinley captured what I was feeling but had not articulated, and what the Taliban scholar would reiterate for me five years later.
The Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something tied to what it meant to be Afghan. They cast themselves as representatives of Islam and called for resistance to foreign occupation. Together, these two ideas formed a potent mix for ordinary Afghans, who tend to be devout Muslims but not extremists. Aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration. It could not get its supporters, even if they outnumbered the Taliban, to go to the same lengths. Given its association with the Americans, the government’s claim to Islam was fraught, even while the Taliban were able to co-opt Afghans’ religiosity in service of their extremist vision. However wrongly, the Taliban could use U.S. occupation to differentiate themselves from the government as truer representatives of Islam. More Afghans were willing to serve on behalf of the government than the Taliban. But more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed for the Taliban. That edge made a difference on the battlefield.
The explanation is powerful, but also dangerous. It can be twisted to mean that all Muslims are bent on war or are fanatics. Such an interpretation would be wrong: Islam is a source of unity and inspiration, not of terrorism or atrocity. To say that a people have sympathy for their countrymen and co-religionists over foreigners is hardly to label Islam as evil. The point is that it is tougher to risk life for country when fighting alongside what some call occupiers, especially when they do not share your faith.
The explanation came up in a variety of conversations and correspondence I have had over the years with Afghans, military commanders, tribal leaders and Taliban themselves. Kandahar’s notorious police chief, the late Abdul Razziq, was renowned for caring for his officers and something of an authority on fighting the Taliban. He told me, “Taliban morale is better than government morale. Taliban morale is very high. Look at their suicide bombers. The Taliban motivate people to do incredible things.”
A Taliban religious leader from Paktia made a similar point:
I hear every day of an incident where police or army soldiers are killed. … I do not know if they are committed to fighting the Taliban or not. Many of the police and soldiers are there only for dollars. They are paid good salaries but they do not have the motivation to defend the government. … Taliban are committed to the cause of jihad. This is the biggest victory for them.
More convincingly, multiple surveys of Taliban opinion by Graeme Smith, Ashley Jackson, Theo Farrell, Antonio Giustozzi and others have confirmed that the Taliban fight in part because they believe it their Islamic duty to resist occupation and are convinced their cause will enable them to win. Jackson’s survey of 50 Taliban, published in 2019, discovered that they described their decision to join the movement “in terms of religious devotion and jihad—a sense of personal and public duty. In their view, jihad against foreign occupation was a religious obligation, undertaken to defend their values.” Jihad was about identity, she concluded.
This thinking extends to ordinary Afghans as well, many of whom do not subscribe to the Taliban’s extremist political vision but are sympathetic to their invocation of Islamic principles against foreign occupiers. The 2012 Asia Foundation survey, the most respected survey of the Afghan people, found that of those Afghans who strongly sympathized with the Taliban, 77 percent said they did so because the Taliban were Afghans, Muslims, and waging jihad.
Over time, aware of the government’s vulnerable position, Afghan leaders turned to an outside source to galvanize the population: Pakistan. Razziq, President Hamid Karzai and later President Ashraf Ghani used Pakistan as an outside threat to unite Afghans behind them. They refused to characterize the Taliban as anything but a creation of Islamabad. Razziq relentlessly claimed to be fighting a foreign Pakistani invasion. Yet Pakistan could never fully out-inspire occupation. A popular tale related to me in 2018 by an Afghan government official illuminates the reality:
An Afghan army officer and a Taliban commander were insulting each other over their radios while shooting back and forth. The Taliban commander taunted: “You are puppets of America!” The army officer shouted back: “You are the puppets of Pakistan!” The Taliban commander replied: “The Americans are infidels. The Pakistanis are Muslims.” The Afghan officer had no response.
Or in the shorter Afghan proverb form: “Over an infidel, be happy with a weak Muslim.”