“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.”
— Remarks by President Biden on Afghanistan, August 16, 2021
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 that outnumbered Taliban fighters four to one, 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 last month, their consensus gave the Afghan government perhaps two years to meet the challenge. Some Afghan forces, such as Unit 03 and Commando Corps fought bravely (and having killed too many Taliban couldn’t contemplate surrender); and still now Afghan vice-president Amrullah Saleh calls for resistance in the Panjshir valley alongside the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Taliban’s most renowned adversary (assassinated by Al-Qaeda on 9 September 2011, which Bin Laden, who had sought safe haven in Afghanistan, believed curried enough favor with the Taliban to allow an attack on the US to go forward two days later, although Taliban leaders never assented and offered to prevent future attacks against the US and its allies).
Nonetheless the bulk of the Afghan army — beholden to a feckless government, competing warlords, and even family ties with the other side — collapsed in short order. True, 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.
In contrast, Taliban and supporters we interviewed consider 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 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 political 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 aren’t.
The overall take is that 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.
The policy implication is to deal with adversaries’ core values (not denigrating them, which only backfires), and see where commonalities with our own values and interests can be effectively pursued. For example, most Afghans consider their homeland sacrosanct and oppose any foreign interference, including foreign jihadis using Afghanistan to attack other countries. In fact, Taliban leadership never consented to Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack, and there’s a fair chance the Taliban can accede to Afghanistan not becoming a base of operations against the US (whose air forces would help ensure agreement). There’s also the 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 expulsion of the Soviets. But if the clerical leadership remains strong by holding fast to its strict version of Islamic values, it may well endure – all the more so because surrounding countries, including Russia and China, might well prefer the stability of a harsh clerical regime, no matter how unlike their own, to continued chaos and spillover.
Finally, it’s important to realize that few outside Afghanistan’s urban minority value democracy or women’s rights (which the Soviets also pushed) – however worthy of our support – and most vehemently oppose foreign forces imposing such values. In 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 others’ values and cultures – as in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. To honor our own 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.
Scott Atran, author of “Talking to the Enemy”, is co-founder of Artis International, Emeritus Director of Research at France’s National Center for Scientific Research, and he holds research positions at the University of Oxford and University of Michigan