Soldierless Jihad

How the Withdrawal Undermines the Taliban's Case for War

Graffiti left behind by Taliban fighters on the walls of a compound used as a command center for the U.S Marine Corps' First Battalion, Eighth Marines at Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, November 10, 2010. Finbarr O'Reilly / Courtesy Reuters

On May 24, a group of Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan police and army post in the Syed Karam district of Paktia province, near the border with Pakistan’s tribal areas. The soldiers inside resisted, aided by air support. By the end of the battle, four Taliban fighters were dead: yet more casualties in the escalating violence that has rocked Afghanistan this year as efforts to start negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Hamid Karzai continue, and as the NATO withdrawal looms. According to the United Nations, over 3,000 civilians were killed in the first five months of 2013 -- nearly a quarter rise over the past year.

Still, the four Taliban fighters -- Sebghatullah, Sherif, Gul Ahmad, and Gul Padshah -- were more than statistics. They were also the cause and consequence of the Taliban leadership’s attempts to sustain the current conflict and rally supporters even as its raison d'être, the Western presence in Afghanistan, recedes. Their deaths reveal both the durability and the vulnerability of Taliban rhetoric among the most hardened militants and in the communities on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, where the Taliban recruits new fighters.


After twelve years of war, the Taliban has no credible strategy to end its conflict with Western forces and the Afghan government -- only an ideology to sustain a seemingly endless fight. This clash between the Taliban’s war aims and doctrine was on full display in the funerals of the four fighters killed in Syed Karam. After the attack, fellow Taliban comrades retrieved their four bodies and transported them to their home district of Zurmat, also in Paktia. They all received quiet burials in their native villages. Three were buried in Sak, and the best-known of the four men, Sebghatullah, was taken to his family in the village of Qala Sarkari. Sebghatullah was buried by his father, Mawlvi Abdul Manan, a former comrade of the charismatic Maulvi Nasrullah Mansoor, who led a faction of militant

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