Graffiti left behind by Taliban fighters remains on the walls of a compound.
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 clerics in the jihad against the Soviets in the 1980s. Civilians in Paktia are ambivalent about fallen Taliban fighters and wary of getting into trouble with the intelligence service by associating with them, which ensured that no elaborate funeral took place in their native villages in Afghanistan.

The real commemoration of the martyr of Syed Karam took place a few days later, four hundred miles to the east, across the frontier, in Pakistan. Sebghatullah’s brother organized a prayer service for him attended by some 350 extended relatives and Taliban comrades. Such a gathering of Afghans in the outskirts of a Pakistani city exemplified how the jihad spans this frontier. The affair also signified the long association of Sebghatullah’s family with jihadist circles in southeastern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Illustrating the links between cross-border communities and home villages, Sebghatullah’s brother even made a show of making a phone call to his father in Paktia, so the old jihadist could be a part of the gathering. Among the seven main speakers and assorted guests was a sprinkling of former Taliban ministers, current commanders, and officials. The gathering to honor a fallen fighter quickly became a political meeting in which funeral orators articulated the Taliban's case for continued war. 

For four hours, a succession of Taliban leaders and clerics lectured the mourners on the purpose of the Taliban’s fight and the worthiness of Sebghatullah’s sacrifice. The memorial service’s most animated speaker, a son of Mansoor, expounded the classic explanation for jihad as the sacred duty incumbent upon all Muslims, whether they participate directly, through fighting, or indirectly, through assisting the mujahideen. Subsequent speakers described the current fight against the Kabul government and NATO as being essentially the same one as their fathers’ war against the Soviets, three decades before. The legitimacy of that fight is an article of faith in most of rural Afghanistan, and the speakers sought to borrow some of its potency for their cause. Meanwhile, both the son of Mansoor and the brother of Sebghatullah counted the number of martyrs within their families, vowing that they remained committed to jihad and praying that they too would embrace martyrdom. 

Speakers also outlined what they believe is wrong in Afghanistan and what the Taliban seeks to change. Like other Islamist militants, they invoked the specter of Islam in danger. The United States invaded Afghanistan, they held, because it could not tolerate the Taliban’s sincere application of Islamic law. Furthermore, they explained, the presence of foreign troops is an unjust occupation. “The invaders have taken our land and we must fight to free it,” a speaker insisted -- a sentiment repeated by several others. They described the oppression inherent in the foreigners’ occupation -- arbitrary arrests, killings, harassment by the foreigners and their local Afghan allies alike. With a degree of relish, the speakers singled out the third grievance, describing the moral corruption that is supposedly prevalent in Kabul and “infidel-influenced” Afghanistan. The modesty of no Afghan woman was safe in the face of occupied Kabul’s licentiousness, they said. Wistfully, the speakers recalled the period of the Islamic Emirate from 1996 to 2001, a time when, by their accounts, the law of God was enforced and citizens enjoyed security. 

The jihadist rhetoric quieted only when lunch was served. Prominent Taliban officials, jihadists, and speakers cloistered themselves in a guest room while all other guests were fed in the shamiana, a large tent of gaudy cloth and thick bamboo poles -- typical of weddings and funerals throughout Pakistan -- that had been erected for the gathering. The rhetoric was characteristically heavy on ideology and light on strategy. The speakers stressed the legitimacy of the armed struggle, but they avoided any concrete war aims or a scenario in which the war might end. When faced with difficult dilemmas, the Taliban tend to fall back on following their leaders, no matter the course.  

Throughout Sebghatullah’s service, there was no free debate, nor was it possible to gauge accurately the response to the fiery rhetoric or the lack of real strategy. The funeral orators represented authority -- the son of Mansoor tapped the emotions of the crowd, provoking tears as he linked the martyrdom of Sebghatullah to that of “slain heroes of the jihad, Mansoor and Osama bin Laden.” Their dominating jihadist spirit ensured that anyone with reservations about what they heard was unlikely to speak out. 

Yet many ordinary participants remained deeply skeptical. As the meeting dragged on, men grumbled that they had come to bury a young man, not to engage in politics. Over lunch, discreetly among friends, one of the mourners complained, “Of course we believe in the idea of jihad, but until when? These people seem to invite us to a jihad which has no clear end.” Others were even more dismissive, accusing the Taliban of having double motives. “This rhetoric is all very well, but we know that really they are serving the agenda of some intelligence agency, and are not motivated by these arguments they present,” one man said. Such classic, coded language in Afghanistan is used to accuse compatriots of being in the pay of the Pakistani state. When Sebghatullah’s service was over, these doubts and criticisms lingered. For many Afghans, the Taliban’s bellicose language is being outpaced by events. 


The funeral rhetoric constructed a case for war that depended on an exaggerated depiction of the situation in Afghanistan, which the Taliban uses to recruit young men along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Such embellishments rely not only on speeches but on propaganda, in the form of the Lahya (literally, rulebook), which provides instruction on appropriate behavior for mujahideen. Produced by the Taliban's Cultural Commission, the latest edition of the rulebook briefed commanders on the fight ahead in 2013. The commanders handed the book to fighters such as Sebghatullah for guidance; its rhetoric is as far from objective reality as the funeral orations. It may rally new supporters to fight, but it underscores how little direction the Taliban offers for realistic political action and aims after the fighting is over. 

Take, for example, a whole chapter devoted to the question of how to handle the surrender of government forces. Essentially, the Taliban’s leadership is telling its fighters that they are on the winning side, even on the brink of victory, and so should be ready to receive mass defections. Yet only a trickle of Afghan government personnel is actually going over to the Taliban. The Lahya also maintains the illegitimacy of its enemy by making multiple references to the “infidel forces” of American and NATO troops and the “slave regime” of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. It casts the restoration of the Islamic Emirate as a real and legitimate goal, whose command chain, stretching up to the imam or supreme leader, must be obeyed, and whose rules have the force of law. It parrots familiar Taliban rhetoric for the Islamic Emirate as the only legitimate state authority in Afghanistan, an issue that halted, for a moment, recent fledging peace talks in Qatar.

But the impending disappearance of foreign military forces from the battlefield will make it increasingly difficult for the Taliban to persuade supporters that they are freeing the land from foreign occupiers. After 2014, most Taliban military operations will be conducted against Afghan targets. Although Taliban militants have been fighting both foreign soldiers and Afghan security forces, propaganda such as the Lahya conflate the two as a single enemy. Without a highly visible foreign troop contingent, the “slave regime” label for the government in Kabul will lose appeal among Afghan civilians and potential fighters. In recent years, local militias in the form of the Afghan Local Police have emerged to fight the Taliban in the provinces of the Taliban heartland, evidence of the movement’s loosening grip on Pashtun imagination. Despite such developments on the ground, the presence of foreign troops still underpins all of the Taliban grievance-based arguments for war, from defending Islam to resisting obscenities and moral corruption from the West.

The only Taliban argument that could ostensibly outlive the NATO withdrawal is its singular claim to restore the Islamic Emirate. But this most improbable goal has its own challenges. In the first place, pursuit of an emirate implies giving absolute power to the leader of the Taliban, which precludes any compromise with other Afghan groups. Such rhetoric risks consolidating anti-Taliban forces across a broad swath of Afghan society that is inimically opposed to a return to the Taliban rule of the late 1990s. Restoring the emirate might also compel the Taliban to bring its emir, Mullah Omar, out of hiding to assume his place atop the military command chain that is laid out in the Lahya. What’s more, despite its insistence on restoring the Islamic Emirate, the Taliban has not elaborated on what such a system would offer or include, beyond generic promises of Islam and security.

AFTER 2014

Despite the growing gap between its rhetoric and the reality in Afghanistan, the Taliban would not be the first militant political movement to try to sustain armed struggle with outdated and fallacious ideas. It could claim to be fighting the Americans even after international forces have disengaged, or to be fighting for an Islamic Emirate with no sign of its emir. The leadership could issue communiqués in his name and give assurances that he is safe. The leadership would pin its hopes on military gains, such as capturing remote districts or blocking highways. The impression of momentum might boost morale and compensate for any declining appeal of its ideological narrative. 

Alternatively, Taliban fighters could develop a new and divisive rhetoric more adapted to a civil war. That would entail identifying other Afghan groups as enemies of Islam. They could employ sectarian rhetoric against the Shia Hazaras and revert to a version of their old epithet for the northerners -- “sharaf fasad,” or spreaders of corruption. In either case, the Taliban’s militarized religious leaders, who owe their prestige (and thus their arms and resources) to their reputation as defenders of Islam, can be expected to continue to articulate core arguments of jihad as a sacred duty, irrespective of the current enemy or grievance.

But a civil war could be just the thing to tip the balance against the Taliban. Like the skeptics at Sebghatullah’s funeral, many Afghans criticize the Taliban for dragging them into a civil war, even if they remain many broadly sympathetic to the notion of sacred jihad. Afghan public opinion sternly judges anyone culpable of fomenting intra-Afghan factional strife. Taliban propaganda aside, popular Afghan narratives distinguish between the legitimate anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s and the illegitimate factional fighting of the 1990s. As the conflict transforms into one pitting Afghan against Afghan, the critical voices will get louder, a ready audience open to new rhetoric that says that the time for armed struggle has passed. One of these emergent voices is the Taliban’s former finance minister Agha Jan Motasim, who has given a series of interviews calling for the movement to shift beyond armed struggle.

The battle of ideas in Afghanistan has real consequences -- and not only on just how many more young Afghan men like Sebghatullah are prepared to die attacking the Afghan government after 2014. For the Taliban leadership, sustaining the armed struggle after the U.S. and NATO withdrawal is more of a gamble than is often acknowledged. The long tradition of jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan means the group will not lose every fighter. But the Taliban may nevertheless find itself lacking the kind of broad appeal it once used to mount a credible challenge to the central government. For now, the most militant leaders of the Taliban have the upper hand. But by holding back from any form of political accommodation before 2014, the Taliban may once again find itself overtaken by politics and blamed for unnecessarily prolonging a conflict that has lost its logic.

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  • MICHAEL SEMPLE is a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Visiting Professor at Queen's University Belfast. He has worked in Afghanistan for more than two decades.
  • More By Michael Semple