Why the Taliban Still Love Suicide Bombing

The group is normalizing death and despair in the Islamic Emirate.

By , a visiting assistant professor of international relations at St. Lawrence University in New York.
Two Taliban fighters stand on a sidewalk dressed in tactical gear.
Two Taliban fighters stand on a sidewalk dressed in tactical gear.
Taliban fighters patrol along a street next to a refugee camp for internally displaced people in Kabul on Nov. 2. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Soon after they seized control of Kabul in mid-August, the Taliban paraded their Istish-haadi (“seeking martyrdom”) or suicide bomber squadron on national television. The disturbing display exhibited an arsenal of suicide vests, suicide car bombs, and yellow plastic jerry cans—used to make the group’s signature improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—while a ballad glorifying the bombs and associated bombers played over the visuals.

On a separate occasion, the Taliban memorialized suicide bombers at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. This time, the regime’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani—head of the notorious Haqqani network—addressed hundreds of men representing the family members of suicide bombers. Haqqani congratulated the men for their loved ones’ divine sacrifice and gifted them with clothes, cash, and the promised allocation of land plots. And in October, amid increasing tensions with Tajikistan, the group announced the deployment of 3,000 suicide bombers to the border between the two countries.

Clearly, the Taliban’s passion for suicide bombing did not end with their military victory. If anything, their love of suicide bombing seems to be taking a new turn, with Taliban officials publicly venerating the tactic and its agents in an apparent attempt to normalize it on a larger, societal scale.

Soon after they seized control of Kabul in mid-August, the Taliban paraded their Istish-haadi (“seeking martyrdom”) or suicide bomber squadron on national television. The disturbing display exhibited an arsenal of suicide vests, suicide car bombs, and yellow plastic jerry cans—used to make the group’s signature improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—while a ballad glorifying the bombs and associated bombers played over the visuals.

On a separate occasion, the Taliban memorialized suicide bombers at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. This time, the regime’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani—head of the notorious Haqqani network—addressed hundreds of men representing the family members of suicide bombers. Haqqani congratulated the men for their loved ones’ divine sacrifice and gifted them with clothes, cash, and the promised allocation of land plots. And in October, amid increasing tensions with Tajikistan, the group announced the deployment of 3,000 suicide bombers to the border between the two countries.

Clearly, the Taliban’s passion for suicide bombing did not end with their military victory. If anything, their love of suicide bombing seems to be taking a new turn, with Taliban officials publicly venerating the tactic and its agents in an apparent attempt to normalize it on a larger, societal scale.

Having now transformed from an insurgency to a regime tasked with running a country, it might seem odd if not outright irrational for the Taliban to still so fervently promote the use of one of the most disturbing and destructive forms of political violence. After all, suicide bombings might be effective at destabilizing the government you’re fighting an insurgency against, but it’s a different story when you’re the government and the one who has to clean up the mess afterward. Moreover, suicide bombings are not exactly useful for stabilizing a country and an economy in free fall, negotiating trade agreements with foreign countries, or dealing with an ongoing pandemic—all pressing issues for the Taliban government.

However, a closer look at the Taliban’s relationship with suicide bombing and how it has evolved since they first embraced the tactic in 2003 suggests deeper strategic and social reasons for why the group might still cling to—or even see continued value in—suicide bombings despite their new position.

First, suicide bombing is deeply institutionalized within the Taliban’s armed units, and keeping the suicide bomber corps operational and well supplied ensures the group retains a “just-in-case” capability to carry out such attacks if needed. The mandate for such use may involve domestic, regional, or even global reasons, including to fight potential domestic armed resistance, the Islamic State-Khorasan’s insurgency, or possible foreign intervention—or just to bully neighboring countries, mainly the Central Asian republics. The Taliban could also provide suicide bombers to other like-minded groups in distant theaters of operation, such as Indian-controlled Kashmir or Central Asia.

Second, glorifying suicide bombing serves power dynamics within the group itself. Now that war, the core unifying factor among the Taliban’s different factions, has disappeared (for now, at least) with Kabul’s collapse, the group’s rift seems inevitable. The Haqqani network that has carried out hundreds of well-planned, destructive, and coordinated suicide operations over the years seems to have a strong monopoly over the group’s suicide bombing enterprise. As such, the Taliban’s recent public display may be aimed at an internal power struggle. Having discord with the Kandahar-based Taliban leadership, the Haqqani network may use its monopoly over suicide bombings as a strategic advantage against its rival faction. Putting such power on display can serve as a bargaining chip and/or deterrence tactic.

Beyond these more prosaic aims, however, the Taliban may also use suicide bombing to achieve broader social-psychological goals both within the group and within Afghan society writ large: namely, the promotion of senseless violence and the discouragement of any emotional and physical attachment to life. The aim is to transform the social mindset toward a place where passion for destruction and violence overcomes reason and where the lack of war should not mean the normalization of life and living.

Studying the Taliban’s literature on suicide bombings reveals that such a passion constitutes the group’s fundamental socialization with violence, which has proven critical for the group’s rapid internalization and normalization of suicide bombings for its insurgency. After embracing the tactic in 2003, the Taliban quickly became one of the leading groups that claimed the most suicide bombings. Statistically, the Taliban claimed the most suicide attacks carried out by any terrorist organization ever. Such success in materializing one of the most brutal and indiscriminate forms of violence is embedded in the two narratives the group constructed: “Istish-haadi,” which encourages members to actively seek martyrdom, and “love to death,” which exhorts members to renounce the love of life on Earth, which is illusive, and instead embrace death, which is eternal and the true reality. Both narratives promote a passion for destruction and suppression of reason.

In Gen. Carl von Clausewitz’s classic understanding of war, passion and reason are necessary tendencies of organized political violence. Passion inspires people’s willingness to participate in violence to the extent of killing or being killed while reason counterbalances the passion for violence, presenting it as a means to an end—thus preventing it from becoming the ultimate goal itself.

But the Taliban’s narrative around suicide bombing defies the principle of reason in resorting to and inflicting violence. Unlike the fundamental logic of political violence, the Istish-haadi narrative conceptualizes violence as the end itself (in terms of Earthly existence) rather than the means, while the “love to death” narrative explicitly defies the sanctity of life and questions existence.

Yet while the two narratives successfully operationalized the Taliban’s suicide bombing enterprise by attracting its young cadres, on a societal level, the narratives have remained obsolete, irrelevant, and rejected. Despite decades of exposure to extreme political violence, Afghan society has revealed extraordinary perseverance and resilience against the dogmas that promote burying life’s vibrancy in eternal fear, total submission, and denial of life’s sanctity. The prolonged spell of war and destruction has taught the population to reject bottling up their pain and suffering in silence and to instead celebrate existence, reason, and passion for life as a remedy to heal grief and pain.

During the 20-year Taliban insurgency characterized by brutal indiscriminate violence, mainly inflicted by suicide bombings and IEDs, Kabul and other major cities remained vibrant, and its people showed strong emotional and physical attachment with different aspects of life. A dynamic civil society, women’s activism, a promising music industry, love of poetry, growing street art and artisanship, vibrant cafes, grand wedding halls, and engaging humor, among others, are all indications of such perseverance.

Now that the Taliban have shut down these avenues of passion for a reasoned and dynamic society, they have the most optimal conditions to sell their Istish-haadi and “love to death” narratives on a broader societal scale. Doing so is instrumental for the Taliban to keep their suicide bombing enterprise growing for potential domestic, regional, or global purposes and to systematically numb society toward inflicted dogmas, despair, repression, barbarity, and violence.

The international community must not remain silent about such dogmatic behavior by the Taliban toward their citizens and instead engage with the Taliban by holding them accountable. The regime’s sovereign rights and responsibilities should not be defined narrowly and exclusively in relation to threatening the world’s security either directly or through their links with other regional and global terrorist networks. They should be held equally responsible for depriving tens of millions of people under their rule of basic human needs, wants, and dignity. The regime’s unwillingness and/or inability to provide fundamental securities and freedoms humans of the contemporary age are entitled to should be treated as a violation of the Afghan people’s human rights.

Atal Ahmadzai is a visiting assistant professor of international relations at St. Lawrence University in New York. His work focuses on issues related to human (in)securities in South, Central, and Western Asia.

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