Honor and Sacrifice: The Cultural Context of Afghan Suicide Bombers

By Andrew McIndoe


As suicide bombings by Taliban and Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan continue relentlessly, a new book suggests that analyzing the synthesis of Pashtun tradition and Islamic ideas of martyrdom can help us understand such attacks.


Suicide bombing has come to occupy a central, if controversial, position in the landscape of modern conflict. Its horror as a phenomenon stems from the paradox we perceive in it: nothing seems as irrational as to blow oneself – and others – to pieces, yet, little else is as calculated as the way in which bombers insinuate themselves amongst unsuspecting civilians before doing so. The apparent unfathomable quality of the act combined with its horrific results has tended to lead to certain analyses of the perpetrators of these bombings.


For most observers the idea of suicide bombing seems so alien that it is easiest to explain a bomber’s actions by ascribing some sort of emotional pathology, an unjustifiable ideological perversion, or sense of social marginalization. Only abnormal people, with a twisted understanding of their religion or a mental disorder would commit such heinous acts. A 2015 article in Scientific American, for example, enjoined policy makers to see suicide bombers “for the desperate, traumatized, and mentally ill people they really are.”


Yet, even while many commentators view suicide attackers’ motives as inscrutable or deranged, others note the strategic logic of suicide bombings. As The New York Times recently explained in relation to a bomb hidden inside an ambulance that killed 103 in Kabul, such attacks are part of a wider Taliban campaign to undermine the Afghan state and “expose the government’s weakness.” The post-9/11 consensus amongst psychologists also tends to claim that most suicide bombers are mentally “normal,” rational, and driven by concrete grievances like any other combatant.


A new book, however, suggests that we can better understand why people commit suicide bombings if we appreciate the cultural contexts in which they are embedded. David Edwards, an anthropology professor at Williams College, analyzes the development of suicide bombing in Afghanistan in “Caravan of Martyrs,” arguing that the phenomenon sprung from the synthesis of traditional Pashtun conceptions of sacrifice, and ideas of martyrdom imported by Arab jihadis in the 1980s. Edwards explains that suicide bombing is not a concept with any analogue in the culture of the Pashtun, the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. Rather, the traditional set of tribal customs and practices governing Pashtun life, pashtunwali, placed a premium on the maintenance of honor – personal, familial, and communal – particularly through bravery and steadfastness in battle. Ritual sacrifices also functioned as a means of redressing imbalances in honor generated by feuds or transgressions, but the Islamic notion of martyrdom, let alone suicide bombing, enjoyed little currency.


The vicious and protracted war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s precipitated a gradual shift in these values, Edwards contends. This was partly due to the highly-mechanized form of killing that characterized the conflict and distinguished it from previous tribal warfare; slaughter was carried out with shoulder-fired rockets, helicopter gunships, and heavy-calibre machine-guns. This type of combat simultaneously diminished the likelihood of a warrior surviving battle and enhancing his honor as a living man, and greatly increased the probability of his bloody, anonymous demiseAfghans naturally sought to ascribe meaning to such ugly battle deaths – something the Islamic concept of martyrdom could provide. At the same time, Arab fighters began to arrive in the country intent on martyring themselves in an anti-Soviet jihad, and began to promote their hardline Islamist ideology amongst their Afghan allies. Their conception of the glory and indeed the desirability of martyrdom – in battle, if not specifically through suicide bombing – was amplified by the growth of madrasas in Pakistan in which hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees were steeped in these doctrines.


But the ideological kernel that took root at this time did not fully blossom until after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to Edwards, American troops’ conduct during this war finally transformed Afghan notions of self-sacrifice into an ongoing wave of suicide bombing. Without condoning such attacks, Edwards argues that it was Western soldiers’ transgressions against Afghan senses of honor that cemented the attractiveness of suicide bombings to some Afghans. Military raids on family compounds were deeply offensive in a society in which the sanctity of women’s privacy was inextricably bound to the honor of her entire family. What’s more, many Afghans perceived the impersonal warfare inherent in America’s growing use of drones as cowardly and a form of fighting that simultaneously exacted a high and bloody toll on their people while denying them a realistic opportunity to defend their honor. Thus, Edwards explains, many Pashtuns began to see suicide bombing as the only route to maintaining their honor. Though these are undoubtedly acts with political aims (to drive out an occupying force), and are fueled by desperation (attackers perceive that no other form of combat can effectively harm the American military), they are fundamentally embedded in the evolving Pashtun tradition of honor.


Edwards’ argument chimes with the findings of a 2009 study that, rather than one existing “diagnosis” or causal explanation for suicide bombings, these attacks are driven by a “cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation, and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict.” To this mixture of drivers –  personal, political, and pathological – we can add the cultural framework of self-sacrifice that has contributed to the phenomenon in Afghanistan. A limitation of Edwards’ argument is, of course, that it does not explain the phenomenon of suicide bombings outside Afghanistan – further study of concepts of honor and humiliation in other countries where suicide attacks are common could shed light on the generalizability of his thesis. Nevertheless, his book is helpful in excavating the complex genealogy of the phenomenon in a military arena where it continues to form a near-daily fact of life. In this sense, his argument should be carefully considered by relevant political actors. In understanding the cultural logic of suicide attacks, policy-makers in the military and government sectors – particularly those whose actions Afghan suicide bombers claim to be reacting to – can better calibrate their actions to take account of the cultural values of the communities whose support will be vital in forging a durable peace in Afghanistan.


Andrew McIndoe is a Masters student in Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, and a Regional Editor at the Harvard Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.