The Taliban Takeover and Afghans Ontological (In)Security


Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, the general public, media, and academic environments have tremendously discussed the event’s security implications. Nevertheless, these discussions have focused on physical security threats. Conspicuously missing is the ontological aspect of security, relating to how security involves metaphysics of life – being, feeling alive, real, or sense of inner self. Therefore, the overarching objective of this piece is to explore this overlooked critical insecurity that has engendered urban Afghan responses. While helping to fill the existing gap in the security discussions, it serves a policy relevance, drawing policymakers’ attention to metaphysical insecurity when dealing with the impending humanitarian crisis. Why are urban Afghans petrified about the Taliban second-coming to the extent of opting for death by falling from a moving plane?

In a conversation with a colleague the days following the takeover and American desperate evacuation efforts, he was astonished about the actions of the people who climbed onto the wings of the military plane: “What was wrong with these people [Afghans]? Didn’t they know that they would fall and die? Did they think that they could hang on in the air until the plane landed?” The answer to his questions and the central argument this piece drives is that the urban Afghan public’s anxieties and uncertainties surrounding the Taliban takeover create ontological insecurity that threatens their existential conditions – ordinary living or sense of being in the world. Therefore, their actions, including chasing a taxiing airplane and clinging to its wings, were consequent attempts to reacting to the anxieties to their feeling of aliveness or realness. Rural Afghans might relatively coexist with the Taliban due to the congruity of their unique understanding and interpretation of Islam. Thus, I focus on the urban population with a modernized view of Islam and a taste of Western culture, putting them at odds with the Taliban and rural folks. Some rural people even abhor urbanite culture and consider it un-Islamic.

Security may underpin various explanations. However, a common matrix is that security entails freedom from threats to core values. Thus, we can have a security language implying metaphysics of life – ontological security. Ontological security is an emotional phenomenon concerned with “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.” In simple terms, it denotes having a consistent or continued sense of being or self-identity and having that sense accepted and affirmed by others and having that acceptance and affirmation guaranteed consistently. Therefore, an ontologically secured person is an individual who has a “sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person” and can go out into the world and meet others with similar conditions. An ontologically insecure person develops anxieties on the assurances derived from an existential position. They may feel more innately unreal than real, more dead than alive, and consistently questioning their identity and autonomy in their ordinary living circumstances. Therefore, everyday life “constitutes a continual and deadly threat.” That is, an ontologically insecure person has life without feeling alive – a walking dead-man.

International relations research generally agrees that states pursue security and survival. Therefore, we can think of the state as an ontological security-seeking agent. It gains legitimacy by performing core responsibilities, including human security – averting dangers to human safety and survival that living conditions such as poverty, abuses, repression, disease, environmental stress, hunger, and armed conflict cause. Thus, it acts as a structure or institution for the citizens to achieve ontological security, reducing existential anxiety and making life intelligible. The state – not church/mosque – mediates between life and death. Therefore, in parts of the world where it cannot perform this role, it has no basis for claiming legitimacy, and ordinary living constitutes a great sense of existential anxiety. Understanding it from this point, we can understand the psychology of, for example, men and women who brave through the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats into Europe.

For urban Afghans, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not devoid of existential anxiety. There is uncertainty that Afghanistan can seek its ontological security, let alone serve as an ontological security structure. There is a fear of losing jobs, status, or once held privileges, and daily activities like schooling or sports. There is little confidence in the continuity of their self-identity in the immediate environment the Taliban supervises since there is an incongruity between urban Afghans and the Taliban’s ordinary living. Thus, the former believes that it is unlikely the latter would consistently accept and affirm its sense of self that makes them feel alive or whole.

Urban Afghans existential anxiety is due to prior experience with the Taliban. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban accorded women the most circumscribed role in society, banning their education and public appearances. In some cases, Taliban officials beat women for “wearing white socks [because] that is the color of the Taliban flag.” The sixteen public codes prohibited citizens from watching television, those who risked watching blackened windows. The Taliban detached the hands of people accused of stealing, imprisoned people for wearing British or American hairstyles or trimming the beard, prohibited music and dance at all public places, including wedding ceremonies. Taliban administered all punishments publicly, and everybody was required to attend.

We are humans. Thus, there are many circumstances under which anxieties may be normal or a more general condition. Ontological insecurity triggers questions to our identity and autonomy, and we may express fear of the unknown from time to time due to some uncertainty. However, anxiety is not an absolute condition; there can be degrees. Low levels may be insignificant and associated with relative stability, while higher levels can unsettle a person’s inner being. It is emotionally related, and in most instances, we cannot answer the arising questions rationally. Therefore, “when they are profound and chronic, as irrational, these feelings are more the result of emotional supersensitivity than irrationality.” The feelings arise due to the uncertainty a prevailing situation would have on the self and his continuous existence or living as a normal person.  Therefore, urban Afghans’ direct fear of physical safety in the belief that the Taliban would harm them due to incongruent identities, combined with the danger to human security, is significant enough to create metaphysical insecurity, affecting their existential conditions. The existential anxiety is due to prior experience with the Taliban between1996 to 2001. Thus, the thought of the Taliban coming back with the 1996-2001 governance overwhelms their human nature and innately kills them. It creates a feeling of having a life without being alive.

Therefore, people clung to the plane not because they did not know that they would fall and die. However, they believed that if they could hang on and arrive at the next destination – although the chances were zero – it’s bingo because that assures them of living as a temporally continuous person. But if they should fall and die, they have lost nothing because it is the same as living in Afghanistan – life but feeling unreal and dead. It suggests that individuals preferred natural death, even by falling from a moving plane, to feeling living-dead. Nevertheless, why would Afghans have uncertainties about the Taliban second-coming and not assume that the Taliban has changed? It is because mistrust is a crucial component of ontological insecurity. Thus, Afghans cannot trust the Taliban since the latter is the source of the former’s feeling dead inside. Therefore, ontological security that discusses individuals’ sense of safety in the world includes a basic trust of other people. The trust serves as an emotional inoculation, protecting people against future profound existential anxiety that enable them to maintain hope of consistent acceptance and affirmation even in the face of later draining circumstances. Unfortunately, previous Taliban rule prevented Afghans from having this inoculation.

There are glimpses that urban Afghans’ anxieties about their existence or feeling of aliveness are not unfounded. For example, universities have reopened, and curtains or boards separate women from men. Therefore, understanding this metaphysical security would enable us to thoroughly discuss Afghans insecurity vis-à-vis the Taliban takeover with sufficient nuance.

Thomas Ameyaw-Brobbey
Thomas Ameyaw-Brobbey
Thomas Ameyaw-Brobbey is an Assistant Professor of International Relations, Diplomacy and Security at the Faculty of Law and Public Administration, Yibin University, Sichuan, China. His research interests span international relations issues, security issues (civil conflicts and wars, human security), state-building, domestic governance institutions of developing countries, China-African public diplomacy, and political communication.