Afghanistan has become the foreign policy albatross that has now spanned three presidencies, and is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Americans and other foreign nations still see their young people tied up in a war with little rhyme or reason and no end in sight, but it has to also be considered why this war was never likely to deliver the stability that Afghans and Americans were promised in the first place.
The nation of Afghanistan has been at war for 40 years now, and the scars of that ceaseless conflict help explain why any sense of peace or normalcy has proven impossible to establish. The persistent trauma that has been inflicted on Afghans both by domestic despots and terror groups, as well as the effects of foreign intervention in the region have left a nation with its psyche in tatters. A generation raised on war is not one which is emotionally balanced nor one that will be prepared to understand relative peace, let alone implement and maintain its groundwork.
Those left in charge of Afghanistan – the Afghan security forces and government – have proven time and again to be incapable and/or unwilling of warding off internal threats to legitimate power structures. Authorities must reject the allure of governmental corruption and the temptation to exploit the opium trade for illicit purposes. This government frequently plagued by systematic corruption is one in which other flaws have arisen. And, with ever-present rebel strongholds lurking in the neighboring mountains of Pakistan, the Afghan people live under constant threat.
For these reasons, the nation has become a shell. Its people, barely familiarizing themselves with the remnant effects of PTSD before yet another threat jolts them back into battle mentality, are understandably basket cases. A 2006 study found that ‘young Afghans experience violence that is persistent and not confined to acts of war’, resulting in abnormally high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder and a greater likelihood for other trauma-related disorders such as substance abuse and poor impulse control. Similar findings of widespread trauma and resulting mental instability have been found in the adult population.
‘Armed conflict has long-lasting physical and psychological impact on the civilian population’ (Sidel & Levy, 2003).
Considering the length and intensity of armed conflict in Afghanistan, it becomes understandable that war and trauma have become interconnected and cyclical, one intensifying the other and, in doing so, increasing the likelihood that the cycle will continue. A brief history of war in the nation helps explain why the current conflict in Afghanistan is one that has no foreseeable point of cessation.
In 1978, a coup sparked an Afghan Civil War, which was followed shortly after with an invasion by Soviet forces. The Soviet Union would occupy Afghanistan until 1989 and, according to Noor Ahmad Khalidi, by that time, ‘7 percent to 9 percent of the Afghan population had been killed, with the death count rising to a staggering one in five for working-age males.’ This had an indelible impact not only on the demographics and makeup of the nation, but the mindsets of every Afghan who had lost a family member or friend during the conflict.
The war didn’t stop. Civil conflicts persisted until the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to Larry Goodson, ‘before the U.S. invasion in 2001, war in Afghanistan had already killed, wounded, or displaced half of the population.’
So, between 1978 and 2001, half of Afghanistan’s population had been lost to war. As is often the case when the United States intervenes, the microscope was focused on the atrocities occurring in post-2001 Afghanistan. The world now witnessed what life in the mountainous, war-torn nation had been like for the Afghan people dating back to roughly 1978.
Al Qaeda engaged in a particularly gruesome form of guerilla warfare that has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 American troops, and that is not counting the lives that have been taken by the soldiers themselves after they return home. That death toll continues to rise daily, both domestically and on the Afghan battlegrounds.
Often unaccounted for are the scars that are left on the Afghan people who have lived within this war zone for four decades. They never realized the democracy and security they were promised, and it’s possible – likely, even – that the region was never prepared to handle a democratic system. But failure of democracy doesn’t adequately characterize the nightmare that has been life in war-torn Afghanistan for 40 years.
For this reason, it’s imperative that America scale back the use of military force in Afghanistan, and even cut ties completely, sooner rather than later. Trauma and war has only bred trauma and more war, and at this point, the rule of a despot or dictatorship may be preferable for many Afghans to the prospective continuation of infinite conflict involving foreign powers.
For now, the Trump administration has chosen instead to increase force, hoping to end the conflict for good. Perhaps it’s worth a shot, but likely it is not.
Even when American forces do leave, it’s almost certain that a nation of people permanently rattled by war will resort to only what they know – conflict. Normalcy is something they simply have not lived for any significant period of time, and therefore will find nearly impossible to establish on any long-term basis.
Surely, American leadership can see this, and understand that, this being the case, losing more American lives in a conflict that will never be resolved is an unjustifiable tact.