The Duck of Minerva

Making Sense of Afghanistan

23 September 2015

This is a guest post by Erik Goepner, a Phd student at George Mason University.  He commanded units in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

American and international expertise, money, and blood have flowed into Afghanistan for 14 years, yet stability appears more elusive today than it did in 2002. High rates of civil conflict continue with record numbers of civilian deaths, corruption that plagues the government, and transnational terror groups such as the Islamic State appearing to grab power.

The first stop in America’s war on terror has not gone as planned.

The failure to achieve U.S. objectives may have something to do with how policy-makers and military operators have understood Afghanistan. Perspectives have focused on socio-economic and cultural factors. In response, policies have been developed that reflect those perspectives: secure the population, rebuild the country, enhance Afghan governance, and learn the languages, customs, and religious beliefs. Perhaps, however, Afghanistan can be better understood as a deeply traumatized society. Civil war databases indicate Afghanistan has been at war without interruption since 1978. When U.S. airpower first rocked the country after 9/11, they were in their 24th straight year of war. Now, they’re approaching 40. Moreover, in terms of causing refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), Afghanistan has few peers.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Zachary Steel et al. suggests 35 to 50 percent of Afghans may have suffered from PTSD before the U.S. began military operations in October 2001. Steel et al. note a strong correlation between events such as on-going conflict, large numbers of refugees and IDPs, and high levels of political violence and terror with substantially increased rates of PTSD and depression.

The negative and destabilizing effects of mental illness are well-documented. Data suggest trauma-related mental illness can impair cognitive capacity and functioning, decrease energy levels, and increase the chances of losing one’s job. These unhelpful effects may help explain continued performance problems with both the Afghan government and national security forces, as well as Afghanistan’s anemic economy.

Additionally, individuals with PTSD, for instance, are more likely to harm themselves and others. Might this tendency towards increased violence at the individual and small group levels provide insights into the enduring, societal-wide violence in Afghanistan?  When my team and I prepared for our deployment to southern Afghanistan, however, trauma was rarely mentioned.

When it was, a much different perspective was shared. It was a perspective of the resilient Afghan—a fiercely independent people whose deeply held religious beliefs, tight family and tribal relations, and cultural norms embodied in the Pashtunwali code had successfully absorbed decades of severe trauma.

As it turned out, our operational experiences strongly supported the research findings of the medical community, while contradicting much of our training material. Throughout Zabul province, roughly equivalent to a small U.S. state, events unfolded that seemed best understood through a trauma lens. When a government official was killed by insurgents in the far eastern district, the village rose up and sent the insurgents fleeing. One week later, though, the villagers were again back under the thumb of the insurgents. A similar pattern emerged to the north when the insurgents dishonored several young women.

In addition to erratic and disjointed decision-making, we also witnessed the effects of all-consuming fear. Near the provincial capital, elders agreed to secretly partner with their government to rebuild their mosque, but the elders mandated an elaborate code be used on the phone. They were terrified that a fellow villager might answer an elder’s cell phone and report them to the Taliban. The elders had no idea who might be an informer or if there even was one, nor could they explain how the cell phone would end up in this unidentified person’s hands. Nevertheless, they insisted on using a detailed authentication code as a protective mechanism.

Another telling example occurred near the province’s largest bazaar. An influential elder rejected the offer of weapons and enviable salaries for 200 of his men to protect their village and the transportation routes into the economic hub. He would not accept the offer, he said, because the Taliban would kill them all. When asked how many Taliban had come into his village before, he said 10 to 20. Despite the fact he could have 180 more armed men than the Taliban who might come against him, he remained resolute that the Taliban would kill them all.

These responses of consuming fear interspersed with short-lived acts of courage were common during our time in Afghanistan, and these responses appear to align with the medical research. Trauma often results in a pre-occupation with fear, seemingly irrational decision-making, and ascribing to others, such as the Taliban, super human characteristics.

Perhaps most disheartening, however, is that trauma can result in learned helplessness; a state in which the trauma recipient begins to see themselves as helpless, such that they no longer believe their actions have any bearing on the outcome. In response, they give up and simply yield to whatever life brings their way. This was embodied in the oft repeated “impossible” that we heard from Afghan villagers and government officials alike when they were asked to shoulder some of the effort, such as to provide security, build a structure, or coordinate efforts across different groups of Afghans.

The devastating toll that trauma can take on an individual is well documented and, tragically, Afghanistan has been home to extreme levels of trauma for nearly 40 years. Yet to-date, little attention has been paid to how the traumatization of Afghans might explain the country’s current situationand, potentially, its future.