War State, Trauma State: Why Afghanistan Remains Stuck in Conflict

by | Jun 21, 2018

War State, Trauma State: Why Afghanistan Remains Stuck in Conflict

by | Jun 21, 2018

Afghans have endured 40 years of uninterrupted war, and there is no plausible argument that war will soon end. In all the debate about troop surges or maintaining the status quo, two critical questions rarely get asked: Why have Afghans been at war for so long, and why can’t the United States and the international community end it? Some of the obvious answers include an incompetent Afghan government and security force, rebel sanctuaries in the mountains and in Pakistan, and the lucrative and illicit opium trade. Almost entirely ignored, however, is the role played by the decades of bone-jarring trauma experienced by Afghans.
Afghanistan has become a trauma state, stuck in a vicious cycle: war causes trauma, which drives more war, which in turn causes more trauma, and so on. Thanks to 40 years of uninterrupted war, Afghans suffer from extremely high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, substance abuse, and diminished impulse control. Research shows that those negative effects make people more violent toward others. As a result, violence can become normalized as a legitimate means of problem solving and goal achievement, and that appears to have fueled Afghanistan’s endless war. Thus, Afghanistan will be difficult, if not impossible, to fix.
Trauma at this level imposes profound limits on America’s ability to effect enduring change in Afghanistan and other places. Accordingly, the United States should decrease its military footprint in the country and focus on efforts to incentivize a more effective and less corrupt Afghan government. More broadly, America should restrain its use of military force to those instances in which it is both effective and necessary, since sustained war in already traumatized states such as Afghanistan increases psychological damage and societal instability, making continued war more likely. Although it has become a common element of U.S. foreign policy, intervening with military force in another country’s civil war is almost never necessary to secure U.S. interests. When the United States does intervene, however, the population’s mental health status should be included in military planning and intelligence estimates as a relevant factor affecting the war and the likelihood of future stability.
Read the rest at cato.org.

Erik Goepner

Erik Goepner

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