Context in the Fog of Afghan War

Almost two centuries ago, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described war as "the realm of uncertainty." He wrote, "Three quarters of the factors on which action is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty."

Von Clausewitz's comments applied to intelligence at the operational and tactical levels of battle. However, in the case of the nearly 11-year war in Afghanistan, it can easily be attributed to the policy and political arenas as well. Along all of these levels, the fog of uncertainty remains thick and the road ahead is frightening.

Over the past several months, military analysts, journalists and politicians have been prognosticating the future of Afghanistan after 2014, the year when all American and NATO combat troops are scheduled to leave the country.

Some suggest that the omens of civil war are ubiquitous, while others feel that the Afghan National Army has grown capable enough to avert any such catastrophe. The truth is: no one can predict the aftermath of the withdrawal.

While pundits predict, the American public grows wearier of the campaign, with half of the country in favor of a speedier withdrawal deadline. To those who champion a complete or sudden exit, I urge them to look through the fog and apply something that has been missing from the Afghanistan conflict for several years: context.

One must remember that Afghanistan has been at war since Christmas Day 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the landlocked nation after its puppet government in Kabul began to lose its grip on power.

Contemplate this -- if one were to calculate what Afghanistan went through during that decade of war that followed, and set it to the scale of the U.S. population in 1979* (in other words, what if the United States was invaded by a superpower that was 26 times its land mass and had more than nine times its population?), the numbers would be staggering:

  • 22 million Americans killed, surpassing the number of casualties in the American Civil War -- the bloodiest conflict in the nation's history -- by around 30 times
  • 44 million civilians wounded
  • 91 million Americans, facing persecution, imprisonment and death, flee the United States. These mass waves of migration take with them most of the educated middle to upper classes.
  • The invading force has overwhelmingly advanced firepower, state-of-the-art battle helicopters and weapons of mass destruction at its disposal, all of which it uses.

When these figures are added up along Afghan lines, they account for more than half of the population at the time. That is to say, more than one in two Afghans were either killed, wounded or displaced during the Soviet war.

As we are all aware, there was no Marshall Plan brought forth by Russia or the international community following the bloodshed. Consider also, that while the United States used Afghanistan in a covert war to bring down the Communist superpower -- its archenemy -- not a single American soldier had to die.

Instead, with the U.S. mired in an economic recession, a heavily militarized and fanaticized Afghan nation was left to its own fate. Empowered warlords descended the country into a civil war, which lasted for four years. That chaos was only temporarily quelled by another evil in the form of the Taliban -- themselves mostly orphans and victims of the Soviet war, raised and brainwashed in Pakistani madrasas.

Statistics and historical highlights aside, ponder the psychological trauma that this dark age in Afghan history has imposed on its people. In one recent study published in the National Defense, Air Force Col. Erik Goepner states that "A high percentage of failed-states' citizens and their governments exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, which explains why they are largely unable to benefit from U.S. efforts to bolster their economies, security forces and governance."

He continues, "Countries such as Afghanistan, that have been ravaged by decades of violence and poverty, suffer the equivalent of 'battered spouse syndrome,'" a condition created by sustained physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse.

In the U.S. recently, there has been increased attention on the vast number of soldiers (some 20 to 30 percent) returning from combat in Iraq or Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms can include hopelessness, trouble sleeping, anger, anxiety and self-destructive behavior.

In the case of Afghanistan, a country subjected to a prolonged and consistent state of war for more than 30 years, a majority of the population suffers from war stressors without ever having had the means to treat them. In that context, what should our expectations be from a people who are suffering from acute psychological trauma?

The answer to that question would be too expansive to elucidate here. But as the West continues to cite the quantity and cost of the war, let us also ask what the quality of the help has been.

As Rajiv Chandrasekaran, former national editor of the Washington Post, points out in his book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, "Our government was incapable of meeting the challenge. Our generals and diplomats were too ambitious and arrogant. Our uniformed and civilian bureaucracies were rife with internal rivalries... Our development experts were inept. Our leaders were distracted."

Despite these criticisms, there have undoubtedly been periods of success and accomplishment that the American government, military and NGOs can be proud of. But too often, the effective development projects -- which are the ultimate anti-terrorism weapons -- have lacked consistency at the grassroots level, and have had their funds overshadowed by military spending. In addition, vast sums of money that flowed through the Afghan government without proper oversight were siphoned off by rapacious officials.

Nevertheless, as a war-fatigued U.S. government and and its allies move forward in the Afghanistan campaign, we should urge them to have a twofold objective in mind: 1) empathy of a severely traumatized civilian population, and 2) consistency of policies that can assuage that trauma.

In an unconventional war such as this one, which has produced further wounds, it will take time and patience to really make a difference. Finding a way out of the fog of war will be difficult, but von Clausewitz offered this advice: "A sensitive and discriminating judgement is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth."

I can only hope that such a mind emerges from both the Afghan and American sides.

*Figures are based on the following population reports from 1979: U.S. 225 million; Soviet Union 138 million; Afghanistan 15.2 million.