“An entire generation lost”: Analysing the true casualties of war in Afghanistan

Arab News

by Anant Mishra     23/2/2018

Introduction

A vicious cycle of “violence, ignorance, seclusion, ethnic conflicts, and socio-economic instability”, resulted in the loss of an entire generation in Afghanistan; furthermore, failure of international communities, global aid organizations, think tanks and international political institutions such as the UN, to timely and adequately assist the Afghan masses could potentially lose another.

With a sudden “conscious” towards Afghanistan conflict, it seemed as if the world “realized the presence of Afghanistan” post-9/11. Fulfilling the “political agenda post-Soviet invasion in 1979” followed by the saga of “humiliating defeat of Soviet forces in the hands of Mujahid fighters”, Afghanistan was essentially “forgotten and abandoned” until September 11, 2001. The subsequent rise of Taliban and their governance through “Islamic sharia” law, continued to “induce fear and horror” among masses. While addressing the Congress, the then President Bush Jr quoted “war on terror” in his speech, which later not only became a symbol of “America’s military response in Iraq but also led to the fall of Taliban and subsequent establishment of a US-led government in Afghanistan.” With “winds of war” engulfing thousands of Taliban militants, “the lives of ordinary men women and children in Afghanistan were acutely becoming collateral,” the actual casualties of America’s war in Afghanistan. Even today, many military and foreign policy experts continue to debate on the scenario which resulted in the rise of Taliban and its relationship with Islamabad. The article extensively discusses the impact of a decade-long conflict on Afghan children, while identifying the factors which resulted in the loss of an entire Afghan generation.

Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

The invasion of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1979 followed by series of systematic “violence and terror” induced by them, instigated one of the worst humanitarian crisis of the 20th century, with an estimated seven million refugees “crossing the border” to Pakistan and Iran while leaving behind over three million internally displaced. Importantly, out of the seven million fleeing refugees, four million were women and children, point towards “the intensity of the conflict.” Out of fear of being captured by Soviet military forces and soviet intelligence agencies, death and widespread destruction to property and a fear of being collateral in the war, the exodus was the only way survive. Today, Afghanistan’s conflict is not only limited to militant and radical Islamic fundamentals but largely extends to poor socio-economic conditions, poor educational policies and high mortality ratio. Its economy is as fragile as “stability and security” in the region. Today, according to a reputed international aid agency, the average life expectancy in Afghanistan is 48 years, and mortality ratio among children is as high as 47%,
A major percentage of children becoming “casualties of war,” is largely credited to injuries received from mine shrapnels. When compared to Bosnia, and Cambodia, the author found Afghanistan to rank on the top of “highest mortality rate among children.” To specifically target Afghan children, the Soviet military employed “horrendous” techniques, deploying mines in the shape of colorful toys. The Soviets during their occupation, deployed over 20 to 25 million mines. Furthermore, in a research conducted by a prominent international aid organization, over 4% to 5% of the Afghan masses became disabled, out of which less than 2% received adequate medical attention from the US-led forces. The scenario has dramatically worsened, especially with the return of Taliban and increasing NATO-led air strikes.
Before the US invasion, a large percentage of seven million fleeing refugees were living in “makeshift centers” on the borders with Pakistan and Iran, under “deplorable” conditions. Concerning the high childhood mortality, a survey conducted by a local non-governmental organization than in 1993, found that particularly in Kabul and Kunduz, children within the age group of 5 and 11 were rapidly dying because of inadequate medical facilities, the absence of clean water and necessities. Since, the international communities took responsibility for Afghan masses in the refuge, a large population of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) remain ignored.

This was the “true outcome” of a “long proxy war” fought between the US and the then Soviet Union through Mujahideen fighters. Pakistan, remained an active “stakeholder” throughout the conflict, although then under extensive socio-economic pressure, especially in the light of the rapid influx of millions of Afghan refugees within Peshawar alone. Although humanitarian assistance was increasingly provided to the refugees, a large segment of the aid was targeted exclusively for the Mujahideen. This included new much advanced conventional weapons and the distribution was specifically tasked to famed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which later became the principal instigator of the “Kalashnikov culture in Afghanistan.”

Withdrawal of the Soviet Union and civil war

When Soviet forces finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, over 50,000 soldiers had been killed, and another 1,00,000 had been maimed for life. The most suffered were the local Afghan population who were “thoroughly victimized” under Soviet subjugation, torture, and terror. It would not be incorrect to state that, “many generations sacrificed themselves in this conflict.” A period where countries came not to help but to create proxy against one another and fight a meaningless war only for themselves while indiscriminately arguing on the price a local Afghan, a period which did witness an end of a conflict, but also witnessed an instigation of another.

It is important to note that, the initiatives for rehabilitation and reconstruction of Afghanistan was “extensively ignored,” which resulted in series of socio-economic rupture, lawlessness, and ethnic-centered conflicts. Again, the worst affected were the “vulnerable Afghan communities.” A survey conducted by a local non-governmental organization recorded that, over 80% of the children between the age group of 5 to 11 remain unregistered, followed by a phenomenal increase in child mortality to 35%. Those children who did survive, out of roughly 68% suffered from severe malnourishment due to acute food shortages. The vulnerable Afghan masses were thoroughly dependent upon aid provided by international organizations such that of UN.

Islamabad sponsored “religion-centric radical fundamentalism.”

Islamabad’s policy of “systematic interference in Afghanistan” had now elevated Pakistan’s position from a “stakeholder to principle instigator.” Major shifts in Afghan politics was witnessed during the leadership of the then General Zia ul Haq, which was principal partner of Washington in providing finances and weapons to the Mujahid while creating an artificial “environment of socio-economic growth and stability.” However, Islamabad too was suffering from “massive corruption and regional-political instability.” In the light of growing instability in the country, Washington halved its development assistance grant to Pakistan in 1993 while putting it on a permanent halt post-Pakistan’s nuclear explosion in 1998. With no future assistance programs in sight and rapidly failing socio-economic conditions, poverty began to increase phenomenally in Pakistan.

An already struggling economy, the situation worsened post imposition of sanctions by the West, which was widely seen as a response towards Pakistan’s successful nuclear explosion. Health care and education initiatives fell drastically, which were preliminary reactions of West imposed economic sanctions coupled with growing socio-economic instability.

During the years pre-imposition of economic sanctions, policies on state-controlled education were largely ignored by Islamabad which paved the way for Islamic relics to open madrasahs (religious schools usually run by mullahs with the help of wealthy donations). Their principal targets were children from poor economic backgrounds, which they lured by providing free education, free clothing, free meals and free residential facilities. Islamabad took no initiatives to reform the traditional educational initiatives, which were essentially a mix of Islamic ideology and Wahhabi theology. Taking the benefit from Islamabad’s ignorance, the madrasahs grew exponentially.

Policymakers must keep in mind that, madrasahs gave refugee to all children, including those seeking refuge. By late 1990s, Afghanistan state-run primary education schools witnessed a withdrawal of over third of Afghan children, which were then sent to study in madrassahs established in the North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan. Now, Afghan masses were divided on both the sides of Durand line, which was essentially a “poorly guarded” border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Moreover, only one-third of the madrassahs provided necessary militant training or preach in Jihadi context, it was still a “violent mixture of religion and militancy,” attracting youths eager to study “sectarian conflicts and carry out jihad.” They were extensively taught on case studies centered on “systematic state-sponsored Muslim oppression” in Palestine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Kashmir, to plant seeds of “hatred and ruthlessness against the West.”

Rise of the Taliban

With the US refocusing its attention to the Middle East and the Soviet forces completely withdrawn, Afghanistan was now a “leader-less” state. This saw increasing “inter-tribal” conflict, which further infuriated an already infuriating situation. In the light of aforementioned scenario, a new actor appeared. The Student Movement or “Taliban” who were essentially Afghan orphans and refugee children rose from the madrassahs of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province of Pakistan. Their rise to power is principally reasoned to the “inter-tribal conflicts” which essentially coupled with the scenario of “lawlessness, instability, and insecurity.”

Initially, a small group of Taliban fighters under the leadership of Mullah Umar fought against the warlord of Spin­Boldak and later captured Kandahar, without much of a firefight. The Taliban fighters essentially received a heroic welcome in territories they captured, especially from Afghan masses that were “war-fatigued and weary,” however, their subsequent rise to power came as a shock to many military experts. For international aid agencies, it was no less than relief from rigorous “inter-tribal” conflicts. It is important to note that, Taliban were “essentially scholars of misinterpreted traditional Islamic theologies” which was witnessed from the implementation of “traditional Islamic Sharia law” while imposing strict restrictions on women and marginalized communities.

They imposed strict restrictions on female education and their employment while limiting women dress to a “veil.” These decisions were largely made on their traditional misinterpretation of Islam, which received “acute criticism” from the Islamic communities all over the world. Tragically, during Taliban rule, Afghanistan witnessed one of the worst droughts in its history, which succumbed many agrarian focused sectors. In the light of continuous international ignorance and harsh economic sanctions, international non-government agencies and human right organizations highlighted the “choking effect” of economic sanctions particularly on children, while appealing the UN to intervene on numerous occasions, but it was too difficult to even for international organizations and humanitarian agencies to intervene.

Coupled with harsh economic sanctions, draught and deplorable socio-economic conditions, the suffering faced by Afghan masses further “worsened” by the policies established by Taliban which had a drastic effect on families, particularly women and children. Furthermore, the absence of medical facilities and acute food insecurity undernourishment phenomenally claiming the lives of many Afghan children. Coupled by the situations mentioned above with unspeakable stress and trauma induced by Taliban on women and children especially concerning “forced conscription, child abduction, and kidnappings,” the saga of “unspeakable horrors” continued till the US invasion in 2001.

Leaving behind a legacy: An entire generation lost

Policymakers must note that the impact of “violence and horrors” induced by Taliban on Afghan masses is beyond imagination. Many Afghans continue to experience post-traumatic stress as a consequence of witnessing the loss of their loved ones coupled with excessive stress and violence. Taliban induced terror and violence coupled with subjugation and ethnic conflicts are some of the numerous factors responsible for this psychosis. Not long ago, a study conducted by UNICEF highlighted that over 94% of the children who witnessed the conflict in Bosnia had suffered from post-traumatic stress.

According to another report published by UNICEF on the effect of war on children between the ages of 8 to 18 years, in Kabul, which witnessed one of the worst ethnic conflict in the history of 20th century, over 42% of children had lost either one parent or both the parents in conflict whereas more than half of the children experienced excessive torture or witnessed death. Over 95% of the children interviewed by UNICEF, had feared death during the conflict. Furthermore, a large percentage of children were made to witness public executions, beheading and publicly dismembering of limbs, induced enormous fear in the young minds. More than 85% of the children found their life to be “meaningless” and “faced extreme difficulty in coping with scenarios of violence and terror.”

These tragic series of events not only induced terror in the young minds but also, after repetitive exposure to such “violence,” induced “aggression” in these young minds. It is important to note that, children belonging to Taliban and Northern Alliance are two sides of the same coin, victims of “repetitive exposure to violence coupled with the tragic loss of one parent or both,” all convinced to employ “violence.” Systematic ignorance and a long period of isolation, coupled with the repeated encounter of violence, drastically “limited” their vision of the world. For them, every action was justified through the barrel of the gun. This is the “lost generation,” which if not permanently stopped, will destroy the lives of many children, perhaps a vicious cycle, which policymakers must end.

Conclusion

The massive celebration and hope for an end to conflict after Taliban’s takeover was soon overshadowed by excessive violence, terror, and re-emergence of ethnic-centered conflict. However, today, numerous development and international aid organizations are extensively carrying out relief operations, food insecurity and adequate access to medical aid particularly in the hinterlands, continue to claim the lives of Afghan children. Today, the “extensive counterterrorism operation” is slowly but steadily making progress. However, policymakers must “effectively and adequately” address the challenges of infrastructure development, focussing not only on major provinces but in the hinterlands too. Furthermore, law and order continue to challenge security establishments, which is yet another important issue policymakers must address. Moreover, rehabilitation initiatives can begin with strengthening local government schools, establishing regional and local colleges while strengthening primary health care institutions. It is important for policymakers to effectively and adequately “address the needs of women and children.” There is an absolute need to maintain strong political stability, which must have a “human development centric agenda at first.”

In the light of “fragile societal system in Afghanistan,” particularly in the light of a decade-long conflict, policymakers will be challenged in every segment of the policy. Thus, policymakers must ensure the formulation of viable applicable policies, to counter the same “vicious cycle” that resulted in the “loss of an entire generation.”

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