A recurring theme in media coverage of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is that after 20 years, trillions of dollars and thousands of lives lost, we have left the country in the same shattered state it was before we arrived. . “We haven’t accomplished anything,” says the refrain of the expert. But it’s wrong. We invaded Afghanistan “to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground for terrorists” – and we did not leave it as it is. We left worse. Much worse.
As a genocide survivor and scholar studying the ways in which education can resuscitate broken countries and peoples, I have seen repeatedly how even the most tolerant Muslims can end up radicalizing under the right conditions. .
I have studied radicalization trends among my own people, the Bosnians, for years. Bosnian Muslims have long been considered the most tolerant Muslim community in the world. But today, a growing number of Bosnians have embraced Salafism – a rigid ideological thread within Islam – and hold uncompromising beliefs that are consistent with those of al-Qaeda, ISIL (ISIL) or of Boko Haram. Why is this happening?
Radicalization is the result of a desperate and mistaken search for a path to empowerment by people hungry for a sense of belonging, recognition and fundamental respect.
In 1991, Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic, who has since been convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, warned Bosnians: if there is a war, the Muslim people cannot to defend oneself.
And he was right. The Bosnians went to hell from 1992 until the end of 1995.
We had no weapons to defend ourselves as Serbian forces invaded and, aided by local Serbs, quickly occupied much of the country. The United States and Europe have chosen to silently watch the genocide, war crimes and mass rapes against Bosnians unfold before their eyes. They stood idly by even as Serb forces loaded Bosnians into Srebrenica on buses on a hot summer day in 1995 and took them to the scene of their executions. After thousands of deaths, numerous more rapes and months of unbearable suffering, NATO has finally decided to end the conflict. But then he gave half the country – including Srebrenica – to the Serbs, who either committed genocide or watched it happen in silence.
The genocide, along with the decision to reward its perpetrators with land, had a radicalizing effect on some Bosnians. And my research has shown me that this trend continues to this day.
If Bosnian Muslims, historically known for their tolerance and acceptance of other cultures and religions, can radicalize, anyone can. Exposure to violence is a critical risk factor for radicalization. Trauma triggers an internal transformation in a person who desperately seeks to make sense of their pain, loss, exclusion and shock.
I felt this myself. After surviving a Serbian artillery attack on the Blue Bridge in my hometown of Bihac, I saw a UN car approaching. I was only 17 years old. I thought they were coming to help me. But instead of stopping to help me and the others on the bridge, they took off. At that point, I realized that the world doesn’t really care about the “dead Bosnians sprawled out in the streets”. As I tried to help a girl whose face had been destroyed by the explosion, I felt an immediate and uncontrollable surge of anger. In the midst of this terror and trauma, I felt an overwhelming urge to do something – anything – to make sure it never happened again for me or the people I loved. Horrible thoughts which had been completely unknown to me until then flooded my head, spontaneously, invoked by the violence I had just seen. What if we respond to our killers by slaughtering their innocent children? Would it be justified? Would that prevent them from committing genocide against us?
I could have hated every Serb, every Christian, every American, because they contributed to my trauma. But I didn’t end up taking a violent path. Neither did the overwhelming number of Bosnians who suffered the trauma of the genocide, although a few did. I was able to choose a different path out of the trauma not because of something intrinsic to me, but because I was fortunate to have educational opportunities and strong family ties. In 1996, after surviving ethnic cleansing and over 1,000 days of Serbian siege, I emigrated to the United States and had the opportunity to pursue my studies freely. My parents, teachers and mentors instilled in me moral resilience and offered me opportunities for engagement – all protective factors against radicalization. This safety net grabbed me and put me on a non-violent path. But what if I was a teenager with no choice, no support, no viable path out of trauma? I could have been radicalized too.
Afghans – or anyone for that matter – are no different from Bosnians. Any human being who has been exposed to violence is at risk of radicalization under certain conditions.
Today, conditions in Afghanistan tick all the boxes on the radicalization checklist: Afghans have suffered trauma and violence. They feel betrayed by an outside force which would have come to “help” them, but which ended up making them worse. They live in economic deprivation with a million children at risk of starvation. They also have very limited educational opportunities – millions of Afghan children cannot go to school and have little hope for the future.
Since 2001, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have perished as a result of US drone strikes. According to the international NGO Save the Children, nearly 33,000 children have been killed and maimed in Afghanistan over the past 20 years, an average of one child every five hours. As recently as August this year, an American airstrike – launched in response to the bombing of Islamic State’s Khorasan province, ISKP (ISIS-K) at Kabul airport that left 182 dead – killed 10 family members, including seven children. It was later revealed that the attacked family had no connection with the “terrorist” group.
In the eyes of the Afghans, these victims are not only statistics and cannot be qualified as “collateral damage”. They are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters murdered by the American bombs, or because of the American presence. Each of these killings is a scar on the Afghan heart, and part of the reason why it hasn’t been difficult for the Taliban to take control of the country.
The Afghans never wanted us there in the first place. For them, the United States has always been just one more empire in the long line of those who brought violence and imposed corrupt rulers on them.
In my research, I have seen time and time again how, when they feel threatened by an outside force, individuals and nations turn in on themselves to protect themselves and demonize the outside “other”. In this process, they often become radicalized. America has been that “other” exterior for Afghans for decades.
The United States first intervened during a period of hope for Afghanistan, when the Soviet-influenced Communist Party centralized power in 1978 and began advancing women’s rights, increasing literacy and pushing for modernization. However, most of the rural areas remained illiterate and opposed to secularism. America united this uneducated rural population with religious fighters to disrupt and destabilize Afghanistan – all to win its proxy war against the Soviets at the expense of the lives and futures of the Afghans. In the mid-1990s, the United States got what it wanted – at least in part. The Soviets were gone, but the Taliban became the most powerful force conditioned on more violence. At the end of 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States again intervened in Afghanistan, this time to overthrow the Taliban.
After 20 years of occupation, the United States left Afghanistan earlier this year. And Afghans run the risk of becoming radicalized again, perhaps even more than they were before 2001. That’s because the United States did not create a situation in Afghanistan where people can get it. the support they need to find a constructive path out of their trauma – a trauma in which the United States played an important, if not the leading, role in creating. Most of the young Afghans today do not have the opportunities that I had to deal with my trauma after the Bosnian genocide. They have nothing to hang on to, no support network and no hope for the future.
Over the past 20 years, the United States has spent billions of dollars on its military activities in Afghanistan, but has failed to invest intelligently in education and mental health services in the country. It has not focused its efforts on building robust physical infrastructure, a thriving economy to enable Afghans to benefit from their immense reserves of lithium, or a functioning legal system to reduce corruption in one of the poorest countries. and the most corrupt in the world.
We invaded Afghanistan as part of our so-called “war on terror”, but ended up making the country even more fertile ground for “terrorists”.
When people do not have the opportunity to change their desperate conditions, they morally disengage from their own communities. Their anger and resentment towards a force they hold directly responsible for their abject condition allows them to absolve themselves from acts they once believed to be wrong, justifying torture or murder if that serves a higher purpose. To disengage morally is to accept killing as a moral and viable act – and perhaps as the only act that the morally disengaged believe can help them change their condition and protect them, their cohort and their interests.
No one knows whether the next leading hardline group emerges in Afghanistan will be the impetus to send us back to that country, but it is likely that many state and non-state actors will flock there to advance their agendas. And keep this devastating cycle of violence intact.
If there is one lesson the West should learn from its many interventions in Afghanistan, it is this: People without hope or a support network to help them cope with their trauma become easy targets for the West. radicalization as they desperately seek a path to empowerment, justice and dignity.
In 2001, the year before our invasion, Afghanistan was number 16 on the Global Terrorism Index. After 20 years of occupation, Afghanistan no longer occupies this position. It’s number one.
And we helped them get there.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.