Shell Shocked

By Moreau, Ron | Newsweek, December 13, 2010 | Go to article overview
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Shell Shocked

Moreau, Ron, Newsweek

Byline: Ron Moreau

U.S. troops aren't the only ones in Afghanistan who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder. It also afflicts Afghan civilians--and the Taliban, too.

On his home ground, back in Afghanistan's embattled Helmand province, Payanda Mohammad refuses to give up his sidearm. He wore it proudly as a sign of his rank when he led a Taliban combat squad, and his family members still allow him to carry it--after they quietly and prudently made sure the firing pin was removed. They never know when he'll fly into another unprovoked rage, or when he'll experience another violent flashback to the battles he fought against U.S., British, and Afghan government forces around his home village in Nawa district, not far from Marja. It can take several people to wrestle him to the ground when he has one of his fits.

But right now the weapon is hundreds of miles away. His family made him leave it home when they sent him across the border to Pakistan for medical treatment. He and two of his cousins are sitting in a grimy hotel room in Peshawar, talking to a NEWSWEEK reporter, when Mohammad sits bolt upright on his bed and shouts: "Quick! Give me my walkie-talkie!" He grabs his mobile phone--without turning it on--and begins barking orders: "Zahid! Do you have enough weapons and RPGs? Good! Maneuver around to the right! Obaid, you make sure our bombs are primed and hidden in the right places along the canal! See that all the men are alert, so none of the English can escape!" He waits, listens, and issues a final command: "Hold the detainees until I give the next order. I will convey the results of our successful attack to our superiors." He slumps back on the bed, visibly exhausted.

His family says Mohammad has been like this ever since an American bomb scored a direct hit on his squad in July. He regained consciousness only to be told that he was the sole survivor of the blast. "He kept crying and asking God: 'Why am I not a martyr like my men? Why did I survive? What do you have against me?'?" one of the cousins recalls. Faridullah, a 35-year-old Taliban member who's been assigned to keep an eye on troubled former commanders like Mohammad, says he doesn't know when or if Mohammad will return to the battlefield. "I think he's a danger to himself and others," he says, gesturing at a nasty bruise on his face where Mohammad slugged him a day or two earlier.

Among American troops, posttraumatic stress disorder has become one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of service members suffering from the condition has been estimated as high as 400,000, and suicide rates in the U.S. military have at least doubled in the past decade. Yet for all the millions the Pentagon has spent on studying and treating PTSD, and figuring out ways to prevent it, no one has given much thought to whether the enemy suffers it as well.

The reasons are obvious, of course--both lack of access to patients and a quite understandable feeling that Taliban fighters don't deserve any sympathy. But the insurgents themselves say psychological problems in their ranks are bad and getting worse--to the point where it may be affecting their combat effectiveness. The question facing the Obama White House as it undertakes another review of progress in the war is whether the current U.S.-led onslaught has in fact dealt a serious setback to the Taliban, very possibly disrupting the guerrillas' momentum, if not reversing it.

The NATO push has been relentless: coalition forces have killed or captured some 350 low- and midlevel commanders in the last year, together with more than 1,000 fighters. Taliban commanders are quick to point out that those physical costs are at least partially offset by a steady stream of young recruits seeking to avenge U.S. airstrikes on their villages or the deaths of relatives who had joined the Taliban. But the losses are taking a psychological toll as well, particularly on more experienced fighters, who have endured years of combat against a vastly superior foe.

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