One Theory for Why Counterinsurgency Campaigns Might Be Hopeless

By Sandra I. Erwin

As if the United States needed another reason to get out of Afghanistan, now comes new research by Air Force Col. Erik Goepner, who argues that U.S. efforts to turn around failing states are most likely doomed before they even begin.
Goepner, a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the populations of weak states — countries that are often referred to as “failing” states — are so psychologically traumatized by protracted war and violence that they cannot be helped by the stability-operations tactics that the U.S. military employs. As a result, 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, Goepner says during a March 15 panel hosted by The Brookings Institution.
Countries such as Afghanistan, that have been ravaged by decades of violence and poverty, suffer the equivalent of “battered spouse syndrome,” he suggests.
Goepner recognizes that his research is controversial and likely to be criticized, as he is not a psychiatrist or an expert in mental disorders. But he has had first-hand experience in COIN operations. Before his CSIS fellowship, Goepner commanded Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul in southern Afghanistan in 2010. Before that, he was in charge of a squadron responsible for detention operations at Camp Bucca, Iraq, in 2007.
The key objectives of U.S. COIN efforts — bolster the local government and secure the support of the population — have a slim chance of ever being achieved in failing states, as those groups are beset by high rates of mental disorder, Goepner says. “A nexus exists between weak and failed states and the prevalence of mental disorders.” Insurgencies where the United States might be inclined to intervene “tend to occur in weak and failed states,” he says. “If we are going to do COIN in the future we are bound to do it in weak and failed states.”
Goepner’s conclusions are based on previous research by the CIA, the Fund for Peace, Foreign Policy Magazine, George Mason University and the Center for Systemic Peace, he says. He dug up data going back to 1995.
According to Foreign Policy Magazine, the top 10 failed states are Somalia, Chad, Sudan, Dem. Rep. Of Congo, Haiti, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq and Ivory Coast.
An evaluation of American Psychiatric Association peer-reviewed literature reveals that, under the standard APA definitions, 5 percent of the world’s population has PTSD. In failed states, the rate goes up to 30 percent, he says. And in weak states with high terror rates, the rate jumps to 53 percent. “What are the chances that Afghanistan and Iraq are in that category?” Goepner asks. “That means more than half the population has medically diagnosed PTSD.”
During his time in Afghanistan, Goepner says, what stood out was that “people have learned how to become helpless.”
To every solution that was offered to them, their response was: “It’s impossible,” he says.
So what is to make of Goepner’s findings? “If this is true, he says, "You really have to scratch your head and ask, ‘What are the reasonable chances of achieving stability or U.S. objectives’” in places such as Afghanistan?
More broadly, the implication is that the United States should avoid whenever possible to get involved in COIN efforts as chances are they will be aimed at weak states. “And if we do COIN, when we leave, we have to bring forth mental health capability to help the population” so they do not become more traumatized than they already were, Goepner says.
Asked to comment on Goepner’s theory, Harry Croft, a former Army doctor and a psychiatrist who has evaluated more than 7,000 veterans for PTSD, says that it is plausible that mental stress affects the behavior of battered populations. But he says that PTSD alone cannot explain why it’s been so difficult to turn things around in a place like Afghanistan.
There are many countries that have suffered extended periods of violence where the population does not behave the way we see in Afghanistan, says Croft. Philosophical, religious or anti-Western beliefs might be more compelling reasons for the U.S. struggles in Afghanistan, he says. “When the United States went into Vietnam, the population had been at war for many years before we got there,” he says. “After the war, things seemed to work out. They had every bit as much a reason to have PTSD as people in failed states.”
Since 9/11, it has been U.S. policy that failing states are a major threat to national security. The Pentagon’s strategic plans reflect that notion, and call for the military to be prepared to assist failed states and intervene if U.S. interests are at stake.
Goepner says that his research has made him “deeply ambivalent” about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. “I want to see U.S. objectives met,” he says. “But I don’t think it’s going to get any better.”
In the future, he says, “We should be more reluctant to do COIN. … We should rethink how we use force.”
Historically, the United States has “dramatically underestimated the cost of COIN,” he says. “We have done ourselves a disservice to call them ‘small wars.’”
If the United States is going to seek to help failed states, from a benevolence perspective, it would be better to let non-governmental organizations and charities take the lead. “As a national security priority I don’t buy into that,” Goepner says.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Defense Department, DOD Policy

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