Maybe the reason that the Afghan counterinsurgency has been such a flop is that the people there are too traumatized and depressed to make nation-building work.Consider any comparable period in history, like, say, Gaul in the 6th century, or Britain during the Viking raids of the 8th and 9th centuries. Historians have trouble accounting for the sense of crisis and decline that permeated those eras. If you just consider the number of people killed and the amount of physical damage done, a Viking raid was a historical speck of dust, one of the Frankish civil wars not much more. But what if, over time, the pervasive sense of insecurity and helplessness among the people, and the number of people damaged by war or rapine, built up to the point that it became too hard to carry on with civilized life? What if the number of people whose creative energies were sapped by trauma or consumed by revenge grew to be a real drag on economic and social life? Some victims entered monasteries, others simply retreated into a shell of routine life, and few could raise themselves enough above the fray to make investments in the future.
That’s the controversial conclusion of an Air Force colonel who recently spent a year in Afghanistan as the head of a reconstruction team. In an unpublished paper, Col. Erik Goepner, currently serving as a military fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues that the Afghan counterinsurgency was all-but-doomed before U.S. troops ever landed there. The reason, he writes, is “the high rate of mental disorders” in Afghanistan and other fragile states. Pervasive depression and post-traumatic stress disorder leads to a sense of “learned helplessness” among the people. And that makes it next-to-impossible to build up the country’s economy and government.
I emphasize repeated traumas, because all the evidence is that societies can rebound quickly from any single catastrophe. But over time, people build up expectations about life. If your expectation comes to be that your fields are very likely to be trampled by warring bands before you can harvest them, your house is likely to be burned long before it would fall apart on its own, and you are quite likely to be killed or maimed yourself, this will change who you are and how you think. You may be reduced to a victim, incapable of working for a better future or even a decent one. Or you may internalize the values of your violent age and become a raider yourself. Either way, the economy suffers, as does every sort of cultural life but monasticism and songs of war.