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The False Assumptions Fueling America’s Endless War

27 Feb 2018

Erik Goepner

America’s war on terror has now entered its seventeenth
year. The U.S. has invaded Afghanistan and Iraq and conducted
military operations in Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and
the Philippines. More recently, four military members died in Niger
during an ambush, suggesting the war on terror continues to

The war has cost the lives of nearly 7,000 service members and
between $1.8 and $4 trillion. Despite the heavy toll in blood and
treasure, most Americans seem content for the war to continue.
Polling indicates 70 percent of Americans believe an attack that
will kill “large numbers of lives” is somewhat or very
likely in the near future, just under six in ten say Islamic
fundamentalism is a critical and enduring threat to the country,
and 41 percent think the U.S. is winning the war (as opposed to 17
percent who think the terrorists are).1

I argue that the war endures, in large part, because national
security policy makers, military operators, and think tank scholars
have embraced several false assumptions. The first two help explain
why the U.S. continues to fight, while the third spells out why the
problem will persist regardless of whether the U.S. fights or not.
Policy makers, operators, and scholars falsely assume that the war
on terror has prevented another 9/11. Additionally, they imagine
that U.S. military operations have more broadly reduced the threat
to Americans and the homeland. The final flawed assumption—in
war, mental health only matters when it affects U.S. service
members—implicitly informs U.S. strategy and highlights why
Afghanistan’s war will not end anytime soon.

False Assumption #1: The War on Terror Prevented Another

Nothing like the attacks of 11 September had ever occurred
before 2001 or since. By virtue of being unprecedented, those
attacks would be almost impossible to repeat. The world’s
second worst attack, for instance, killed just half as many people
and it occurred in war-torn Iraq. And it is in conflict-affected or
failed states where virtually all significant terror attacks
happen. The third worst event took place in Rwanda during their
1994 genocide. By the fourth most catastrophic incident, not even a
quarter as many people died as compared to 9/11. For the remaining
10 most horrific terror attacks, two each occurred in Iraq and
Syria and one each in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal,
and Iran (during their 1978 revolution).2

Of the ten worst attacks in the past 45 years, only 9/11
occurred outside of a war zone. In addition, all of those
mass-casualty terror strikes killed substantially fewer people than
Mohamed Atta and his con-conspirators did on September 11th. As the
recent spate of attacks involving trucks plowing into crowds
suggests, killing lots of people in a single attack is very

The war on terror has
done little to prevent another 9/11, and all of the military force
employed abroad has not made Americans any safer.

A dispassionate analysis of the data does not change the horror
of terrorism or the pain and loss caused by even one death, but it
should drive home the point that 9/11 was an outlier both in terms
of lives lost and where it occurred. And its outlier status
strongly suggests another 9/11-type event in the U.S. was a near
impossibility even before America launched its expansive war on

Curiously, while the attacks of September 11th were
unprecedented, success did not require a large terror network.
Nineteen men executed the mission. Financial costs were minimal,
consisting of several pilot training slots and airfare for the
attackers. The technical training required for mission success took
place in plain sight here in the United States, not in some
clandestine Afghan training camp. All the terrorists legally
entered the country through the Visa system. One of the pilots
lived with his flight instructors. After departing the U.S. for
vacation, two successfully argued their way back into the country
by assuring American agents that they were authorized to be here on
student visas, specifically so they could attend pilot training
school.3 The genius of the attack did not derive from any
organizational structure or material largesse, rather it originated
within a creative and visionary mind that foresaw an attack method
never before attempted and that only Tom Clancy had apparently
conceived of in his fictional work, Debt of Honor.

If the preceding argument is correct, the burden of proof shifts
to proponents of the claim that U.S. combat operations have
prevented another 9/11. They should be called on to lay out an
argument of how U.S. military force has managed to prevent a small
group of like-minded men from again coming together and launching a
mega-attack. Additionally, defenders of such a claim should explain
how air strikes and invasions have wiped out terror finances to the
point that groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State can no longer
fund a handful of pilot school slots (or whatever their current
modus operandi might be).

The most obvious arguments for why another 9/11 has not taken
place, then, seem to be 1) the already discussed point that such an
unprecedented attack, by definition, cannot be easily replicated
and 2) homeland security efforts have been quite successful. After
9/11, the U.S. government ushered in dramatic changes, creating the
Department of Homeland Security in the “largest
reorganization in the United States government since World War
II.” The FBI substantially shifted its focus from
“traditional criminal investigative areas” to making
“the prevention of another terrorist attack” its top
priority. Congress passed The USA Patriot Act and other
legislation to facilitate intelligence gathering and sharing on
potential terror threats. And, financial costs for homeland
security rose an estimated $800 billion.4

And those efforts have worked. The Heritage Foundation reports
that while Islamist-inspired terrorists have plotted at least 101
attacks against the homeland since 2001, law enforcement thwarted
virtually all of them. In those 16 years, Islamist-inspired
terrorists have only managed to execute a successful attack every
two years, on average, killing fewer than six per year. That
represents less than 0.0004 percent of all American murder victims
during the same period. Even lightning has averaged nearly three
times as many fatalities.5 And, none of those who carried out these
more recent attacks fit the 9/11 terrorist profile. Instead, they
were all either U.S. citizens or they had become radicalized after
coming to America.

False Assumption #2: Military Operations Have Reduced
the Terror Threat

The number of Islamist-inspired terror groups and their
associated fighters have substantially increased since 9/11, and
the increase appears to be in response to U.S. military operations
rather than despite them. In Iraq, for instance, U.S. forces failed
to restore the state’s monopoly on the use of force after
removing it during the invasion. That misstep created the
opportunity for an explosive civil war. In Afghanistan, the effect
was not as severe, but after the U.S. invasion, the security
situation did deteriorate back to pre-Taliban levels.

In the five years before 2001, al Qaeda and the 13 like-minded
groups identified by the Department of State averaged approximately
32,000 total adherents. In the 16 years since, those numbers have
jumped to an estimated 44 groups with more than 109,000 members
(despite the U.S. military claiming to have killed more than
60,000).6 At least three factors likely explain this
counterintuitive finding:

McChrystal Math

In 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked whether
“we [are] capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading
more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical
clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us.”
Six years later, General McChrystal offered an answer: “Let
us say that there are 10 [insurgents] in a certain area. Following
a military operation, two are killed. How many insurgents are left?
Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but
there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have
said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I
am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be
as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father,
son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed
because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter - you
killed them. Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus
of military operations very different.”7 That does not mean
some terrorists and insurgents don’t need to die, but it
makes clear that in fights like this one, the calculus is not so
simple. One kill does not bring America one terrorist closer to

No Monopoly on the Use of Force

U.S. military operations unwittingly degraded the host-nation
governments’ monopoly on the use of force in Iraq and, to a
lesser extent, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. As a result, terror
groups have benefitted from the increase in ungoverned spaces and
the states’ incompetent security forces. The Afghan
government, for instance, barely controls or influences half of the
country despite a defense and security force of nearly 365,000.
Conversely, before sent fleeing by U.S. forces, the Taliban
controlled or influenced 90 percent of the country with just an
estimated 35,000 forces.8

The security studies literature indicates that civil wars occur
where the opportunity for rebellion exists. For example,
ineffective or non-existent security forces increase the
opportunity for civil war because their failure to monopolize the
use of force increases rebel viability, making it more likely
rebels will initiate attacks against their government.9

Terror Recruitment Fueled by U.S. Military

As part of the war on terror, America has conducted military
operations in at least eight Muslim-majority countries:
Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and
Niger. Polling clearly shows the use of U.S. military force has
inflamed grievances among Muslims. A survey of 11 Muslim-majority
populations, for example, found that more respondents agreed than
disagreed with the statement, “The United States’
interference in the region justifies armed operations against the
United States everywhere.” That trend even held true among
the citizens of supposed U.S. allies like Kuwait, Jordan, and Iraq.
Osama bin Laden expressed the roots of this sentiment back in the
1990’s. He referred to the “American crusader
forces” and “American occupiers,” as he railed
against the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s
two holiest sites. Later, in the midst of the Iraq war, his deputy,
Ayman al-Zawahiri, echoed that sentiment as he exhorted a
subordinate leader, “The Muslim masses…do not rally except
against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is
firstly Jewish, and secondly American.”10

False Assumption #3: Mental Health Doesn’t Matter
(Except for Returning U.S. Service Members)

It is ironic that the U.S. military has paid so much attention
to the mental health of returning veterans, while ignoring
trauma’s effects on allied foreign populations and how those
effects might impact their governing and warfighting capacity.
Joint doctrine on counterinsurgency notes that the current war has
“the population as its focus of operations.” In
recognition of the population’s importance, America’s
warfighters have tried to learn the history, cultural norms, and
languages of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. General Petraeus
emphasized the point, noting that “the human terrain is the
decisive terrain.”11 Yet, despite the evidence suggesting its
likely impact on the war, the mental health status of those
populations has gone unexamined.

Here is the basic argument: more exposure to traumatic events
like war, torture, and rape results in more mental illness,
substance abuse, and diminished impulse control. Taken together,
mental illness, substance abuse, and diminished impulse control
make people more violent, more aggrieved, and less capable. While
this may sound new and controversial to warfighters, mental health
and trauma scholars have been talking about these linkages for

In the case of Afghanistan, studies indicate 29 to 50 percent of
the population currently suffer from PTSD. And when you add in
depression, the numbers may rise as high as 68 percent. Because of
all the torture, rape, war, and domestic violence that Afghans have
been subjected to over the past 40 years, not only do they suffer
from substantially elevated mental illness rates, but they are also
afflicted by substance abuse problems twice the global average and
climbing, as well as diminished impulse control. An example of the
latter occurred in 2010 during my military service there. An
argument erupted between two Afghan colonels in their operations
center. The colonel we all loved because of his bravery proved no
rhetorical match for his counterpart. However, instead of ending
the argument or walking away, he unholstered his sidearm and drew
down on the other Afghan colonel. Thankfully, an American military
officer was nearby and literally stepped between the two Afghans
and prevented the potential loss of life.

When combined, more mental illness, substance abuse, and impulse
control problems make Afghans more likely to use violence against
one another to resolve problems and achieve their goals. No wonder,
then, that more than half of surveyed Afghans indicated they have
been the victim of assaultive violence versus a paltry four percent
of the populations in low trauma nations.13

When U.S. service members fighting in the war on terror show
signs of mental health problems, many actions are taken. First,
they are removed from the trauma environment. Then, they receive
the needed medical care, which may include prescription drugs.
Additionally, their military responsibilities are curtailed for a
time, so they can focus on recovery and avoid adding unnecessary
stress into their lives. Finally, a commander might temporarily
revoke their authority to bear arms to minimize the threat they
could pose to themselves or others.14

But Afghans, Iraqis, and others caught in the war on terror face
just the opposite reality. Extremely high rates of trauma continue,
and they have no reasonable chance of treatment. For instance,
experts describe Afghanistan’s mental health capability as
“nonexistent,” qualified providers as “an acute
shortage,” and in general terms, “chronic mental
illness has been left unattended in Afghanistan for
decades.”15 In addition, America and the international
community placed additional responsibilities on Afghans, which
likely added to their stress. Specifically, the international
community pushed democracy on Afghanistan, arguably the best yet
hardest form of government to do right. To succeed, democracy
requires a legitimate, capable, and responsive government
and an engaged populace. After 40 years of the severest
traumas, Afghans’ abilities are so reduced and their society
too fractured for such a demanding form of government. No surprise,
then, that the Afghan government ranks as more corrupt than 96
percent of all other nations and the country receives Freedom
House’s lowest rating—“not free.”16

In response to all the trauma and the negative changes which
often accompany it, Afghans should be expected to resort to
violence as a means of goal achievement and problem resolution more
often than a low trauma population. In addition to making people
more violent, all the trauma likely fuels more civil war in two
other ways: by increasing grievances and creating more opportunity
for civil war.17 A person who has been tortured, raped, or exposed
to war violence has, by definition, a very real and enduring
grievance against the perpetrator or the group that the perpetrator
belongs to. Civil war scholars have long believed that grievances
are what motivate citizens to organize and take up arms against
their government.

Trauma should also increase the opportunity for civil war by
making the government and security forces less effective. For
instance, severe and repetitive trauma exposure often leads to
mental illness, substance abuse, and physiological changes to parts
of the brain (e.g., amygdala, basal ganglia). In turn, those three
factors conspire to lower individual IQ, diminish the ability to
reason and plan, decrease attention span, and reduce the capacity
for trust.18 A government and security force increasingly forced to
recruit from such a population will become less effective over
time, and ineffective security forces make civil war more


The war on terror has now entered its seventeenth year. Military
operations appear to have expanded into Niger and potentially other
countries. Forces are surging back into Afghanistan and an
indefinite military presence in Syria appears to be current U.S.
policy. All of this appears to be driven, in large part, by three
false assumptions. In reality, though, the war on terror has done
little to prevent another 9/11, and all of the military force
employed abroad has not made Americans any safer. That suggests the
United States should step back from the war on terror by ratcheting
down the use of military force abroad, while emphasizing internal
homeland security measures and external intelligence sharing.

Finally, the years of trauma have taken their toll on Afghans,
Iraqis, and others, resulting in extremely high rates of mental
illness, substance abuse, and diminished impulse control. And those
factors will likely fuel civil war into the future, whether the
United States stays in the fight or not.

End Notes

1. See, for example, polls and surveys from the Chicago Council,
Rasmussen Reports, and Polling Report available at,,

2. Data comes from the Global Terrorism Database, available at

3. As noted in the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon
the United States’ report, 9/11 and Terrorist
, the hijackers entered the United States with approved
visas, though some provided false information or employed other
fraudulent techniques,;

9/11 Commission, The 9/11 Commission Report
(Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2004) 224,

4. Elizabeth Bazan, The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance
Act: An Overview of the Statutory Framework and U.S. Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Court and U.S. Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court of Review Decisions
(Washington, D.C.:
Congressional Research Service, [updated] 2017),; Watson
Institute - Brown University, “Homeland Security
Budget,” Costs of War, September 2016,;
Neta Crawford, United States Budgetary Costs of Post-9/11 Wars
Costs of War Project, 2017,
pp. 2-3; Department of Justice, The External Effects of the
Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Reprioritization
(2005), iii,;
Robert Mueller, “Testimony Before the House Appropriations
Subcommittee on Science, the Departments of State, Justice and
Commerce, and Related Agencies,” September 14, 2006,

5. David Inserra, “Foiled Plot in Miami Is 99th Terror
Plot Against US Since 9/11,” November 1, 2017,;
A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner, “Step Back: Lessons for
U.S. Foreign Policy from the Failed War on Terror,” Cato
Institute Policy Analysis #814
(Washington, D.C.: Cato
Institute, 2017), 6,;
and Laura Geggel, “Lightning deaths hit a record low in
2017,” Fox News, January 3, 2018,

6. A. Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner, “Counterinsurgency
Math Revisited,” Small Wars Journal Blog, January 3,
derived from Department of State Country Reports on Terrorism 2000
through 2015 and Stanford University’s Mapping Militant
Organizations Project.

7. Donald Rumsfeld, “Global War on Terrorism,” memo
to select Department of Defense leaders, October 16, 2003,;
Stanley McChrystal, “Speech on Afghanistan,” delivered
before the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London,
United Kingdom, October 1, 2009,

8. Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski, “LWJ Map
Assessment: Taliban Controls or Contests 45% of Afghan
Districts;” Erik Goepner, “Afghanistan’s Biggest
Obstacle is Its Government,” Orange County Register
(November 1, 2017),;
and Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2001 and
Freedom in the World 2017 (2001 and 2017),

9. Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, “Beyond
Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War,” Oxford
Economic Papers
61.1 (2009): 1-27; James Fearon and David
Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American
Political Science Review
97.1 (2003): 75-90.

10. See the Arab Barometer,
FBIS, “Compilation of Usama Bin Laden Statements: 1994 -
January 2004,” January 2004,, and Ayman
al-Zawahiri’s letter to Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi,

11. Joint Staff, Joint Publication 3-24
(2013), III-4,;
Leo Shane III and Kevin Baron, “Petraeus confirmation
hearing, live” Stars and Stripes, June 29, 2010,

12. Chris Brewin et al., “Memory for Emotionally Neutral
Information in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Meta-Analytic
Investigation,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 116,
no. 3 (2007): 448-63; Pia Pechtel and Diego Pizzagalli, “Effects of
Early Life Stress on Cognitive and Affective Function: An
Integrated Review of Human Literature,” Psychopharmacology
214.1 (2011): 55-70 ; Zachary Steel et al., “Association of
Torture and Other Potentially Traumatic Events with Mental Health
Outcomes among Populations Exposed to Mass Conflict and
Displacement,” JAMA 302.5 (2009): 537-549; Darrel
Regier, Mary Farmer, and Donald Rae, “Comorbidity of Mental
Disorders With Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse: Results From the
Epidemiologic Catchment Area (ECA) Study,” JAMA 264,
no. 19 (November 21, 1990): 2514; Timothy Weaver et al.,
“Comorbidity of Substance Misuse and Mental Illness in
Community Mental Health and Substance Misuse Services,”
The British Journal of Psychiatry 183, no. 4 (September
2003): 304-31.

13. Catherine Panter-Brick et al., “Violence, Suffering,
and Mental Health in Afghanistan: A School-Based Survey,”
The Lancet 374, no. 9692 (September 2009): 814; Hillary
Wildt et al., “War Trauma, Psychological Distress, and Coping
among Afghan Civilians Seeking Primary Health Care,”
International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice,
6, no. 2 (April 2017): 82; Annette Gerritsen et
al., “Physical and mental health of Afghan, Iranian and Somali
asylum seekers and refugees living in the Netherlands,” Social
Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology
41.1 (2006): 18-26;
Israel Bronstein, Paul Montgomery, and Stephanie Dobrowolski, “PTSD
in Asylum‐seeking Male Adolescents from Afghanistan,” Journal
of Traumatic Stress
25.5 (2012): 551-557; Steel et al.
“Association of Torture…”; United Nations Office on
Drugs and Crime, “Drug Use in Afghanistan: 2009 Survey.
Executive Summary” (Kabul, Afghanistan: UNODC, 2010) 3, 6,;
Dianne Tice, Ellen Bratslavsky, and Roy Baumeister,
“Emotional Distress Regulation Takes Precedence over Impulse
Control: If You Feel Bad, Do It!,” Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology
80, no. 1 (2001): 53; Michael Norko and
Madelon Baranoski, “The Prediction of Violence; Detection of
Dangerousness,” Brief Treatment and Crisis
8, no. 1 (February 2008): 76; Hepp et al.,
“Prevalence of Exposure to Potentially Traumatic Events and
PTSD,” 154; Barbara Lopes Cardozo, “Mental Health,
Social Functioning, and Disability in Postwar Afghanistan,”
JAMA 292, no. 5 (August 4, 2004) 575, 579; Willem Scholte,
Miranda Olff, and Peter Ventevogel, “Mental Health Symptoms
Following War and Repression in Eastern Afghanistan,”
JAMA 292, no. 5 (August 4, 2004) 589-590.

14. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, “How Common is
PTSD,” PTSD: National Center for PTSD(October 3,

15. Cardozo, “Mental Health, Social Functioning, and
Disability in Postwar Afghanistan,” 576; Panter-Brick et al.,
“Violence, Suffering, and Mental Health in
Afghanistan,” 813.

16. See Transparency International’s Corruption
Perceptions Index
at and Freedom
House’s Freedom in the World at

17. Fearon and Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil
War”; Collier, Hoeffler, and Rohner, “Beyond Greed and

18. Brewin et al., “Memory for Emotionally Neutral
Information in Posttraumatic Stress Disorder”; Pechtel and
Pizzagalli, “Effects of Early Life Stress on Cognitive and
Affective Function”; Fu Lye Woon, Shabnam Sood, and Dawson
Hedges, “Hippocampal Volume Deficits Associated with Exposure
to Psychological Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in
Adults: A Meta-Analysis,” Progress in
Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry
34, no. 7
(October 1, 2010): 1181-88; Deborah Weber and Cecil Reynolds,
“Clinical Perspectives on Neurobiological Effects of
Psychological Trauma,” Neuropsychology Review 14,
no. 2 (June 1, 2004): 115-29; Anke Karl et al., “A
Meta-Analysis of Structural Brain Abnormalities in PTSD,”
Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 30, no. 7 (2006):

, a retired colonel from the US Air Force, commanded
units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, he is a visiting research
fellow at the Cato Institute and a doctoral candidate at George
Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

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