Haiti: A Best-Case Scenario


In the first two months of 2024, a Haitian was murdered, injured, or kidnapped in gang-related violence every 40 minutes. In March, gangs staged an armed uprising to oust acting Prime Minister Ariel Henry, whose unelected government has tried to rule Haiti since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Moïse’s murder created a power vacuum, allowing gangs to grow and seize control of most of Port-au-Prince. The top U.N. expert on human rights in Haiti recently called the situation there “apocalyptic,” akin to “Somalia in the worst of times.” 

Without international support, Haiti risks state failure. Following Henry’s resignation and swearing in of a new transitional presidential council on April 25, help may soon be on its way in the form of a multinational security support mission. Kenya has offered to lead the mission with 1,000 police officers, and at least six more countries(the Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin, Chad, and Jamaica) are offering a total of up to 3,000 personnel, with Benin committing the largest contingent of 2,000 troops. However, though the United States and Canada have pledged $300 million and $80.5 million, respectively, to finance it, this mission will likely be unable to bring peace to the island nation. These force numbers are insufficient, and the soldiers who will be sent are not prepared to face the urban combat challenges they will encounter.

The United States should take a more active role in bringing an end to the conflict in Haiti to avoid spillover effects throughout the region. Even without mobilizing more forces, in the short term, the United States can provide three types of assistance for the mission to achieve its political and humanitarian goals: more strategic planning and logistics support, accelerated and broader types of training, and use of the U.S. Coast Guard for port security. In the medium term, more economic aid and investment in political reform are needed for any hope of putting Haiti on a path toward democracy and development.

The Biden administration has no plans to send U.S. troops to Haiti. But given its geographic proximity, the United States deprioritizes Haiti at its peril. Continuing instability in Haiti gives Russia an opportunity to increase its influence, ensures that Haitian migrants will continue fleeing to the United States, and undercuts efforts to promote “democratic competition” in the hemisphere.



Gang Violence Makes Democracy in Haiti Impossible

 Haiti has long suffered from democratic and security deficits. Autocratic regimes from the personalist dictatorship of François and Jean-Claude Duvalier (1957–86) to military juntas have ruled Haiti for most of the post–World War II period, with only four fleeting periods of democracy. Hegemonic shocks — the end of World War II and the Cold War — facilitated democratic openings in 1946 and 1990, only to be rolled back by military coups in May 1950 and September 1991, the latter ousting the populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Only a U.S.-ledmilitary intervention (aptly codenamed Operation Uphold Democracy) restored Aristide to power in 1994. Haiti’s third period of democracy ended in a power grab by Aristide protégé René Préval in 1999. Haiti’s last dalliance with democracy only emerged after the United Nations sent a mission to restore peace after an armed insurgency led by ex-police chief Guy Phillippe, who ousted Aristide (for a second time) in 2004.

Natural disasters have also obstructed Haiti’s path to democratic stability. Preval’s second presidency ended with the 2010 earthquake, which killed over 200,000 Haitians, damaged Haiti’s electoral institutions, and delayed the 2010 election. Additional international peacekeepers supported reconstruction and facilitated presidential elections in 2011 and 2016 (after 2015 elections were annulled), the latter won by Jovenel Moïse. A smaller U.N. mission took over from 2017 until October 2019, marking the end of 15 years of U.N. peacekeeping operations in the country.

The political and security situation soon deteriorated. Without a new election law, Moïse refused to hold parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2019 and began to rule by decree after parliament’s term expired in early 2020. Haiti’s democratic backsliding accelerated in 2021, engendering mass protests and political violence. That February, a constitutional crisis erupted. Opposition demanded that Moïse step down, claiming that his five-year term was over. Moïse refused, claiming that because an interim government occupied the first year of his term (in 2016), his term did not end until February 2022. Moïse thwarted an alleged coup plot but was assassinated that July.

Ariel Henry, named prime minister right before Moïse’s murder, emerged as the leader but lacked democratic credentials. In September 2021, Henry postponed elections for the first time and dismissed the electoral council, even though the constitution requires new elections within 120 days of a presidential vacancy (i.e., by November 2021). Haiti has not held elections since 2016 and remains without a president. Since January 2023, when the terms ended for Haiti’s last remaining senators, Haiti has had no elected officials.

As Haiti’s democracy declined, so did law and order. In 2022, the powerful G9 gang alliance (established in 2020) briefly shut down Haiti’s main oil terminal. That summer, courthouses in Port-au-Prince and Croix-des-Bouqet were attacked by gangs; they never reopened. In October 2022, Henry requested international intervention to help Haitian police counter the rising gang violence. The situation in Haiti is now one of the ten worst armed conflicts in the world.

Only Haiti, Gaza, and Sudan saw worsening and “extreme” levels of conflict in the second half of 2023. In the first two months of 2024, gang violence increased 40 percent. According to the U.N., nearly 5,000 Haitians died in gang violence in 2023, and over ten percent of Haiti’s police force abandoned their posts. Thousands of homes and businesses have been looted or destroyed since January 2023. By January 2024, 314,000 Haitians were internally displaced, and the threat of famine is growing, with 1.4 million Haitians facing emergency levels of hunger. Violence has forced schools to close (blocking education for 300,000 students), hospitals to be evacuated, and basic infrastructure to shut down, leading to shortages in necessities such as clean water and fuel for generators. As a result of the diminished clean water supply, cholera has swept through the country after no reported cases between 2019 and 2022.

The U.N. Security Council endorsed a multinational security support mission last October. U.S. logistics challenges and legal challenges in Kenya initially delayed the deployment. According to the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, the United States needed time to set up a trust fund and a camp in Haiti for the mission and to vet and train Kenyan forces. Meanwhile, in January, Kenya’s high court ruled that the mission in Haiti was unconstitutionalwithout proper authorizations. In a bid to satisfy that requirement, the United States brokered weeks of Kenyan-Haitian negotiations. Ariel Henry departed for Kenya on Feb. 29 to sign reciprocal agreements with Kenyan President William Ruto.

 In Henry’s absence, gangs and rogue forces such as the Brigade for the Security of Protected Areas allied to force Henry to resign in what former rebel leader Guy Philippe called a revolution. In early March, gangs attacked the airport, blocking Henry’s return from Kenya; they also released thousands of inmates from prison. Feared gang leader Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier threatened a “civil war that will lead to genocide” if Henry did not resign. On March 11, Henry agreed. This threw Kenya’s deployment in limbo, awaiting installation of an interim government.

After weeks of Caribbean Community–brokered talks involving Haitian political parties, the private sector, and civil society, Haitian leaders finalized a deal to form a nine-member transitional presidential council with a mandate to organize new presidential elections by Feb. 7, 2026. The council was announced on April 12 and sworn in on April 25, which may clear a path for the mission once it selects a new interim prime minister to replace Henry. Though he said he was open to peace talks, Chérizier vowed to resist foreign peacekeepers.

Urban Combat Challenges in Port-au-Prince

No multinational security force can succeed without regaining control of Port-au-Prince, an urban theater with a complex physical terrain, a population of some three million, and a population density exceeding that of America’s densest major city, New York City. Rooting out and disrupting gang networks that control four-fifths of the capital will require a manpower-intensive and time-consuming joint urban operation. Yet Haiti’s national police force is overstretched, with fewer than 10,000 officers on duty to patrol the country of over 11 million, a fraction of the 25,000 the U.N. estimates are needed.

Urban theaters — involving complex physical terrain, a large and dense population, and manmade infrastructure — are among the most difficult operating environments. This is especially true of Haiti’s capital, where gangs now control some 80 percent of the territory. Prior stabilization missions in Haiti faced only modest gang threats, but today, the largest of Haiti’s 200-odd gangs are “well-structured, well-armed, and operationally competent.” The number of gangs actively contributing to violence doubled between 2021 and 2023, with nearly 100 gangs active in Port-au-Prince in 2022. There are no reliable estimates of the total number of active gang members in Haiti, but the largest gangs such as 400 Mawozo reportedly have well over 1,000 members; some even have had waiting lists to join.

Haitian gangs, as embedded combatants, will have a tactical advantage over Kenyan-led forces. Buildings and structures that inhibit intelligence and surveillance may enable gangs to hide from, evade, or attack security forces. Given that many of the mission’s forces will not be fluent in French or Creole, it may also be very difficult for Kenyan-led forces to understand Haiti’s social and cultural dynamics, let alone penetrate human networks. Understanding local populations allows opportunities to shape the landscape for mission success — and reduces civilian and military casualties. In Haiti, gangs have had years to dig in and will pose significant threats to any interventional force. Regaining control of the capital will require an enormous joint urban operation — minimizing civilian casualties in practice means limiting military force — something that takes highly skilled, trained, and experienced military professionals to implement. But it is also dependent on having the right number of soldiers.

 Successful stabilization operations often deploy a minimum of 2.8 soldiers per 1,000 residents (though the best rule of thumb is debated, as force ratio requirements vary with many factors). A RAND review of U.N.-led nation-building operations from 1945 through the early 2000s found that the smallest successful operations still involved 4,500 to 5,000 troops. In 1994, the U.S.-led Multinational Force that restored Aristide to power in Haiti deployed 21,000 troops. There was minimal resistance to or violence during the U.S.-led intervention during the 1994–96 period. A peak force of 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers post-2004 struggled to maintain order for 13 years.

Consider a more recent example. A 10-to-1 civilian-to-operator ratio over several months was necessary to dislodge an entrenched armed opposition in one of the largest urban combat operations in modern history. In the second Battle for Mosul (2016–17), over 100,000 coalition troops deployed to dislodge 3,000 to 12,000 ISIL fightersin a city with a civilian population probably close to one million; about 500 U.S. troops provided logistics support from nearby Qayyarah Airfield West. Additional international coalition elements also provided logistics, air support, intelligence, and guidance.

In Haiti, urban combat resistance will be fiercest in two of Haiti’s eleven departments: the West department (which contains Port-au-Prince) and the Artibonite department. These departments accounted for 84 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of all victims of killings and injuries in 2023. In the Port-au-Prince metro area, gangs are embedded in a population of around three million people within 61.2 square miles. Gangs may control territories with more than 3.5 million people. Haiti would need a counterinsurgent force of, at a bare minimum, 10,000 in the capital alone.

While a 4,000-strong security support force is not sufficient to completely dislodge gangs currently in control of Port-au-Prince, it might be a large enough contingent with support from the remnants of the Haitian military and the domestic police to create a safe zone for the government and a stabilization force to operate and dislodge armed gangs from the major port (and airport) obstructing critical aid from reaching the people that need it.

How Else Can the United States Help?

Without major increases in troop commitments, there are three ways the United States can support a future security support mission. The U.S. government can provide more strategic planning and logistics support, accelerate the timeline and broaden the types of training offered to deploying personnel, and mobilize the U.S. Coast Guard to support port security enabling humanitarian efforts.

Provide Planning Support

U.S. military planners are highly experienced in urban operations and strategic planning with the resources to advise a multinational force. This support would help outline plans with feasible mission objectives and end goals (given limited forces). Regional experts and joint strategic planners in the Joint Chiefs of Staff directorate and at U.S. Southern Command responsible for strategic plans and policy can assemble and lead a task force with support from the intelligence and operations directorates to work closely with Kenyan leadership charged with establishing priorities and plan the initial phases of the operation.

Ultimately, Haiti will need to establish a sustainable community violence reduction and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process for gang members. This three-phase process will be lengthy and complicated. According to one practitioner, there is “no ‘cookie cutter’ approach to community violence reduction in Haiti because gang members’ motivations and relationship with communities differs across neighborhoods.” U.S. advisors can help ensure that initial phases of the intervention are in line with long-term objectives related to this process.

 Accelerate and Expand Training to Deploying Personnel

The U.S. government should train the Kenyan-led forces deploying, with an emphasis on human rights and security force protection. Forces preparing for deployment could receive such training from U.S. Southern Command–affiliated training facilities, as well as through federal law enforcement training centers. Human rights training is a priority for U.S. Southern Command. Ensuring that deploying personnel are trained to respect human rights is critical to long-term stability and acceptance of the force in Haiti, as well as to reducing civilian casualties.

The United States previously trained the Kenyan police following the 2013 al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate mall, focusing on the capability to prevent and respond to terrorist attacks. Benin’s forces have little combat experience from their participation in the Multinational Joint Task Force in Lake Chad and would benefit from increased force protection training.

Training might also focus on developing tactical skills with small unmanned aerial vehicles for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Some gangs have already “acquired drones to identify kidnap victims and surveil their territory.” Tactical drone skills would help to regain control of roads and major ground lines of communication.

Mobilize the Coast Guard

While the U.S. Navy is engaged in the Red and South China seas and the Pentagon is focused on the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, the U.S. Coast Guard, a highly capable and often overlooked service, can contribute to this mission. The Coast Guard, a long-time partner in U.S.-Haitian government cooperation, maintains a permanent staff presence at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince with a liaison officer directly representing Coast Guard District 7 and is well positioned to advise on building a humanitarian corridor.

The Coast Guard provided support to Haiti immediately following the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 2010. A special command and control task force deployed to Port-au-Prince Bay to direct multiple Coast Guard cutters and aircraft to rapidly deliver humanitarian supplies and medical aid. The Coast Guard also oversaw waterway and port security in Port-au-Prince Bay necessitated by post-earthquake mass migration. When Haiti was again rocked by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake in August 2021, the Coast Guard quickly supplied similar aid.

Today, the Coast Guard can help secure the port of Port-au-Prince, which is necessary for a successful humanitarian intervention in Haiti. Last month, a U.N. aid container was looted at Haiti’s port. The 5 Second gang (of the G-Pep gang alliance) also has some maritime capabilities and has engaged in piracy. The Coast Guard has multiple units — including deployable specialized forces — that are trained in port security operations. These teams are equipped to disrupt gang piracy and have strong defensive capabilities. Whether through direct interdiction or indirect support, the Coast Guard is a U.S. agency well equipped to support the security mission in Haiti.


The United States should play a more active role in bringing peace to Haiti — failing to do so could mean the spread of violence and opens the door for Russian involvement in the conflict. By providing planning support, training deploying troops, and mobilizing the Coast Guard to secure the country’s main port, the United States and its allies can begin to address Haiti’s humanitarian crisis. Doing so will enable the United States to help put a foundation in place, ultimately, to build a lasting peace. Stabilizing Haiti will be a lengthy and resource-intensive process, but for now the best thing the United States can do is help curb the dire humanitarian situation and help intervening troops to effectively degrade the gangs.



Haleigh Bartos is an associate professor of the practice in the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology at Carnegie Mellon University. She has fifteen years of experience working to support policy and analyzing national security issues. She teaches courses on policy writing and national security at Carnegie Mellon University, including Writing for Political Science and Policy, Terrorism in Sub-Saharan Africa, and In the News: Analysis of Current National Security Priorities. 

John Chin is an assistant teaching professor of political science in the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology. He is the lead author of the Historical Dictionary of Modern Coups D’état (2022), which was named one of the “Best Historical Materials” published in 2022–23 by the American Library Association.

Tyler Ashner is a graduate of the United States Coast Guard Academy and served as an officer in the Coast Guard, including participation in Operation Unified Response as a crew member of the USCGC DALLAS. He is currently a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

These views are those of the authors only and do not represent the position of the United States Government, Department of Defense, or the United States Coast Guard.

Image: U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Area