Friday, December 04, 2009

Afghanistan then and now

By Mike Dorf

In the Introduction to his 1989 book "The Examined Life," Robert Nozick wrote:
I used to think it important, when I was younger, to have an opinion on just about every topic: euthanasia, minimum-wage legislation, who would win the next American League pennant, whether Sacco and/or Vanzetti were guilty, whether there were any synthetic necessary truths--you name it.  When I met someone who had an opinion on a topic I hadn't even heard of, I felt a need to form one too.  Now I find it very easy to say I don't have an opinion on something and don't need one either, even when the topic elicits active public controversy, so I am somewhat bemused by my earlier stance.
As I have gotten older, I have found myself following in Nozick's footsteps in this regard, but with a handicap that did not limit him: As a blogger, I have imposed on myself the duty of stating views of one sort or another several times per week.  Of course, there is always so much going on that even if I wrote multiple entries per day I couldn't possibly express an opinion about everything in the law, much less the wider world.  Still, some subjects--such as what to make of the President's plan for 30,000 more troops in Afghanistan, followed by a withdrawal in 2011--seem so pressing, that to be remotely au courant, a blogger on anything relating to public affairs should say something about them, even if it's only something like "there are lots of competing considerations here; I'm no expert in foreign policy or counter-insurgency; this is a hard call."  But no one needs to hear that.  Thus, recognizing the limits of my expertise--which is to say that I have no expertise whatsoever on this subject--here goes.

1) I agreed with then-Senate candidate Obama back when he opposed the Iraq war, distinguishing "dumb wars" from smart ones.  I found myself reminded of the horrific excuse for clear thinking that led many people to support the Iraq war in 2003 when, earlier this week, I read Thomas Friedman's recollection of his own view:

To me, the most important reason for the Iraq war was never W.M.D. It was to see if we could partner with Iraqis to help them build something that does not exist in the modern Arab world: a state, a context, where the constituent communities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — write their own social contract for how to live together without an iron fist from above.
Really??  I'm sorry but it should not have ever counted as a respectable argument to say that one country should bomb and invade another, and topple the latter's regime, to experiment with making an example out of the invaded country.  That fact, no doubt, explains why the Bush Administration marketed the war on other grounds.

2) Even if, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan started out as a good--or at least a justifiable--war, that was over eight years ago. As Hendrik Hertzberg recently wrote in the New Yorker, Obama's approach to Afghanistan, both in the Presidential campaign and during his Presidency, has "contained an almost subliminal suggestion that somehow the clock could be turned back—that the events of the Afghanistan war’s first months could be replayed, this time with a better outcome."  But it isn't so.  Although Obama's speech on Tuesday was generally well received (as are nearly all of his speeches), it was, in one key respect, Bushian or even Giulianian: The repeated invocation of 9/11 had the virtue of being relevant to the history of our involvement in Afghanistan but seemed to obscure more than it explained the justification for sending more troops now.

3) To my mind, the Administration is suffering from a well-known psychological phenomenon called "loss aversion" that makes people place greater value on avoiding the loss of X than on gaining X (beyond what can be explained by the diminishing marginal utility of X).  To prevent the distortions that loss aversion can generate, sophisticated trading firms do not have their traders retain a portfolio from day to day, so that each morning a trader looks at his portfolio with a fresh eye, rather than holding on to bad investments that he bought for too much in the hope of recouping his investment.  Loss aversion explains why people sometimes throw good money after bad.

How does loss aversion figure into the Afghanistan policy?  Having already spent 8 years and hundreds of lives of American service members in Afghanistan, it's tempting to want to do the job right now.  With respect to a war like Iraq that should not have been waged in the first place, it's relatively simple to respond with what is still the most important question John Kerry ever asked:  "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"  If you think, as Obama does, that the Afghanistan war was not a mistake, then this question does not seem so salient.  But it should be.

Consider a thought experiment.  Suppose that the situation in Afghanistan were roughly as it is except that we did not have any troops there.  Would anyone seriously argue that we ought to send tens of thousands of troops there? If yes, then let that person convince us that doing so would be the right move at this point.  Perhaps the best case one could make would depend on preventing the human rights abuses that the Taliban would undoubtedly perpetrate (especially against women and girls) should it return to power.  That would be a respectable argument but it's hardly one that the U.S. or any other country routinely pursues in its use of force internationally.

4) I suppose one might think that we have a moral obligation to see the job through on the you-break-it-you-own-it principle.  Interestingly, that argument makes much more sense with respect to Iraq--which we really did break--than with respect to Afghanistan--which was broken long before we got there.  In saying that, I don't mean that life was good under Saddam, but its badness was not sufficient to justify our invading.  Having invaded without lawful justification (as I said at the time) we had an obligation to put in place a functioning government.  Our responsibility to the people of Afghanistan is more limited.  Having been justified in toppling the Taliban regime, we discharged our duty once we replaced it with a less bad government.  If we want to stay now, it would have to be either for humanitarian reasons (see 3 above) or because it's in our strategic interest.

5) Testifying before Congress yesterday, Secretary Gates took some heat for what really is a contradictory position: That we'll keep the troop levels high for 18 months and then draw down AND that the drawdown will be timed to the Afghan military's readiness to go it alone.  This is a consistent position only if it takes exactly 18 months to get the Afghans up to speed.  If it takes longer, then either the 18-month figure won't hold or we'll withdraw without meeting the target.

Do I have a better plan?  Not really.  Here I'll fall back on my Nozickian prerogative to have no opinion and on my lack of expertise, which gives me at least some hope that my doubts will be proven wrong.


Hank Morgan said...

You ask whether one could argue that we should send tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan if we didn't already have a large military commitment there. The answer appears to be no, but the question misses the critical strategic difference between (a) never entering a conflict in the first place and (b) pulling out of a conflict once you've entered it, but without having gained your objective. I see people making this faulty argument all the time.

The loss-aversion problem (actually, I think what you're describing is closer to the sunk-costs fallacy) certainly applies to the position of traders in a financial firm, but that is because traders are merely concerned with maximizing profits, not with signaling their strength and resolve to an adversary. The sunk-costs fallacy is much less appropriate in the context of a military campaign, for the simple reason that opponents will observe your behavior and take lessons for future conflicts.

It's not just your present opponent, either. The same lesson will be learned by everyone in the world who is watching. I have been traveling in Muslim countries quite a bit in the past few years. I have been told by many people that the United States will "run scared" (their words) in Afghanistan just like we did in Vietnam, Somalia, and Lebanon. These prior decisions sent a devastating message to what would become Al-Qaeda. That message was: the United States doesn't have the stomach for casualties or protracted conflicts. If you hold on long enough, the Americans will go home. This makes every future conflict more costly, and reduces the credibility of every future threat to initiate a conflict. Even worse, pulling out makes it much harder to cultivate allies. “The major lesson of the Vietnam war is: do not rely on the United States as an ally,” according to British military expert Sir Robert Thompson. These are costs that the trader cutting a losing investment doesn’t have to worry about.

Ultimately, this is an argument for being much more reluctant to enter into conflicts. Only go in when necessary, because if you go in and lose, you will greatly increase the willingness of your enemy to fight even harder in the next round. In other words, defeat is many times more costly than abstention.

Michael C. Dorf said...

1) I agree that sending a message to one's enemies is a factor but creating enemies is another factor. Al-Qaeda didn't exist when the U.S. left Vietnam. The people who would become Al-Qaeda would first become the people we would arm to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. One might have thought that if these people were drawing lessons from our military conflicts they would have drawn the following lesson from U.S. aid to the mujaheedin in the 80s and the intervention in Kosovo in the 90s: The U.S. is willing to use military force to further the interests of Muslims. They didn't. I don't disagree that our military leaders need to try to anticipate the reactions to our military actions, but insurgents who still regard Spain as part of the Muslim world to be restored as part of a new Caliphate will likely regard withdrawal in 18 months or even 18 years, for that matter, as showing we lack the stomach for a long war.

2) The sunk-cost fallacy is a specific instance of loss aversion:

Caleb said...


Just a comment on your 4th point. Back before NATO went into Afghanistan, there were major protests about the war, and I tend to believe that they were justified. Just because Iraq was less justified doesn't mean that toppling the Taleban was justified. I've always thought that the link between Al Quaeda and the Taleban was pretty tenous (or, if not, we should have also invaded Sudan).

In fact, I find "you break it you bought it" to be the primary justification for continuing the war -- even on the personal level, we've probably created a terrible situation for Afghanis who have cooperated with NATO and face retaliation if NATO pulls out.

On the other hand, perhaps a pull-out could still be justified if we allowed any cooperating Afghanis to come with the forces and immigrate to various NATO countries? At least then we wouldn't be abandoning people to face the consequences of a situation we DID help to create.

Sam Rickless said...

Michael, you refer to U.S. aid to the mujaheedin in the 80's. This could actually provide another argument that we should stay in Afghanistan a little longer. Our aim at the time was not to help the people of Afghanistan but rather to encourage an anti-Soviet insurgency. When the Soviets gave up and pulled out, we cut off aid and left the people of Afghanistan to fend for themselves. With a power vacuum and a broken state, some sort of tyranny was inevitable, in this case the Taliban. Because we made the Taliban possible, we owe it to the people of Afghanistan to help them work out a way to govern themselves in relative peace and security. [This argument differs from the argument concerning Al-Qaeda that Obama made in his speech.]

To me, the moral of the story concerns not so much the use of American military might as it does the unintended but totally predictable consequences of funneling weaponry and money to violent extremists and repressive governments for reasons of "national security". This is really what has to stop. We need a foreign policy that is far more constructive and collaborative, with much less in the way of Realpolitik. Obama struck all the right notes on this score when he was on the campaign trail. But he seems to have left that script aside, which disturbs me.

CARL D. BIRMAN said...

Well-said, Mike.

Unknown said...

The decision to send more troops to Afghanistan was wrong-headed. The US and Nato should pull out immediately, and should offer asylum to any Afghans who have collaborated with the occupiers. The Obama Administration needs to show the world that the Bush years were anomalous, and the US does not seek to dominate the world. The Muslim fundamentalists will not hate us if we leave them alone, and if we leave the Palestinians and the Israelis alone to work things out for themselves. Isolationist? Yes, for the moment, but with the proviso that the US should show the world that it is willing to try to repair (by non-military means) some of the damage it has done.

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Timur Friedman said...

I would go further than what Sam said, that some sort of tyranny was inevitable in Afghanistan after the US lost interest. US policy actively contributed to the destructive situation that followed the Soviet pullout and the collapse of the Communist regime in Kabul. The US channelled all of its support to the mujahideen (with the exception of the Stinger missile program) through the Pakistani government, which meant, in essence, the ISI intelligence agency. The ISI, in turn, gave the bulk of its support to a man they thought would best serve their interests in Afghanistan: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, however, is the sort of man who would set up a despotic Islamist regime, and with whom no reasonable compromise could be possible. The US is responsible for having provided arms and money to this man. This set a bloody civil war in motion, from which the US disengaged, giving the ISI free rein to continue its support for Hekmatyar, and, when he did not prevail, to Mullah Omar and the Taliban. In my estimation, the US owes a considerable moral debt to the Afghan people.

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