Let’s not reinforce failure in Afghanistan — al Qaeda moved on, and so should we
In a recent article, Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon voiced their support for President Obama’s announcement to maintain an increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan through 2017. the authors offer only one real argument for staying: “the right approach is for Obama to protect our +investment in Afghanistan.” In other words, we should stay because of sunk costs.
By Michael Van Wyk
Best Defense guest columnist
In a recent article, Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon voiced their support for President Obama’s announcement to maintain an increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan through 2017. A lot of the familiar rhetoric abounds — statements that Afghanistan “needs help” and that the situation is “not hopeless, but it is serious” combine to produce a non-specific threat narrative. But the authors offer only one real argument for staying: “the right approach is for Obama to protect our +investment in Afghanistan.”
In other words, we should stay because of sunk costs. In 1985, Arkes and Blumer published a study titled The Psychology of Sunk Cost that addressed the idea of the sunk cost effect. It had roots in several other theories to include Kahneman and Taversky’s 1979 Prospect Theory, of which there are two applicable parts — prospect theory’s value function, and the certainty effect. The value function presents the idea of an investor deep in loss perceiving the prospect of relative gain (even if still achieving a net loss in the end) as far outweighing the risk of increased cost (and further loss). An example is given of the increased popularity of long shots at the race track during the final race of the day. The second part is the certainty effect, noting that a choice between a certain loss (completely pulling out of Afghanistan leading to its presumptive total collapse) and a long shot (the Afghan government becoming self-sustaining sometime in the very, very distant future) favors the latter.
The sunk cost effect shows up frequently in public life. It was behind our buildup and continued involvement in the Vietnam War, part of the do-or-die pursuit of the V-22 Osprey, and also seen in numerous instances of hopeless holdouts in political campaigns. An identical psychological concept is the “Concorde fallacy,” named after the supersonic jetliner that was proven very early on to not be economically viable but was pursued to completion anyways. In their 1999 study on the Concorde fallacy, Arkes and Ayton posit that sunk costs do not influence the choices of lower animals or human children, and that the unique susceptibility of human adults to this fallacy is based on a distortion of the “waste not, want not” adage under which many people were raised.
The danger in using sunk cost to justify continued investment is that it lends itself to reinforcing failure. The military tends to increases the susceptibility of human adults by having an additional cultural layer that calls for tactical victory at all costs. An example is of this is the German failure at using infiltration tactics in the latter stages of WWI. Although designed to rapidly create, expose and exploit gaps in enemy defenses, commanders were seduced into throwing their reserves into areas where their infiltrators were experiencing the most resistance, thusly committing their forces to another stalemate and essentially abandoning the successful infiltrators who broke through enemy lines. Their own failure became a self-defeating and exponentially growing feedback loop.
The hardest aspect in shedding the sunk cost fallacy is the seeming irreverence of not “honoring” the sacrifices of our dead and wounded. We need to tread lightly on the ground of our fallen comrades. But I believe the “sunk cost” view actually dishonors their sacrifice, because it converts them into a kind of political-emotional “currency” that is used to gain argumentative advantage. This often comes in the form of declaring whether their sacrifice was or will be “in vain” or not based on a subjective determination of outcome. Matt Cavanaugh, Jim Gourley, and Dan Berschinski all have recently wrestled with addressing this complex and sensitive topic. For now, suffice it to say that the consideration of hazarding further American lives deserves the utmost gravity, but the hard truth that many have died does not and cannot justify whether more should die.
In Afghanistan, the money and effort spent up until this point have gotten us to exactly where we are and no further. To see the situation clearly, we need to rid ourselves of the sunk cost fallacy and view the option of our enduring role in Afghanistan in the light of opportunity costs. That is, we should try to assess all the costs, both explicit and inherent, of one alternative versus the other going forward. Even if the desired outcome of staying in Afghanistan is sufficiently viable, reasonably achievable, and rationally probable, our continued involvement will certainly result in the loss of American lives.
My assessment is that such an outcome is not achievable without the loss of more of our people than is worth it. Hence, I believe it is time for us to leave Afghanistan, undeluded by the hope that we can somehow recover the unrecoverable.
Michael Van Wyk is an active-duty Marine officer and aviator. He has participated in numerous operations and campaigns around the globe to include two combat deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Photo credit: Michael Van Wyk
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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