Kajaki, Afghanistan - March 20, 2012: US Marine stands watch duty. (Photo: GoodAndy45 via shutterstock.com)
Exiting the war: Recriminations to come, and the lessons ignored

The sunk cost fallacy has mired the US in endless conflict.

President Joe Biden knows a lot about Afghanistan. Once when he was vice president, I and a couple of other specialists from the academic and think tank world were invited into his White House office for an hour-long discussion of the subject with Biden and his adviser Antony Blinken. In the course of the session, I got the sense that Biden already was the most knowledgeable person in the room about most things that really matter in Afghanistan — even more so than those of us who were supposed to be the experts and whose insights he was seeking to tap.

Biden unquestionably understands fully the risks and range of possible consequences of his decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September. That range includes several unattractive scenarios of events inside Afghanistan, such as the collapse of the current government in Kabul or other political outcomes in which backward policies of the Taliban prevail. There also will be the possibility of a terrorist attack occurring somewhere in the world in the next couple of years in which the perpetrators have some connection, however tenuous, to Afghanistan, enabling critics to blame the attack on the decision about the troop withdrawal.

Experienced politician that he is, Biden understands the extent and range of the criticism he will face, some of which will be well-intentioned policy critiques and some of which will be the usual opportunism of political opponents. The path of least political resistance for the president would have been to stay the course that the United States has been on in Afghanistan for the past several years.

Biden thus deserves credit for willingly taking the political heat for what is in the best long-term interests of the United States.

The recriminations and criticisms yet to come will mirror rhetoric already being heard. The recriminations will not only be off the mark with regard to the war in Afghanistan. They also will exemplify several unfortunate tendencies that appear all too often in discussion of other U.S. foreign policy issues.

One such tendency is to treat sunk costs as if they were an investment on which the nation is obligated to seek a positive return. The attitude is illustrated by the comment of Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “I just am concerned that after so much blood and national treasure, that we don’t lose what we were seeking to achieve,” he said.

Sunk costs are exactly that — sunk. The blood and treasure will never come back, no matter what the United States does in the future. And past expenditure of blood and treasure should not be allowed to warp careful weighing of costs and benefits in deciding what to do in the future, beyond serving as a lesson on what has already been tried and has failed.

The sunk-cost-as-investment phenomenon is one respect in which history weighs heavily — too heavily — on policy discussions. Another respect is the tendency to assume that if history repeats itself, it will do so not just in terms of fundamentals but with the same script as before. Thus arises the mistaken belief that because of Afghanistan’s role in the script of al-Qaida and 9/11, Afghanistan supposedly is qualitatively different from all the other woebegone places around the world where international terrorists could pitch a tent.

History also weighs heavily in the form of policy inertia — the pattern of doing more of the same simply because the United States has been doing it for years and nobody has come up with a politically attractive alternative. Inertia also leads to treating some regimes as “allies” because the United States has supported them for years, not because they provide the sort of return benefits that should be part of a true alliance. Thus, distress is voiced about “abandoning” the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul as an inertia-laden reflection of how long and hard the United States has aided that government, not of anything that the United States is getting from that government in return.

Another tendency, which is related to a broader belief in global U.S. primacy, is to assume that with any conspicuously ugly situation that arises anywhere in the world, it is a U.S. interest to try to fix the situation. Outcomes get judged with a narrow focus on making the ugly situation prettier rather than with a properly broader focus that considers how much, if at all, the situation in question matters to U.S. interests in the first place. However much we may wince over ugliness that will continue to play out in Afghanistan, the entire situation in that country simply is not significant enough to U.S. interests to justify still more years of expending blood and treasure.

Also related to beliefs about U.S. primacy is the assumption not only that fixing such situations is in U.S. interests but that a successful fix is always within U.S. capabilities. In Afghanistan, 20 years ought to be enough to demonstrate the falsity of that assumption. But the belief, rooted in American exceptionalism, that with enough resources and determination the United States can fix just about anything lives on.

That leads to a final tendency, which is the failure in many policy critiques to consider fully, or even to consider at all, the alternative. Amid all the dire prognoses about what will happen in Afghanistan after U.S. troops depart, one struggles to hear a plausible case for an alternative that offers anything more than indefinite warfare and an Afghanistan that is just as unstable as it is today.

A further illustration of this tendency is with another current front-burner issue that involves the next country to the west: returning to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran nuclear deal. The vast majority of criticism of the JCPOA fails to consider that according to the very criteria that dominate the criticism, such as when Iran would be able to go beyond the JCPOA limits on uranium enrichment, the alternative — that is, the absence of a fully-in-effect JCPOA — is decidedly worse. This failure is all the more remarkable in that in this case the alternative is not just a future hypothetical but has been playing out before the world’s eyes over the past couple of years. That shows how strong is the underlying tendency, which has degraded policy discourse on not only Afghanistan and Iran but other matters as well.

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