Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Lies That Bind

There's a powerful but perverse psychology that keeps nations stuck in quagmire conflicts. Foreign Policy offers an analysis by USMC aviator Michael van Wyk that is a "must read" for Canadians as Justin Trudeau prepares to withdraw Canada's contribution to the pointless air war on ISIS.

In a recent article, Gen. David Petraeus and Michael O’Hanlon voiced their support forPresident 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 thecertainty 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 thecertainty 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 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 manyhave 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 ofopportunity 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.

Van Wyk argues for the complete withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. To him the future costs of staying aren't worth the prize. Squandering lives and treasure on lost causes is for the French Foreign Legion. Without that, the Legion might not have any songs.

Canada needs to stop serving as America's Foreign Legion. No more wars unless we know, going in, that we have the ability and the will to win them. No more wars without end. No more doubling down on bad bets. Enough.


Kim said...

Bravo! In complete agreement.

Anonymous said...

Northern PoV said...

Hey Mound, I've been celebrating (between work and sleep) for 48 hours. So happy the dark cloud has lifted. No quick fixes ahead but at least the direction changes significantly.
Our international disgraced image should change cause Canada is a strong "brand" and Harper probably caused the equivalent of cognitive dissonance. Trudeau is and will continue to resonate. More important is the actions on peace & climate change. Climate change is an issue that Trudeau/Butts can and should directly handle and get the Provinces on board as proposed.

But as for peace/war issues, we are so lucky that Jean Chretien is close by. I can't think of a better advisor to put Canada's foreign policy back on path.
(Chretien to Bush pre-Iraq: "show me the list!" )
I'm all for the new Butts generation but really hope Trudeau (& new For. Min) leans on Jean when it comes to the big foreign affairs issues - at least until he has a bunch of experience.

On "free trade" and business issues (the ugly Canadian mining companies poisoning the 3rd world for ex) I don't see ANY party effectively opposing ... for now.

The Mound of Sound said...

I don't know that I share your faith in Chretien, NPoV. We need statesmen of today, not those of the past.

Chretien's world no longer exists. All has changed. It is, today, in many ways more perilous while, at the same time, less responsive to what were the standard approaches of the 20th century.

The Americans have shown that "All the King's Horses and All the King's Men" no longer deliver reliable positive outcomes. War has gone from being the preserve of state actors into a hydra entangling state power with quasi-state forces, rebels, insurgents, terrorists and some fairly sophisticated and powerful criminal organizations, each pursuing often contradictory objectives.

We're now just embarking on an era of resource wars, wars of sustenance if you like, unknown to the modern era of high-tech weaponry that has permeated down even to the criminal strata.

We still insist on banging away on the war drums but wind up settling for a register of tactical victories that, when added up, never equal the price. Peace used to bookend war but there is no peace any more. How many times have the Americans killed al Qaeda's leadership? How has that worked out?

We, the West, no longer have the means or the will to dictate outcomes. The Americans drove al Qaeda (allowed it to escape) from Afghanistan but that didn't matter. Their Afghan occupation allowed al Qaeda to regroup, recruit and decentralize. The Americans are still there. They can't get out. Sunni Islamist radicalism, by contrast, now spans the Muslim world from northwest Africa to Indonesia and into the southern reaches of Russia and China. When the history books are written will there be any winners or will they all be losers?

In this world I don't want Chretien calling the shots.