Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunk Cost and Lessons Learned?

We had a fairly long discussion here about the "lessons learned" - or, rather, whether lessons that seem obvious in hindsight were, in fact, too difficult for the military boffins of 1914 to discern - in the first catastrophic war of the 20th Century.

Now the NY Times discusses a pointless (and "catastrophic" in the sense of "blood and treasure wasted for no geopolitically valid objective") war of the 21st Century, the mess that the United States has made in the Grave of Empires:

"It’s not as if Mr. Biden is being pressured to stay in Afghanistan with a cogent argument; most analysts freely admit that the United States has no plausible path to victory, that the military isn’t trained to midwife democracy and that the Afghan government is grievously corrupt.

Rather, the national security community cannot bear to display its failure. That’s why many who advocate continuing the war are left grasping for illogical or far-fetched justifications. In a meeting of National Security Council principals, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, reportedly made an emotional plea to stay in Afghanistan, after “all the blood and treasure spent” there."

This is the classic "sunk costs" theory that has been used to justify military shenanigans since the Peloponnesian War, and certainly we've seen modern Great Powers do this repeatedly (I'd argue that the real problem isn't that the U.S. foreign policy establishment was "traumatized" by the disaster in Vietnam but, rather, that the lessons IT taught were not learned, either...)

To me, the big question that the rolling clusterfuck that is the U.S.'s misadventures in the whole "land war in Asia" business is "is there a way for Great Powers - or, indeed, most polities - to make foreign policy decisions that are based on "national interests" that are, indeed, based on the interests of the bulk of the people in the polity"?

It's hard to see too many examples that prove that there is, so my question for the readership is "can you think of an example of a policy (or set of policies) or decision(s) that show that this sort of intelligent geopolitics IS possible?"

Is there (are there?) examples that, say, the "blobs" of various nation-states could look to for a way to see their way through to avoiding the very sort of complete clusterfuck on display when you look at the U.S. foreign policy camorra and it's work in Afghanistan since 2001?


  1. SecDef Austin in Kabul. He is not saying a lot so far, just listening. What advice will he give Joe when he returns to DC?

    But it is NOT just on the US. NATO, the UN, Pakistan, Russia, China & India have all played a part in the peace negotiations. And NATO has been speaking out against leaving. Why?

    And I'm damned if I know why Pakistan has not lived up to their part of Trumpy's deal. Probably they and China are happy to see India's influence in Kabul completely torched.

    Talibs are threatening extreme action if May deadline passes and US is still in country. Yet they reportedly have not lived up to their part of what they had promised.

    My advice is to get out of Dodge now. If the Talibs continue to break Trump's deal then it is on him.

    1. Dunno about the Biden people, but there's been a regrettable continuity across the past 20 years of US "foreign policy" boffins insisting that it will take just a teensy bit more time and another 10,000 guys and this and that and the other thing and everyone will get a pony out of Afghanistan. It's never made sense to me and still doesn't.

      Pretty much everyone who knew anything about the area surrounding the Durand Line said that the two single biggest problems with the post-Taliban situation after 2001 were 1) the overwhelming number of Pashtuns on the "other side" - seeing as the Pashtun are always the best bet in Afghan politics - and 2) the apparent unconcern in the intervening polities about the state of Kabul-New Delhi relations. Karachi has ALWAYS seen Afghanistan as strategic depth. A Kabul that might be prone to side with India? That's unacceptable, and my guess on the Pakistani indifference to the Trump withdrawal agreement is that, yes, they're fine with the Talibs taking Kabul back if the alternative is an India-leaning Afghan government.

      The bottom line is that there was never any real way to get a Western-compliant government in Kabul short of an utterly ruthless strongman. The place was wrecked by the Soviets and Charlie Wilson's War. Anyone who thought different was dreaming.

      But my question at the end still stands - we agree that the whole Afghan Adventure was a complete clusterfuck. I'm reading that there's a troubling (for Beijing) backlash against the Belt-and-Road. The Russian adventuring in the Near Abroad has been fraught, at best.

      Is there any sort of example of a sound geopolitical strategy for Great Power (or regional power) engagement outside it's own territory that DOESN'T look like a complete shitshow? Is there a good example or examples that we could point to of a polity considering its national interests and pursuing them abroad in a way that doesn't end up with them doing something appallingly or even mildly stupid and self-damaging? Any work of statesmanship that jumps to mind when you think "yep, that was pretty good work..."

    2. The Marshall Plan despite the recent snotty criticism by Greenspan and Chomsky. And of course the last 75 years of constant criticism out of Moscow.

    3. That's a good example of doing well by doing good (interesting bit of trivia - did you know that the OSS/CIA got something like 5% of the take? Used it to fund anti-Soviet organizations like labor unions, arts and literature societies, newspapers...). Built up a Europe the US needed as an ally.

      Thinking of other examples...

      Bismarck's handling of the assembly of Imperial Germany seems like it was pretty deftly done. Not exactly good for the neighbors, but until the Treaty of Frankfurt Bismarck seems to have been pretty canny. Definitely big strike against him was his failure with William II, who he helped become the nitwit he was because it poked a finger in the eye of Kronprinz Friedrich (now THERE's a counterfactual - William's daddy takes the throne in 1888 as Fredrick III and escapes the cancer. He was only 58 when he died, so he'd have been in his 80s by 1914. His daddy made it to 90, so it's no better than even money whether Willy becomes Kaiser in time to lead Germany into the war. Fredrick was a "liberal" by German imperial lights, and I suspect he'd have run a very different Germany than Kaiser Bill did...)

    4. @mike
      Forget what you believe to know about the Marshall Plan. Its reputation is mythology.

  2. Diplomat and historian Charles Freeman mentions a few;

    During the Warring States period in China the sage Mencius counseled that the best way for "a state to exercise influence abroad was to develop a moral society worthy of emulation by admiring foreigners".

    During roughly the same time frame the Father of Indian Diplomacy, Kautilya went in the other direction from Mencius. Amongst other advice he describes the “duties of an envoy” as ... "instigating dissension among the friends of his enemy, conveying secret agents and troops [into enemy territory], suborning the kinsmen of the enemy to his own king’s side," ... and "ascertaining secret information and showing valour in liberating hostages [held by the enemy]."

    Or Grotius who during the midst of both Thirty Years war and the Eighty Years war first laid out the basis of International Law. Including both Freedom of the Seas and the Laws of War (written while in prison and in exile).

  3. Civilian Opinion- USSR & Cuba? I Know it nearly caused WW3 but USSR were able to de-escalate without getting involved in a 20yr un-winnable war.

    1. Well...I'm not sure that either Great Power comes off looking very good during the Cold War. The US gets stuck into idiotic "anti-communist" wars like Vietnam and stupid shit like the Shah in Iran and the generals in Argentina, the USSR has Afghanistan and Chechnya and the general incompetence of its internal system. Yes, they didn't end human civilization, but occasionally through no fault of their own. The forty year US-USSR is beginning to look a lot like the Byzantine-Sassanid wars that left both prostrate before the rising power out of the Islamic Arab world.

      Cuba seems to have done a bit better in that after decades of being the punching back of the Colossus of the North after Castro it managed to retain its sovereignty. But it, too, did badly mismanaging its internal affairs, and certainly wasted blood and treasure in the fairly pointless African adventures.

      So...maybe not so much.

  4. I think domestic US politics has been driving the Afghanistan bus for a quite a long time. I think everyone understands there is no "win" in Afghanistan, so the motivation is to avoid the appearance of losing. No administration - not even the Trump admin - wanted the domestic political risk of "losing" Afghanistan and getting blamed for any negative consequences - perceived or real - of withdrawal.

    There are certainly many of the usual suspects in the FP establishment who will write serious-sounding op-eds about how withdrawal was a mistake and that we would have won.

    So it's a game of musical chairs, kicking the can down the road for someone else to deal with. As long as Afghanistan stays out of the headlines, there is no upside to major changes there, much less withdrawal, from a domestic political perspective.

  5. I was badly disappointed to see the French staying in Mali. I expected them to go in, rout the attacking rebels and go home save for beefed-up uniformed embassy staff.
    Instead, they stayed. So that was the last time I expected intelligent behaviour in context of Western military adventurism.

    Putin appears to be able to limit his military adventures. Case in point is mostly the South Ossetia conflict. I don't believe the West had enough of a threat available to force him into a quick end. he did it by himself, knowing how expensive the Chechnya occupation was (Georgia is much bigger).
    He also waged very limited war against the Ukraine. First a coup de main in Crimea and then a limited (no airpower - imagine the West choosing to not use airpower!) one in Donezk basin. The Russians appear to dumb lots of old (well past storage life by Western standards) munition into it, so it's probably not all that expensive fiscally to keep this sore wound of the Ukraine open.

    Now let me brag a bit (pay particular attention to the 2nd link and how early the 1st link was):
    Then I concluded that I had written all about the sunk costs fallacy in "security" politics that needed to be written. It sure has haunted mankind for thousands of years.

    1. "Putin appears to be able to limit his military adventures."

      Syria? It looks like Mali.

    2. No, he's winning in Syria. (Actually, he has won, but the conflict still has to be concluded. The interesting part will be when the Northwest rebels surrender and the regime moves to expel the Americans which are in Syria without permission. He'll probably go to the UNSC and loudly call on the U.S. to withdraw or even for help despite the veto issue.)

    3. In addition to Libya the Russia's mercs, the Wagner Group, are involved in Sudan, Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, Angola, Madagascar, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, and probably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. You might say, "Well that is just mercs". But arms and ammo is coming from Russian military. How could Putin not know?

    4. The Russians didn't use kinetic airpower in the Donetsk because they continue to deny their forces are directly involved in the conflict. Hard to maintain any kind of plausible deniability if the air forces are heavily involved.

      However they did (and do) use plenty of non-kinetic airpower, primarily ISR aircraft.

    5. There is no plausible deniability with all those artillery assets that the Russians use and have been documented by satellite imagery on the Russian side of the border.
      Rebel artillery inside the zone has spikes of activity after every "humanitarian convoy" that arrives from Russia.

    6. The Russians definitely have been very bad at hiding their tracks, including with the airliner shoot-down, but deniability is still the reason they aren't using kinetic airpower.

  6. I found a book on the British intervention in Sierra Leone post-2000.
    It's a bit too cheerful in tone for my taste, but at first glance at the book (didn't read it fully) that operation may be a candidate for successful small war operation.

    It's on as pdf, "modern conflict sierra leone".

    1. Along that line you can't forget the ur-COIN that is the "Malayan Emergency" of 1948-60. It's simultaneously a successful Small War and a extreme endmember one-off that it always kind of irks me the degree to which it's used to justify the Western COIN efforts. Between the racial/social tilt against the MRLA and the cunning Brits declaring defeat at the outset (guaranteeing an independent Malaya) the incompetent campaign the rebels waged is nearly immaterial.

      But to build an entire geopolitical method around it?


  7. The Dhofar Rebellion is an interesting case study.

    1. Omanis, Iranians, Emiratis, Jordanians, plus the Brit RAF and SAS all pitched in. So a good Omani/Brit diplomatic effort.

      But I suspect what contributed to the packing in of the Dhofar Liberation Front was that their support from South Yemen dried up.

  8. Ael's comment makes me think about our various efforts in "Somalia" and also the shit-show of Libya, which promises to be similar in nature and just as enduring a cluster-fuck and potentially even more bloody. It's already drawn-in a host of outside powers, though US involvement is overtly non-existent.

  9. One month left to the withdrawal deadline. Good article in the NYT today on Biden's three basic options and the risks involved in each.

    Meanwhile negotiations between the Talibs and Kabul will take place in Turkey this month.

    The 18 March Moscow Conference on Afghan peace may have been a step forward, or maybe not as the Talibs bad-mouthed and discounted the joint US/RU/CH/PK statement that said they (the Taliban) should not pursue a Spring offensive.

    Meanwhile, NATO it seems has no intention of honoring the 1 may deadline according to Secretary General Stoltenberg. And German MOD Kramp-Karrenbauer recently said Germany may send more troops to Afghanistan.

  10. Great new read from Osprey Publishing on the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Supposedly a great initial success by Spetnaz and the KGB. But then nine years of failure. Gorby did right to pull them out. At least they did not stay 20 plus years like we have.

    Just published a couple of weeks ago:

  11. FDChief -

    Biden must have heard you. Or at least this commenter on the WP who calls himself a soldier & a diplomat. He uses your same points of argument:

    SoldierDiplomat: “This was never a ‘winnable’ war. Those who have fought there with open eyes have always known this. The only ‘win’ was displacing those who used it as a training and launching platform for attacks on the United States. Following the Northern Alliance's toppling of the Taliban (late 2001 - early 2002) the United States should have declared victory, thanked our ‘allies’ in Afghanistan, told them that we were leaving the country as long as they didn't allow anyone to train for and plan attacks on us from there again, reestablish our embassy in Kabul, and pull out the combat forces. The world would be a safer, more peaceful, more stable place if we had done so.
    We need to learn from the mistake of trying to force Jeffersonian democracy on those who have no history or interest in that form of government. Our arrogance in thinking that we could fundamentally change the culture and character of a people was our failure in Afghanistan (and Iraq). Self determination is the fundamental underpinning of democracy — you can't force it to happen. We're now at the point … of sunk costs and need to stop throwing good money after bad and killing/dying for a lost cause.”

  12. Biden is partially responsible for Obama's surge, he pushed him for it and Petraeus lied about how long it would take to win there. So back in about 2010 Biden was a hawk on AFG. Good thing he proves he can still correct his own mistakes. The ability to still correct his own ways is something that his main competitor in the primaries lacked.

    Also keep in mind the lying moron meant to leave earlier this year. He probably pushed the end date to after the elections to avoid a discussion and to keep the warmongering accusation against Democrats more useful.

  13. So Biden had a change of heart. Not hard to do once you become disillusioned with the decades of war. Or with all the magical thinking that the Pakistanis will stop arming and supporting the Talibs.

    Biden is not alone. I suspect many Americans at first were gung ho to stay and stop the horrific treatment of women under Taliban rule. But finally saw the uselessness of pouring money down a rat-hole no matter how morally righteous the reason.