In retrospect: was Afghanistan worth it?

Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army. Image courtesy of Flikr user U.S. Army.

Friday’s Last Word – Pull Pin, Throw Grenade, Run Away: A provocative thought to kick off the weekend…

In teaching Military Strategy we cover Clausewitz (as one might expect).  Yesterday I taught the back half of a two-part lesson on this important war theorist, and tied in two of his concepts with Sun Tzu’s.  The two “megaconcepts” are interaction and rationality (and come from Bradford Lee of the Naval War College’s work).

Interaction is about the day to day fight – the “duel,” as Clausewitz puts it.  This would also fall in with Clausewitz’s first definition of war – “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”  One could think of a combatant commander, in theater, directing military forces in this interaction.  In this megaconcept, war is oriented towards the contest.

Rationality is about the broader purpose for the war – the context.  Clausewitz gives us another definition of war that aligns with this concept – that war is “an act of policy.”  Consider the U.S. President as a commander in chief, with a wide-angle lens, paying attention to two rational calculations: one, can our means deliver the ends we seek?  Two, is the benefit worth the costs (blood and treasure) to be paid? Clausewitz covers this second point,

“Since war is not an act of senseless passion but is controlled by its political object, the value of this object must determine the sacrifices to be made for it in magnitude and also in duration.  Once the expenditure of effort exceeds the value of the political object, the object must be renounced and peace must follow.”(Paret and Howard translation, 92)

Having taught this lesson yesterday, I’ve been thinking about the cost/benefit calculation for Afghanistan.  In particular two figures serve to question whether it was worth the effort.  The first comes from Washington Post columnist George Will from his May 3, 2011 story, “The War that Wasn’t,”

“Jim Lacey of the Marine Corps War College notes that General David Petraeus has said that there are perhaps about 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. “Did anyone,” Lacey asks, “do the math?” There are, he says, more than 140,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, or 1,400 for every Al Qaeda fighter. It costs about $1 million/year to deploy and support every soldier – or up to $140 billion, or close to $1.5 billion/year, for each Al Qaeda fighter. “In what universe to we find strategists to whom this makes sense?”

The second comes from Fareed Zakaria’s Time column, “Karzai’s Not-So-Crazy Endgame,” from February 17, 2014,

“Consider these facts from a highly intelligent forthcoming book, War Front to Store Front, by Paul Brinkley: In 2009, Afghanistan had a nominal GDP of $10 billion. Of that number, 60% was foreign aid. The cultivation of poppy and the production and export of raw heroin – all of which is informal and underground – accounted for 30%. That leaves 10%, or $1 billion, of self-sustaining, legitimate economic activity. During the same year, the U.S. military spent $4 billion per month to protect a country with a  real annual economic output of $1 billion.”

Frankly I think those two statistics are frightening – and cast serious doubts on the security investment the country made to fight in Afghanistan. It may well be that someday the entire enterprise will be looked upon as a massive waste of scarce human and financial resources.  Thus, from at least a “treasure” standpoint, by Clausewitz’s test of rationality – Afghanistan may be deemed not worth the effort. [Note: Jim Gourley has been writing about the “blood” cost at The Best Defense, and finding much the same result.]

But that still leaves interaction.  How does one factor interaction into the equation?  Could a conflict that is going well “in the fight” overwhelm long term cost considerations – or should we only look to the rationality ledger when making decisions about “when to hold’em, when to fold ’em, when to walk away, and when to run?”

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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