General David Barno writes in Foreign Policy about the choices facing the Obama administration in Afghanistan going forward in light of the frequency of ‘green on blue’ attacks and the recent suspension of joint operations resulting from them. In the post, he frames two possible paths the administration could take, and makes his case for the one he prefers. What I want to tease out here is a subject somewhat tangential to the point of Barno’s post. He describes his first option as follows:
“[The administration] could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings.”
Setting aside any the question of which is the best path and why to look at this one comment, this is terrible reasoning. I don’t doubt what Barno is saying. I don’t doubt that many would make their recommendations on this basis. If you have put a lot of time and effort and energy and sacrifice into something, it is understandable that you’d want to see it through, but there comes a point when it might become clear that your approach isn’t working, and at that point it is irresponsible not to consider changing it. Sunk costs are not a reason to do anything.
Any important decision – of which the decision on how to proceed in Afghanistan is certainly one – should be based on what is in our best interests going forward, and what is going to help us be the most successful in achieving our objectives. Unfortunately, I think we often give undue weight to what we have done in the past, and not enough to clear thinking about what we need for the future.
Part of this simple inertia: it’s a lot easier to continue doing what you’re doing than it is to start something new. The challenge of conceiving and fully implementing a new strategy is daunting to say the least.
Part of it is a desire to save face: we think we’d look dumb or indecisive if we put all this work/time/money/life into an approach only to abandon it midstream. (Or, heaven forfend, like we’re admitting we were wrong).
Part of it is a very human tendency to overvalue past investment. In this interesting piece from a while back in which he illustrates the sunk cost logical fallacy through a discussion of Farmville, David McRaney describes this phenomenon like so:
Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.
We’ve invested years of our time, billions of dollars, and thousands of lives in Afghanistan at this point. If we’re going to get trapped in this kind of thinking about anything, it will be about this. We think: we can’t have done all this for nothing. We can’t have let so many people give their lives in vain. This is an extremely emotional argument. It is also logically bankrupt.
Taking more time, spending more money, risking more lives doesn’t undo what has already happened, doesn’t fix what has gone wrong, and doesn’t justify what we have spent in the past. We need to acknowledge and set aside these emotional drivers in our decision-making so that we can make policy decisions based on what choices give us the best chance of success in achieving our objectives. The psychological and emotional trap of money spent, time wasted, and – hardest of all – lives lost, can’t be permitted to dominate these decisions.