20 August 2019

From Vietnam to Afghanistan: America’s losing gambler syndrome

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The losing gambler syndrome

 The losing gambler syndrome, better known in economic circles as the sunk costs fallacy, is a fact of human nature that casino magnates well understand. When someone losses big at the tables, invariably they have an overwhelming urge to invest ever more resources to make good on their catastrophic losses. Dad cannot go back to Mom telling her he has lost the kids’ college fund. So he keeps playing…and keeps losing. The reason for his demise—the terrible odds—is never analytically addressed.

I saw this doleful process up close and personal in Washington. From Vietnam, through Iraq, to the endless war in Afghanistan, the propensity to keep strategically gambling even as the losses pile up is perhaps the single greatest intellectual error the United States has made in the past 50 years, and it largely explains all three debacles. Yet, tragically, in the increasingly lame excuses the military has presently made to stay in Afghanistan, the US seems to have learnt almost nothing from their trio of calamities.

Yet history can be learned from; indeed, history must be learned from. As the years rolled by in the 1960s, without the United States ever finding a political ally in South Vietnam with local political legitimacy, it never seems to have occurred to Lyndon Johnson that the lack of such a partner was a sure sign of the need to get out, not to redouble his efforts. Limiting and mitigating past analytical mistakes – and thus avoiding the siren song of the gambler’s curse – is a vital skill any statesman (or analyst) must possess.

Vietnam as the canary in the coal mine

By the autumn of 1967, there were 500,000 US troops in Vietnam, with Commanding General William Westmoreland requesting 100,000 more. A primary American commitment had been made to a country that ought to have been only of tertiary interest to the United States.

What analytical madness drove this process? And why did it take so long for the US to agonisingly extricate itself from the Vietnam War?

Perhaps the key moment of the Vietnam tragedy came on January 25th 1965, when two key intellectual players in the Johnson administration, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara, wrote a memo to a wavering LBJ strongly urging an enhanced military commitment to the flagging mission.

Despite not having written any original books or developed any original thoughts to justify his Olympian position, Bundy was the preeminent foreign and defence policy intellectual of the Kennedy-Johnson era. Elitist, sharp, hawkish, good at the close verbal combat that is a key determinant of bureaucratic success in Washington, Bundy, was, at best, a bright process guy, adept at keeping the flow of decision-making going from his perch in the White House as national security adviser.

However, for all his supposed brilliance, he lacked the ability to overcome the losing gambler’s syndrome – to coldly assess policy decisions and constantly check to see if they continue to work, which is the mark of any first-rate foreign policy practitioner. Instead, as the clouds darkened over Vietnam, he instinctively moved to shut down all discussion, stifling all the reasonable doubts that were emerging.

Of the two, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara is the more interesting, and the more tragic. Calm, analytical, driven by empirical data rather than politics (a rarity then and now in the capital), McNamara seemed to be the harbinger of a beguiling new age when rational men eschewing ideology would reach the correct policy decisions for the right reasons.

Instead, he came to epitomise the peril of such a belief: if the data going into a system are junk, then policy outputs are bound to be junk too. By focusing on the more intellectually manageable policy specifics of Vietnam (body counts), without ever looking at the broader, less quantifiable but more important strategic factors (the relative political will of the two sides and the discrepancy in political legitimacy between the north and the south of the country), McNamara’s analysis was constantly missing the forest for the trees.

The January 1965 Bundy-McNamara memo starkly outlined for President Johnson that the US needed either to move to negotiations with North Vietnam or deploy more force to right the sinking ship. Fatefully, they both came down in favour of the latter option, and increased the bombing of the north. It was McNamara’s great influence over the president that swayed LBJ into making this losing gambler’s error.

For this was the moment at which the analytical alarm bells should have been ringing. If after all these years of intense American military, economic, and political support, the South Vietnamese government couldn’t field a credible army, the US was surely supporting a regime incapable of ever standing on its own two feet.

It was time to pare American losses and recognise that the fundamental lack of South Vietnamese political legitimacy (in contrast to the innate popularity of nationalist Communist Ho Chi Minh) meant that the war could never be won, as the US was fighting for a wholly artificial political construct. Instead, those around LBJ, following on in true losing gambler fashion, used the failure of the current Vietnam policy to advocate doing even more in the service of an obviously lost cause. The result was as tragically futile as it was predictable.

The nightmare repeats in Afghanistan

But the US never seems to learn the sunk costs lesson. For in surveying the ruins of America’s longest conflict—the endless, futile eighteen-year of war in Afghanistan—the losing gambler syndrome is really the last argument still standing as to why, despite all facts to the contrary, the US should continue its efforts.

The present iteration of the losing gambler’s syndrome argument goes something like this: “Yes, perhaps committing to nation-building and endless war (following the unseating of the then al-Qaeda-affiliated Taliban in December 2001) was a mistake, but that was then. As of today, we have already committed so much blood and treasure to the effort, to leave now would negate all our sacrifices. Worse, premature withdrawal is bound to be seen as a calamitous setback to American credibility around the world”.

But if the siren call of the sunk costs fallacy were always followed to the letter, no great power would ever terminate a war it was losing. Such an outcome does little more than tragically extending the expenditure of blood and treasure indefinitely and to no purpose, as has already happened in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan.

Instead, let us look at the true situation in Afghanistan through the realist lens. First, the war has cost a fortune, money desperately needed to upgrade America’s creaking schools, infrastructure, and social system.

Including expenditures earmarked for 2019, the Afghani war has cost an unimaginable $975 billion, making it America’s third-costliest war after World War II ($4.1 trillion) and Iraq ($1.06 trillion). How the Chinese must be laughing.

Second, the cost in blood has also been dear. It is estimated that between the war’s start in October 2001 and October 2018, it has directly killed 147,000 people, including 2,400 US military personnel, as well as 1,100 NATO and allied troops.

Third, all this sacrifice has not led to any concrete gains; on the contrary, the American-installed government in Kabul has failed to secure anything like country-wide political legitimacy. Both  President Hamid Karzai and President Ghani won highly disputed elections, an outcome that has made them seem little more than pawns of the American forces. This disastrous state of affairs underlines that the US’s Afghani allies have never been able to construct a viable, self-sustaining government.

As of today, the Taliban now control or influence more territory than at any single time since the initial US invasion in 2001. Facts are stubborn things, and no amount of obfuscation changes this basic and damning reality. The US strategy in Afghanistan, to put it mildly, has not met with success.

Fourth, and often overlooked, there is a strong geostrategic case to be made for drawing down the American war in Afghanistan. Further afield, the Trump administration is correct to see the rise of Great Power competition as the overarching geostrategic challenge America faces in our new era.

Beyond all else, this means pivoting to Asia and away from the Middle East, managing and balancing the rise of China through the use of an enhanced alliance system centred around allies in ‘The Quad’ (Australia, India, and Japan), as well as others in Southeast and east Asia. Afghanistan amounts to a sideshow within a sideshow. It is time for America to cut its seemingly endless losses there.

In finally escaping the losing gambler’s syndrome, for all the strategic gains listed above, Washington must be extremely clear-eyed. As the just completed eighth round of talks between the US and the Taliban in Doha made clear, the outlines of a deal are visible. It’s reported that America will reduce its 14,000 strong troop presence over two years in return for the Taliban’s agreement not to host and support international terror actors in the country, such as al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network.

In these negotiations, there is reason to believe that the Taliban will keep its word because upholding such a bargain is in line with their strategic priorities: To get the US out of their country for good, allowing them to finish a war they will likely win (and we must be brutally honest about this).

Such an unsatisfying result will be the messy end to much suffering and huge costs; but this is the price America must pay to finally learn from history and to finally escape the losing gambler’s syndrome.

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Dr. John C. Hulsman is Chairman of the global political risk consultancy John C. Hulsman Enterprises, and author of 'To Dare More Boldly: The Audacious Story of Political Risk'