Tag: Afghanistan

DEFENSE DOWNLOAD: Week of 1/3/19

Happy New Year! The Defense Download is back after a brief break for the holiday season. This new round-up is intended to highlight what we at the Cato Institute are keeping tabs on in the world of defense politics every week. The three-to-five trending stories will vary depending on the news cycle, what policymakers are talking about, and will pull from all sides of the political spectrum. If you would like to recieve more frequent updates on what I’m reading, writing, and listening to—you can follow me on Twitter via @CDDorminey.  

  1. 2018 Was a Long Women’s March Through Congress,” by Lyric Thompson and Christina Asquith. The 116th Congress was sworn into office today—the most diverse Congress in the history of the institution. 
  2. With Mattis Out, How Will the Pentagon Transition Under Shanahan?NPR’s Morning Edition hosted by Rachel Martin, featuring Todd Harrison. With Mattis departing and Shanahan assuming the post of Secretary of Defense—at least temporarily—there could be changes in store with new leadership. 
  3. US Withdrawal Plan from Afghanistan Won’t Include SOF Strike Units,” Matthew Cox and Richard Sisk. President Trump’s announcement that he intends to withdraw troops from Syria has renewed rumors of an imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan as well. Military.com reporters spoke to defense officials familiar with plans. 
  4. This Map Shows Where in the World the US Military Is Combatting Terrorism,” Stephanie Savell and 5W Infographics. This is a new release of the Costs of War project’s research—showing that the U.S. is militarily engaged in 80 countries. That’s 40 percent of all the countries in the world. 


Shulkin Out at VA

President Donald Trump has dismissed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. David Shulkin amid disagreement within the administration over the future of the beleaguered  Veterans’ Health Administration, a single-payer health system whose closest analogue is the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. 

In a farewell printed in the New York Times, Shulkin criticizes proposals to improve health care for veterans by privatizing the VHA:

The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics, particularly when it involves the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war. Working with community providers to adequately ensure that veterans’ needs are met is a good practice. But privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea. The department’s understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector.

Actually, Shulkin is probably right. The VHA has built expertise in treating the special challenges veterans face (which is not to say the VHA always treats veterans well). If privatization “dismantl[es] the department’s extensive health care system,” it could take the private sector years to fill in the gap. Simply “closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics” could well be “a terrible idea.”

Fortunately, that is not what privatization means. To privatize does not mean to dismantle. It means to transfer ownership of a resource from the government to private individuals. 

Privatization of the VHA need not dismantle any aspect of that unique system. All that privatization would or need do is transfer ownership of VA hospitals and clinics–of all the system’s physical capital–to the people that system exists to serve: veterans. The VHA would continue to exist as the nation’s largest integrated health system, and would preserve its capacity to meet the unique needs of veterans, but under the control of veterans themselves rather than politicians who persistently renege on the commitments they make to veterans.

Cato Vice President for Defense and Foreign Policy studies Christopher A. Preble and I explain in the New York Times how privatization can have bipartisan appeal:

The alternative system we propose combines the universal goal of improving veterans’ benefits with conservative Republicans’ preference for market incentives and antiwar Democrats’ desire to make it harder to wage war. 

Read more about this bipartisan VA privatization proposal in Chapter 14, Veterans Benefits of Cato’s Handbook for Policymakers (8th ed.).

Counterinsurgency Math Revisited

When does 32,200 – 60,000 = 109,000? That seemingly inaccurate equation represents the estimated number of Islamist-inspired terrorists when the war on terror began, how many the U.S. has killed since 2015, and the number that fight today. And it begs the question of just how can the terror ranks grow so fast when they’re being depleted so rapidly.

As early as 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld hinted at the potential mathematical problem when he asked, “Are we capturing, killing, or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” In his memo, Mr. Rumsfeld correctly identified that both sides have a vote: the U.S. can deplete the terror ranks, while the terror groups and their supporters can replenish them.

What Rumsfeld had not yet imagined, however, was the possibility that military force might inadvertently benefit terror recruitment efforts. Specifically, he ignored the blowback a marauding U.S. military might engender among the Muslim world.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal pushed the conversation in that direction. He pointed to the counterintuitive aspects of terror recruiting. Calling it “COIN Mathematics,” he laid out his argument. “Let us say that there are 10 [insurgents] in a certain area. Following a military operation, two are killed.  How many insurgents are left?  Traditional mathematics would say that eight would be left, but there may only be two, because six of the living eight may have said, ‘This business of insurgency is becoming dangerous so I am going to do something else.’ There are more likely to be as many as 20, because each one you killed has a brother, father, son and friends, who do not necessarily think that they were killed because they were doing something wrong. It does not matter – you killed them.  Suddenly, then, there may be 20, making the calculus of military operations very different.” 

Though McChrystal did not explicitly connect U.S. military operations to the perceptions of the broader Muslim community, Osama bin Laden and his number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, certainly did. Five years before 9/11, bin Laden railed against the presence of the U.S. military in Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites of Islam. On other occasions he spoke of the “American crusader forces” and “American occupiers.” His recurring theme of grievance centered on the U.S. waging war with Islam. Later, in 2005, al-Zawahiri put an exclamation point on it. In a letter to the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, he reminded him, “The Muslim masses…do not rally except against an outside occupying enemy, especially if the enemy is firstly Jewish, and secondly American.”

Three Problems with Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy

Last month, President Trump outlined his new strategy for Afghanistan that calls for increasing troops on the ground, a reverse of the Obama administration’s policy of gradual withdrawal. The President also reprimanded Pakistan for continuing to harbor militants while urging India to assist the United States in developing Afghanistan’s economy.

The long awaited strategy has three fundamental faults that if ignored will create an even more dire situation in Afghanistan and more fissures in the already fragile U.S.–Pakistan relationship, all the while further undermining U.S. interests.

First, the strategy is not new. It’s really a repackaging of old strategies that have already been tried and tested—and have failed. For example, prioritizing the capturing and killing of terrorists over the building of sustainable institutions has been tried in Afghanistan before, and in Iraq from 2003–2010, and has been ineffective in the long run. Weeding out safe havens and ensuring that they do not redevelop is the job of a law enforcement agency, not a military. Putting more U.S. troops on the ground, therefore, is not a solution. Instead, it’s a recipe for more—and unnecessary—U.S. casualties. It also puts the U.S. military in a role to conduct nation-building—despite the President’s comments against it—which is an unpredictable, slow, and costly strategy with a low success rate.

Second, Trump’s strategy reinforces the security dilemma between Pakistan and India. It is true that as a non-NATO ally, Pakistan has been a recipient of millions of dollars in aid. It is also true that it is sympathetic to the Taliban and supports the Haqqani Network in its attempts to establish a Pakistan-friendly Afghani government. But chastising Pakistan while encouraging India to invest even more in Afghanistan’s economic development in the same breath merely intensifies the animosity between the nuclear rivals while threatening regional stability and U.S. interests. For example, the United States has become increasingly interested in building economic ties in Central and South Asia, and cannot do so without some kind of relationship with Pakistan. More significantly, U.S. troops rely heavily on routes within Pakistan for NATO supplies. Aid cuts, sanctions, increasing drone strikes or designating Pakistan as a “state sponsor of terrorism” will all jeopardize U.S. troops’ access to these vital supplies. Alternative routes, such as going through Central Asia, are available but will be costlier. Furthermore, utilizing alternative routes will involve cooperation with Russia, a potentially less reliable partner than Pakistan.

And third, the strategy largely ignores China, who has reinforced its position as a key player in the form of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China is beginning to serve as a mediator between the United States and Pakistan. Earlier this year, Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, affiliated with the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, the perpetrator of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, was put under house arrest. While it seems plausible that Pakistani authorities did so to curry favor with newly elected President Trump, Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center concludes that Saeed’s arrest was mainly done to satisfy the steady progression of CPEC. While Saeed does not pose a direct threat to China or CPEC, any militant attack within the Pakistani state could turn into a liability for Chinese investors and citizens working there. CPEC, therefore, is opening avenues for China to exert its influence on Pakistan, which may or may not work in the United States’ favor.

After 16 years, the United States remains entrenched in a war in Afghanistan that remains troublesome and lacks a clear end state. The President’s strategy does little to overcome these challenges. Repeating failed strategies, further aggravating unreliable allies, and ignoring other powerful states engaged in Afghanistan will destabilize the region and damage U.S. interests.    

Vietnam, Afghanistan and U.S. Decisionmaking

In 1979, Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts released a book on U.S. involvement in Vietnam, entitled “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked.” Unlike most previous treatments of the conflict, Gelb and Betts didn’t argue that the U.S. failure in Vietnam was the result of a poor foreign policymaking process. Nor did they argue that policymakers had been misinformed or misled about the conflict. They didn’t even argue that policymakers were under any illusions about how unlikely success in Vietnam was.

Instead, Gelb and Betts argued that – while the war in Vietnam itself was an abject failure for American foreign policy – the U.S. decision-making system actually functioned as it was meant to throughout the period of increasing U.S. involvement in the war. As they describe:

 “With hindsight, it seems evident that the costs of the strategy of preventing defeat were incalculable. But at the time of the crucial decisions, the costs of accepting defeat appeared to be incalculable. The system in this case coped as democracies usually do: by compromising between extreme choices, satisfying the partisans of neither extreme of opinion within the government but preventing the total alienation of either.”

As the authors show, the central question about American involvement in Vietnam wasn’t why U.S. involvement in Vietnam happened, or why policymakers chose to deepen it over time, but rather why U.S. policymakers considered it vital that Vietnam not be lost to communism in the first place.

At each key decision point, policymakers chose to do the minimum possible to avoid a communist victory. Their basic argument is simple: the U.S. decision-making system was uniquely suited to fiddle with tactical choices while enabling policymakers to avoid hard strategic questions.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

Donald Trump’s speech on Monday night carried strong echoes of Gelb and Betts’ work, as he recommitted the United States to an open-ended, ill-defined military mission in Afghanistan.

Much has been made of Trump’s flip-flop on Afghanistan policy, shifting from his campaign rhetoric – which promised that the United States would be getting out of the nation-building business – to a policy scarcely different than that pursued by his two predecessors. But it makes sense in the context of Gelb and Betts’ Vietnam argument.

Trump advisors – the ‘generals’ he is so proud of – were able to convince him that all the other Afghanistan options were worse. Even though a continued U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is unlikely to produce success, he agreed to an approach which largely hopes to prevent losses.

Just as policymakers did in Vietnam, Trump is fiddling with tactics without asking the broader strategic questions. To be precise: Is it actually a key U.S. interest today to stabilize Afghanistan and prevent further Taliban gains?

Certainly, it would be better for everyone if Afghanistan were stable, prosperous and democratic. But it is substantially harder to argue that it is a core U.S. interest. The key arguments in support of this proposition – laid out once again in Monday night’s speech – are questionable. 

Indeed, the idea that an Afghanistan without U.S. military presence will result in future terror attacks is so misleading that scholars have described it as the ‘safe haven myth.’ Terror groups operating out of ‘safe havens’ have been responsible for only 1% of the terrorist attacks on the United States; 9/11 is an extreme outlier.

Others focus on past U.S. commitments, arguing that we’ve spent too many lives and too much effort to withdraw now. Yet as behavioral economists would note, this is a sunk-cost fallacy, biasing policymakers to continue existing commitments lest the previous efforts be ‘lost.’

Rather than question how to avoid losing in Afghanistan, policymakers should compare the potential costs of losing to the costs of continuing our commitment.

Unfortunately, while Gelb and Betts’ arguments can help us understand how even good policymaking institutions can result in poor foreign policy outcomes, they offer no real solution for how to short-circuit this process.

In the case of Vietnam, popular discontent with the war ultimately made it so costly for policymakers that they were forced to reconsider their options. In the case of Afghanistan, where an all-volunteer force has replaced a popular draft, the 16-year war is largely invisible to public opinion.

As a result, America’s forever war looks set to continue for a long time. 

More of the Same: Cato Scholars Weigh in on Afghanistan

Last night President Trump informed the nation that he is escalating America’s war in Afghanistan. That means that our longest war will continue for at least four more years, and likely longer. It also means that more Americans will be sent across the globe to fight – and die – in the pursuit of unclear objectives, and in a conflict that is not vital to U.S. national security.

But Trump assured Americans that he had the strategy for “winning.” While specifics about the new strategy are sketchy, it seems to be more of the same, and more of the same will not improve reality in Afghanistan; it may, in fact, make things worse. At this point, one could be forgiven for seeing America’s efforts in Afghanistan as a sign of insanity: doing the same, but expecting different results.

Cato’s Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner note that Trump’s strategy is “only a slightly more muscular version of the policy he inherited from Obama. …[but] remains a much less forceful version of Obama’s surge.”

They also point out that Trump’s rhetoric, “like that of previous administrations, makes it sound as though this is America’s war to win or lose. …However, the U.S. has very little control over how the Afghan government will govern or how the Afghan security forces will fight. America, therefore, has little power to affect the outcome of Afghanistan’s civil war.” 

In fairness, it’s difficult to envision a strategy that would. But that is an argument to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan’s civil war, not for more of the same. Trump chose the latter, in part, because it is the easier political decision than withdrawal.

Christopher Preble notes that: 

Few presidents are criticized for using military force. More often, they are hit for not intervening often enough. Or trying hard enough. Or long enough. Withdrawal without victory is a particularly odious sin.

Therefore, when Donald Trump was presented with an opportunity to redirect U.S. attention and resources, he ignored both the reasonable and well-considered suggestions to withdraw, as well as the foolish and quixotic proposals. Instead, he chose to kick the can down the road. 

Cato scholars had much more to say following the president’s primetime address to the nation, including several articles detailing the many false assumptions that undergird Trump’s rationale for escalating the war. They also addressed the false promises the president made to the nation.

You can read the articles in full by clicking on the links below:

Trump Goes from Afghanistan War Skeptic to True Believer by Christopher Preble

The Slim Chances That President Trump’s Afghanistan Policy Will Succeed: Let’s Look Honestly at Recent History by Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

‘New Strategy,’ Same Results by Trevor Thrall and Erik Goepner

Afghanistan Is President Donald Trump’s War Now: Fighting Without Purpose Or End by Doug Bandow

Fatal Fallacies in the War on Terror

As I argue in my recently published policy analysis here at Cato, the American-led war on terror has clearly failed. Unfortunately, rather than accept the obvious fact that the campaign was badly misguided and focusing homeland security efforts in more fruitful areas, the Trump administration appears ready to embrace, and perhaps even to escalate, the American commitment in the Middle East. Though President Trump himself has frequently voiced concerns about nation building in Iraq and the mission in Afghanistan, few of his senior advisers appear to share his worries. And sadly, few voices from the foreign policy establishment have questioned the need for continued American intervention.

The near total lack of debate begs a simple question: Why do so many smart people support the continuation of a strategy despite its abject failure over sixteen years and in the absence of anything even remotely approaching a new theory of victory?

Though there are undoubtedly many different contributing factors, one important cause is the influence of several mutually reinforcing fallacies about terrorism and the use of force.

The first of these is the “political will” fallacy. This is the misguided idea that the United States can outlast the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other local actors simply by illustrating sufficient political resolve. Once the terrorists and insurgents understand that the United States is truly  “in it to win it” they will admit defeat. The reality, however, is that resolve is not something the White House can create. Resolve is a force that stems from how meaningful the objective is to a nation and how much its people are willing to pay to achieve it.

Given this, America’s adversaries clearly enjoy a decided advantage. Local actors like the Taliban have a tremendous stake in the outcome in Afghanistan – it is their home, after all. Americans, on the other hand, are rightly dubious of the value of slugging it out for a country of little significance to their security. Thus, much as happened during the Vietnam War, no matter how much firepower the United States brings to the fight local adversaries like the Taliban will always have greater resolve to keep fighting.