Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What Happens When a War Isn't Winnable?


I wrote the following piece over four years ago for Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind and the Philadelphia City Paper. On the eve of President Obama's announcement of a major escalation in Afghanistan, it's sadly timely. I hope there won't be cause to reprint it four years hence.

Remember when Blockbuster Video charged three dollars for a two-night video rental, and one dollar per night if you were late? They made most of their profits from late charges. Why? Because if you didn't get a chance to watch the movie during the first two nights and returned it at that point, you had to pay three dollars for nothing. If you kept it just one more night and watched it, you'd pay four dollars for something -- not as good as what you were originally planning, but a much better deal than the three dollars for nothing you were facing instead. Except... something came up on that third night, too. Now you're four dollars in the hole and still nothing to show for it. But if you hold on for just one more night, you can get what you originally hoped for five dollars, rather than nothing for four. Strong incentive to hang in for just one more night and turn the whole thing around.

By the tenth night, you were kicking yourself for having rented the damn thing in the first place. Even if you watched it tonight, you paid much more than it was worth, and you knew it. But there was nothing you could do to get that ten dollars back. If you could just watch the movie, at least you'd have something to show for the whole sorry enterprise.

But you didn't watch it that night. And maybe after two weeks, when you were down fifteen bucks in exchange for no value, you finally decided you were never going to watch it, it wasn't worth even a dollar more, it was time to cut your losses and just return the movie. And you did. You had nothing to show for the exercise, but at least you stopped the bleeding.

The example is trivial, I know. But dynamics at work for small things tend to apply to big ones, too.

Here's what I said over four years ago.


I've been thinking about what happens when a society goes to war for a limited objective but then comes to face what seems to be an unlimited cost.

The more blood and treasure a society spends on such a war, the harder it becomes to acknowledge that it can't be won. After spending so much, a retreat would be painful: The society would have to acknowledge that the entire enterprise — the lives lost, the money spent — was a waste (worse than a waste, really, because of opportunity costs and unintended consequences).

Any society would want to avoid the pain inherent in such acknowledgment. It would prefer to believe there is still some chance of winning. If victory is possible, even if securing it turns out to be costlier than first believed, at least the society would have something to show for what it paid.

If you were a member of the administration that launched such a war, and you understood these dynamics, what would you do? Even if you knew, up front or deep down, that the war couldn't be won, would you bring the troops home?

Not likely. You would have to take the entire blame for the failure, with no room for face-saving or rationalization. Most people wouldn't be able to face such an unarguable personal failure. Instead, consciously or unconsciously, such an administration would seek to defer the withdrawal to a successor. Doing so would obscure the administration's personal and historical culpability for the war: Members would always be able to say, "We could have won if our successors hadn't lost their nerve." And who could "prove" them wrong?

I expect such an administration would continue the war, trying to keep U.S. casualties close to levels the public had already proven willing to accept. Periodically, the administration would announce "turning points," the achievement of which would imply that the nation is indeed on the road to victory. As each previously declared turning point is reached and revealed to have no effect on the course of the war, the administration would articulate a new one, thereby maintaining the public's hope that there is still some purpose to the enterprise — that the war can still be won. Simultaneously, the sunk costs of the war would be increasing, deepening the society's need to win, somehow, if only to justify the increasing costs.

This is a potent political combination: undiminishing casualty levels, constant infusion of new hope, increasing sunk costs. Because this combination is relatively stable while the pain of a "we can't win" acknowledgment gets worse the longer the war drags on, the status quo would prevail for a long time. Eventually, the war could be passed on to the next administration. Blame for losing it could be passed on as well, or at least shared and obscured.

At some point, during the tenure of the administration that launched the war or of one of its successors, the war will have dragged on long enough to force the conclusion that victory isn't possible. It's not so much that the pain of what has been spent becomes overwhelming; it's the sense of nothing but further pain ahead, for no possible gain, that would bring about a new consensus on the war. Vietnam illustrates the point. I don't think what happened was, "We've lost 58,000 Americans and that's enough." It was more like, "We've lost 58,000, and even with another 58,000 I still don't see how we can win this." In other words, the pain of acknowledging failure was finally outweighed by the prospect of more pain for no gain. When a society reaches this point, it abandons the war.

In trying to articulate these dynamics, I've deliberately avoided mention of current events. Sometimes you can see more clearly by taking a step back from the matter at hand. But obviously I do think what I've described above applies to the Bush administration and Iraq. Maybe the question isn't just, "Is the war winnable?" but rather, "Even if it's not winnable, what will the administration and our society do then?" It's that second question that's important to answer.


PBI said...

Hey Barry,

On the same topic - albeit less studiously avoiding current events - I thought this was satirically insightful: Victory Science.

Sensen No Sen

Barry Eisler said...

Paul, thanks for the link to the great post and what a great blog, too! Don't know why I hadn't heard of it earlier.

"And now to get started on that 'freedom is slavery' part..."


Anonymous said...

According to the BBC, civil servants, office workers and police officers fight for the Taliban on weekends. The U.S. training the Taliban on weekdays and the Taliban using their training on weekends to fight the U.S. doesn't sound like a recipe for success - Working for the Weekend, Taliban-style.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Barry. I wanted to say I liked this post and, unless I misread something, agreed with it. So, are questions - is a war ever winnable? If yes, what are the terms of a winning war? If no... well?

Take care,

aaron said...


Been thinking on this a while...I understood the answer before I could articulate it, but I am ready to give it a try now.

"What Happens When a War Isn't Winnable?"

Misleading question, in some ways. Because the answer is that a war is always winnable, but maybe not on the terms you'd like. As a judoka, you probably get the concept already-if you're loosing, change the nature of the fight. Win through cooperation with your opponent's efforts.

In specific reference to Afghanistan, if we set our goal as being (whether we admit it or not) "turn Afghanistan into a mini-America", then we won't do that. If we say we want to completely destroy the Taliban, we won't do that either. But if we state our goal as generating a sustainable, stable, non-terrorism sponsoring government in Afghanistan, then the objective of the war itself changes. Clauswitz called war policy carried out by other means (paraphrased.) Policies can change, and when they do, the war designed to further them can change as well.

The Taliban will be difficult to impossible to destroy outright. So why do that? Why not re-define the terms of victory to accomplish the same policy goal? We wanted to remove the Taliban from power because of their relationship with AQ. We have, thus far, only partially accomplished that goal. So, let's re-evaluate other ways of doing the same thing. Let's find a way to divorce AQ from the Taliban, and allow Afghanistan to have the government it has fought us to have. A Taliban, but one that does not sponsor international terrorists.

This is a different goal, one that doesn't press against the strong points of Afghan culture. A shift that takes away most all the reasons Afghans have been fighting us to begin with. Afghans hate foreign influence-and AQ is made up of non-Afghans. Put the issue out in such a way that Afghans will understand it-that we, as Americans, are sworn to vengeance on AQ (Afghans love vengeance) and that our fight was never with the Pashtuns, or with Muslims, but with the AQ personnel their leaders were sheltering. This is a fundamental difference to Afghans.

We understand that they had given these AQ sanctuary, and were obligated to protect them. Then use specific examples of AQ mistreating Pashtuns to show how AQ has abused the hospitality and sanctuary the Pashtuns have given them, and thus provide an honorable way for AQ to be forcibly divorced from the population. Pashtunwali works with this type of effort-it's throwing your opponent in the direction he's already pushing.

At which point, we kill who we need to kill, and then get the hell out with a solid win for everybody except AQ (who pretty much take it in the shorts, but that's what needs to happen here anyway.)

Done here. I'm quite probably wrong, of course, and I'm willing to bet that just about everyone knows more about the issue than I do (I am a bit low-level to have a good perspective), but there's my answer to your question.

Barry Eisler said...

Hi Aaron, thanks as always for coming by here. Folks, even though this man is wrong, wrong, wrong!, he is always worth listening to. :)

"Misleading question, in some ways. Because the answer is that a war is always winnable, but maybe not on the terms you'd like."

I think we're talking about the same thing. I could have called the piece, "What Happens When a War Isn't Winnable on Terms You'd Like," but that's a pretty long title and I thought the concept was already implicit.

Overall, I think we'd agree that in all matters, most especially war, one must have proper objectives and means well tailored for achieving them. In Afghanistan, I don't really understand what our objectives are, given that our govt says AQ is virtually gone from the country, we've backed a stolen election, Joe Klein is now spouting that we're really there to prevent India and Pakistan from going to war, etc. If the objectives change too much or too frequently, or if the policymakers have trouble articulating them, I get suspicious.

As for the means, you said it yourself: Afghanis hate foreign influence. It's hard for me to imagine how they might create a meaningful exception to their hatred of foreign influence for American forces, but you're there and I'm not and I could be wrong.

"I'm quite probably wrong, of course, and I'm willing to bet that just about everyone knows more about the issue than I do."

Come on, man, when someone as smart and experienced as you goes this far with an "I'm just a country boy" routine, it's neither modest nor disarming -- it sounds like snark, which I don't think you intend. You know a lot and you know you know a lot -- thanks for sharing it here.


aaron said...

"I could have called the piece, "What Happens When a War Isn't Winnable on Terms You'd Like," but that's a pretty long title and I thought the concept was already implicit."

To me, the title suggested that the effort was doomed to defeat. (Which may be true, but only for pure pig-headedness in certain quarters.) It did not seem implicit to me.

And we may be talking about the same thing. I can certainly agree that we haven't had a clear-cut objective here for a while. Every single mission statement we get is about a page long.

(To all and sundry, I say the following: if your mission statement is more than a dozen words in length, you are fucking up somewhere.)

Of course, I don't know who Joe Klein is or why we should care what he says. But I think you're making the point that there are 400+ different opinions on our reasons for being here, and that's a point to which I must (sadly) agree.

Afghanis hate foreign influence. They don't hate foreigners (really, they don't.) They understand vengeance. You tell an Afghan, "I'm here in your village to kill the Taliban that shot mortars at me" and they get it. They'll switch into observer mode, unless that Taliban is connected to them on a personal level. They're okay with your *presence*, in most ways on most days (no absolutes). It's the idea that you're going to alter their lives or take from them that they object to. If they know you're passing through to do something that won't affect them, they could give a damn.

What I am proposing is: pick a mission that is directly tied to the security of the United States. "Drive al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan, permanently." "Permanently eliminate international terrorist safehavens in Afghanistan" (Six, and seven words, respectively.) Then stop doing anything that isn't directly tied to that mission. Don't get caught up in the method; re-enforce success and write off failure. Have I mentioned that I don't like the Marshall Plan model for modern policy?

And I meant what I said-most of my knowledge has been focused on the weed-level issues. I know so much about the weather here it's not funny. I know how people make money, where they import goods from chai to RPGs, what the lunar cycles are like through the year. I can give you a near perfect packing list for a year here, what the helo flight rings are, what tribes live where (including sub-tribes), which tribes hate each other/why, etc. I've read probably 20,000 pages of primary source material for both this war and the Soviet war-both sides. Within my AO, I know where the roads fail when it rains, where the flash floods will come up, what hillsides will become no-go areas, the dispositions of most all the villages we've been through. I know the names, faces, and histories of the elders. I know the altitude levels of every damn mountain in a 15-km radius, what zero adjustments I will have to make on all three weapons systems I've carried here will need to be made for all of them. I know what the elevation changes will do to the range of mortar systems, friendly and enemy. All of these things and hundreds more like them.

What I don't know are things like, whatever the hell the President had to say the other night. I listened long enough to figure out I wouldn't be extended here past March, and then I went to bed. I have no idea what the political picture is like these days. I don't know anything about the budget for this war, or how many people have been wounded/killed here. I don't know much of anything about what's going on in America, or how people there are looking at the war. There's a finite limit to what will fit in my skull.

So I'm not snarking-I do very much believe that any person with a desire to be informed on the issue back in America has good odds of knowing more about this place than I do.

Barry Eisler said...

Thanks again, amigo. Agreed with most everything you said, especially about mission statements. Sorry I misread you re the snark, and looking forward to seeing you again when you're Stateside.

Julie Weathers said...

My son just returned from Iraq. His unit has been there twice now.

I asked him pretty much the same question. Is it worth it?

He got to know some of the Iraqi people. He lived there. He sees the changes.

He thinks the people have tasted freedom from a tyrant dictator. They've tasted democracy and the ability to make their own decisions. It may take them a while to smooth out the bumps, but he believes they are not going to give up democracy without a fight.

There was a story not long ago about insurgents attacking a mosque in a smaller town. The insurgents tried they terrorist activities on the citizens and got a surprise. Not only did the citizens resist, but they chased them all the way to the next town where they finished them off.

Was this all worth it? Only time will tell, but many of the troops there feel it is and they should know. The citizens tell them they don't want to go back to the way it was. We've paid a terrible price for it. They are also paying a price and will continue to for many years, but what price freedom?

Look at Iran. Iran sees what Iraq has and they want it. They may want it bad enough to fight very hard for it. An Iranian democracy wouldn't be a bad side effect.