Afghanistan and the Costs of War
Last night, President Donald Trump addressed the nation and claimed he was implementing a new strategy in Afghanistan that was “drastically different” than that of his predecessor. All indications are that the differences are not particularly drastic. While he would not say how many additional troops will be sent to the country the U.S. military has been fighting in for the past sixteen years, reports indicate the number will be around 3,900. After hundreds of thousands have served there since 2001, how a few thousand additional troops will help the United States achieve its objectives in Afghanistan is unclear.
The hints about additional troops were not the only aspect of address that were important. President Trump also indicated that the rules of engagement would be loosened, and that the focus of the U.S. military mission would be counterterrorism, rather than nation building. He also announced that the United States would encourage greater involvement in Afghanistan by India. Trump even surprisingly held out the possibility of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, which any endgame in Afghanistan would ultimately require. But ultimately, there is seemed to be little real change in the political objective the United States is trying to achieve. As Susan Glasser writes today in Politico,
But beyond the scathing language and an open-ended pledge to “fight to win,” Trump offered few details about a plan that administration sources have said involves the sending of a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The Pentagon deems such a move necessary to avoid the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul but it would hardly be a force capable of dramatically changing facts on the ground a few years after a surge to some 100,000 American troops at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency failed to do so.
How the victory would come Trump did not say, although he appeared to issue an ultimatum to Pakistan to cease its support for militants “immediately,” suggested there were no “arbitrary timetables” for American withdrawal aside from unspecific conditions being met, vowed not to micromanage troops from Washington, and pledged not to spend any more money or effort on failed nation-building attempts.
“Yes, we will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily,” Trump said.
How did it get to this point? In a rare moment of self-reflection, President Trump admitted in his address that he was skeptical of becoming more deeply involved in Afghanistan. And prior to taking office, Trump repeatedly said the United States should leave altogether. Yet he went along with the military’s preferred option of an increased troop presence, while pursuing more or less the same objectives the Obama administration did.
On his Washington Post blog, political scientist Daniel Drezner looks to the sorry state of civil-military relations under Trump. As Drezner notes, the U.S. military is generally reticent about starting new wars, but it is committed to winning them—often through heavy application of firepower—once involved. With Trump’s limited knowledge of military affairs, the administration’s lack of civilians with expertise in defense and foreign policy, and the coterie of generals in key national security decision-making positions, it was always likely the president would defer to the military’s preferred strategy. Similarly, Emma Ashford of the Cato Institute explained on Twitter there was no incentive for anyone in the national security policymaking process to step back and question whether continuing in the war in Afghanistan serves America’s interests.
These are both good explanations for Trump’s flip-flop. But there is another explanation for why Trump chose to double down in Afghanistan: just because he could.
Realist international relations scholars emphasize the role of power in international politics. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has enjoyed broad freedom of action given its lack of military rivals. China’s rise and advances in military technology are changing the equation somewhat. But in many instances, the relative power advantage the United States maintains means it can use military force relatively promiscuously.
But if the United States operates in a permissive international environment for the use of force, there is also a permissive environment domestically. The American people are largely insulated from the costs of foreign wars. Absent a large-scale nuclear attack, the survival of the American state is not in doubt. The United States is more or less immune from invasion given its large oceanic moats to the east and west. Conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan do not represent anything resembling an existential threat so there is little reason for the public to pay much attention to them.
In addition to the lack of threats to induce greater public attention to America’s ongoing wars, the American people face little to no cost for the wars their country fights. Less than one percent of the U.S. population serves in the military, so a small number of Americans will lose their lives—or a loved one—in combat. While wars are supposed to cost the American people “treasure” as well, political scientist Jonathan Caverley has found that income inequality and progressive taxation distributes the cost of wars away from the median voter. That today’s wars are debt-financed exacerbates the effect.
This explanation is in no way mutually exclusive from Drezner’s or Ashford’s that emphasize the role of bureaucratic politics and the national security decision-making process. In fact, the absence of countervailing political power in combination with path dependence, military preferences for victory in ongoing conflicts, sunk cost fallacies, and a decision making process that favors the status quo make it all the more likely that the United States will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Without public pressure, elected officials have little incentive to push back against a status quo that favors military action.
Periodic calls to reinstate the military draft are an attempt to impose some of the costs of conflict on a larger segment of American society in the hopes the public will then pressure their elected officials to act responsibly. And experimental research by political scientists Michael Horowitz and Matthew Levendusky provides some evidence to back up the argument that a draft would increase opposition to the use of military force. However, modern warfare demands trained professional military personnel rather than conscripts. The military itself might therefore be the biggest opponent of a military draft.
With a draft off the table, what would induce greater public interest in the way the United States uses military force? Research by political scientists Sarah Kreps and Gustavo Flores-Macias suggests that paying for conflict through taxation rather than debt financing is the best way to achieve some sort of democratic accountability. As Caverley’s research suggests, the form any “war tax” takes will matter. However, as long as the American people remain divorced from the costs associated with the wars their country fights, another sixteen years muddling through in Afghanistan and elsewhere remains the most likely outcome.
Matthew Fay is the Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Niskanen Center