Don’t Buy the Pentagon’s Statements on Afghanistan
The Lead Inspector General (IG) for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel released its quarterly report to Congress last week, assessing the state of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. To put it mildly, the situation is not good. As Glenn Fine, the Principal Deputy IG for the Defense Department writes in the report’s foreword and executive summary, “the percentage of the population living in areas under the control or influence of the Afghan government showed little positive change this quarter,” while civilian casualties were “near record high levels.”
There were some small signs of promise, such as a modest decrease in “security-related incidents” — violence. From April to February, violence was below historical averages, and remains there, despite the Taliban’s Spring Offensive beginning in April. At the same time though, high profile attacks by the Taliban and ISIS spiked, and the Director of National Intelligence, Daniel Coats, has written that the security situation in Afghanistan will likely continue to decline this year.
To the interested outside observer, this is nothing new. Report after report from the Pentagon, as well as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), over the last several years, has been telling this story. The Taliban has been slowly reasserting itself, corruption is rampant, and reconstruction projects deliver limited or no results.
However, officials at the Pentagon paint a different picture. General John Nicholson, Jr., Commander of Resolute Support and Commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, said Wednesday, echoing earlier statements from the Pentagon in response to the IG’s report, that “‘violence and progress can coexist,’ and that's what we're seeing.” We should be immensely skeptical of this rosy outlook. The Pentagon is not going to be honest and realistic about Afghanistan, at least not publicly.
To understand why requires understanding Pentagon officials respond to incentives the same way everyday, private citizens do. In 1962, economists James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock published The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, a seminal work of the public choice school of economics, which employs economic analysis to study political problems. Buchanan would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his contributions in this field.
A key insight of public choice is the recognition of behavioral symmetry between public and private actors. The economics profession had long assumed that private citizens, given a set of constraints, tend to act in their self-interest, whatever those interests may be. But this same assumption was not applied to politicians and others in the public sphere. Theorists and social scientists assumed public servants were operating as benevolent despots, immune to private interests and incentives, motivated instead by a regard for the public good.
Behavioral symmetry requires that we view public officials and private citizens in the same manner. Both respond to incentives and external pressures; both act in their, broadly construed, self-interest; both fall prey to internal, cognitive biases. In essence, both groups are human, and we should scrutinize their actions as such.
For example, politicians who claim the mantle of fiscal conservatism promise to slash government spending, but never follow through. As it turns out, voters like spending when it benefits them. Therefore, an elected official’s incentive is to work for more spending overall, ensuring a piece of that pie ends up back in their district, bolstering the chances of re-election. The incentive in this instance is to keep the spigot of funds flowing.
Pentagon officials and others in the foreign policy sphere are no different. “When it comes to discussing the success or failure of any given intervention, officials are confronted with two choices when it fails,” says Abigail Hall, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa, and an expert on foreign intervention. “On the one hand, they can withdraw—effectively admitting that they failed,” she told me, “while on the other hand, they can employ a ‘double down’ strategy.”
There is no incentive to admit that things are going poorly, at least not while people are interested in keeping their current jobs or advancing to higher positions. “You don’t advance by going against the grain,” Hall said. “You advance by playing by the rules, by pleasing your superiors. If the word at the top is, ‘we need to say this is going well,’ those further down the military food chain are likely to fall in line with that narrative.” There’s also a strong incentive to continually justify and expand your operating budget.
Instead of admitting failure, officials will either overstate their accomplishments or state that they would be more successful if they had more time, funding, troops, so on and so forth. This is part of the argument put forward when President Trump announced the current “conditions-based approach” to Afghanistan last August. The Pentagon’s latest insistence that the tide of the war is turning, despite evidence to the contrary, is another attempt to make this case. None of this, by the way, implies any malicious intent on the part of military officials.
The blame for this seemingly never-going-to-get-better war in Afghanistan can certainly be spread around. But a large portion of it belongs to the electorate. The status quo is not politically costly to the Trump administration (and the administrations before him) and Congress. So, the war can go on as it has been now for almost two decades — with little progress and no end in sight. America recently celebrated Memorial Day to honor lives lost in battle, yet we fail those currently fighting in Afghanistan, and those that never made it home, by allowing this conflict to rage on unabated.
So, don’t buy the Pentagon’s latest statements about Afghanistan. Instead, insist it’s time to come home.
Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and journalist living in northern Virginia. He was formerly a Writing Fellow with America’s Future Foundation and a Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.