President Donald Trump announced that he is allowing the military to decide how to proceed in Afghanistan, including setting troop levels. Though I am convinced the President is trying to do what is best for the country (who better than the military leadership to determine what they need to succeed?), military power is a tool, a means among many different tools of national power, not a strategy in and of itself. Elevating military objectives over the assessment of the politically acceptable magnitude of effort for a given strategic political goal can be a slippery slope. The literature about escalation is filled with examples of cognitive biases that encourage leaders to continue throwing good money after bad.
Prospect theory, loss aversion, the endowment effect, and gambling for resurrection all offer explanations for irrational behavior. Both military and civilian decision makers are susceptible to these subconscious behaviors, but becoming aware of the psychological pitfalls of sequential decision making can help leaders recognize shortcomings in their risk assessments and recalibrate their determination of the probability of success.
The fathers of prospect theory, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, consider “decision making under risk” as a choice between prospects and probability of success.1 They showed through a series of experiments that “expected utility theory” was fundamentally flawed when risk was introduced into the decision-making process. In one experiment, subjects were offered a choice between either receiving $2,400 with a 100 percent probability; or potentially receiving $2,500 with a 33 percent probability, or $2,400 with a 66 percent probability, or $0 with a 1 percent probability. The results were staggering. Respondents chose the certain $2,400 82 percent of the time.
Conversely, when the experiment was rerun with potential losses rather than gains, participants gambled more. They took extreme risks in the hope of breaking even rather than accept smaller but certain losses. When offered a choice between a 100 percent chance of a $3,000 loss, or the possibilities of either a 20 percent chance of no loss paired with an 80 percent chance of a $4,000 loss, 92 percent of participants chose the second option. Ultimately, actors are risk averse in the domain of gains and risk acceptant in the domain of losses. This distortion in the expected utility model has been applied to international relations and has implications in the way we intervene militarily.2
Beginning an intervention abroad is an optional endeavor. However, once the country has committed blood and treasure, while overselling the internal and external dangers of inaction, it becomes more difficult to renounce a failing endeavor (certain loss) if even small hope remains that additional resources will resurrect a flawed political strategy. Afghanistan needs to be assessed through Tversky and Kahneman’s insight that we appreciate gains far less than we hate losses.
The mission of the military is to fight and win our nation’s wars. Though military leaders will use available resources to accomplish the military objective of defeating the enemy, what constitutes victory (or failure)—what the value of the political objective is in terms of blood and treasure, or when that value has been exceeded and no longer is worth the cost—is a political decision. Under Secretary of State George Ball’s famous memo to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 could easily be applied to Afghanistan. “Once we suffer large casualties,” Ball wrote, “we will have started a well-nigh irreversible process. Our involvement will be so great that we cannot—without national humiliation—stop short of achieving our complete objectives. Of the two possibilities, I think humiliation will be more likely than the achievement of our objectives—even after we have paid terrible costs.”3
The literature surrounding external involvement in internal conflicts largely supports the conclusion that military intervention prolongs conflict, especially when third parties have independent agendas beyond conflict termination.4 For great powers, such as the United States, their involvement can generate additional objectives that did not exist beforehand. Yielding to a weaker foe can be considered damaging to national prestige, which, Paul Pillar says, “is a new motivation and an independent reason for not conceding in response to the armed actions of the other side.”5
Research on escalation behavior shows additional consequences of loss aversion. Barry Staw and Jerry Ross found that individuals who were responsible for previous losses within a company dedicated more resources—in an effort to save their previous decisions—than neutral financial officers who oversaw similar underperforming divisions.6 Losses are considerably more painful than gains are rewarding, and individuals who are engrossed in the sequential decision-making process will be more risk tolerant than outside observers who don’t have skin in the fight.
The President’s decision to leave resource allocation decisions to the Pentagon not only divorces the political primacy of the military objective, but also opens the door for an increase in effort by an organization that will be more accepting of risk in its cost-benefit analysis than an outside—and recently elected—decision maker.7
Military force is not always the most appropriate tool for a given objective. Even when it is, the results can be ephemeral. In the early 1990s, frustrated by a mounting humanitarian crisis, Ambassador Madeleine Albright asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Powell responded by saying that the military had engaged in dozens of operations over the past three years and in each case, “We had had a clear goal and had matched our military commitment to the goal. As a result, we had been successful in every case.”8
The political objective in Afghanistan has the capacity to change, and should as its value fluctuates. We are facing an enemy who has known almost continuous conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Their experience with protracted warfare makes it difficult for us to reduce their strength of will and to persuade them that they have been defeated. In addition, the threat to the U.S. homeland has evolved. Attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando were not perpetrated by individuals who fled to Afghanistan to train in a terrorist training camp, but by self-radicalized individuals who consumed propaganda voraciously through the web. Fragile states and the establishment of bases from which to propagate their attacks no longer are a necessary condition of being effective. Access to the Internet and a laptop are.
The political decision to end or continue the United States’ longest Westphalian war against a post-Westphalian enemy is not an easy one. Alexis de Tocqueville explained that “there are two things that will always be difficult for a democratic nation: to start a war and to end it.”9 President Trump should not delegate this decision to military leaders.
1. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,” Econometrica 47, no. 2 (1979), 263–291.
2. Jack S. Levy, “Prospect Theory and International Relations: Theoretical Applications and Analytical Problems,” Political Psychology 13, no. 2 (1992), 283–310.
3. Barry Staw and Jerry Ross, “Understanding Behavior in Escalation Situations,” Science 246, no. 4927 (1989), 216.
4. See: Dylan Balch-Lindsay and Andrew J. Enterline, “Killing Time: The World Politics of Civil War Duration, 1820-1992,” International Studies Quarterly 44, no. 4 (2000); David E. Cunningham, “Blocking Resolution: How External States Can Prolong Civil Wars,” Journal of Peace Research 47, no. 2 (2010); Donald Wittman, “How a War Ends: A Rational Model Approach,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 23, no. 4 (1979); Patrick M. Regan, “Conditions of Successful Third-Party Intervention in Intrastate Conflicts,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 40, no. 36 (1996), for discussion on the effects of third-party interventions on the scope and duration of armed conflict.
5. Paul R. Pillar, Negotiating Peace: War Termination as a Bargaining Process (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016), 215-16.
6. Staw and Ross, “Understanding Behavior in Escalation Situations,” 216.
7. “Trump Lets Pentagon Decide on Afghan Troop Levels,” podcast, Wall Street Journal, 14 June 2017.
8. Colin L. Powell, My American Journey (New York: Random House, 1995), 576.
9. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Dover thrift editions, 2017).
Lieutenant Commander Oroza is an Olmsted Scholar and doctoral candidate at l’Université de Lyon III in France. An MH-60S pilot, he will be joining the Night Dippers of HSC-5 for his department head tour.