Why Trump can’t redeem the ‘sunk costs’ of Afghan war

There is a surface reasonableness to the new Afghanistan policy President Donald Trump unveiled Monday. The present contingent of nearly 10,000 U.S. troops will be increased by a modest, unspecified amount, but only to help Afghan forces – not to nation-build or directly fight – to prevent the West Asian nation from again becoming a terrorist hotbed. No departure date for U.S. troops was announced, as President Barack Obama did in 2014, to show an open-ended U.S. commitment to the civilian government in Kabul. Pressure also will be put on neighboring Pakistan to get the nominal U.S. ally to stop its double game – having its leaders voice support for Washington while its intelligence agency helps Islamic militants, including the Taliban forces who gave al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden an Afghan haven from which to scheme the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

In one sense, Trump’s decision can be seen as welcome evidence the president is capable of changing his mind and heeding his better-informed advisers – in this case his “three generals,” Defense Secretary James Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. For years, Trump argued that Afghanistan was an unwinnable war.

But contrary to Trump’s claim, the plan he has embraced reflects no new strategic thinking and hardly offers the prospect of “outright victory,” as he asserted. After the deaths of more than 2,000 U.S. service members and the expenditure of more than $800 billion since 2001, it’s impossible to buy any confident rhetoric about U.S. strategy in the longest war in American history. The U.S. and its allies had nearly 150,000 troops in Afghanistan at the peak of the surge President Obama launched in 2009 and still couldn’t vanquish the Taliban and other extremists – now a force about one-tenth the size can pull it off? The U.S. has lavished aid on Afghanistan to shore up its civil society, but in large parts of the mountainous, landlocked nation, Afghans still prefer the strictness and structure provided by the Taliban to the corrupt central government – and have for decades. Now they’re going to be won over?

The best explanation for what’s behind the Afghanistan plan comes from Ralph Peters, a former military intelligence officer: “One suspects that this new initiative springs less from rigorous analysis than from the emotional attachment felt by senior officers who’ve seen their troops bleed and can’t bear the prospect of a meaningless sacrifice, of simply walking away … rare is the general who understands the economic principle of ‘sunk costs,' that you can’t redeem a bad investment by investing even more,” he wrote in the New York Post. “When money is gone, it’s gone. The same applies to lives.”

Of course the United States has vital interests at stake in keeping Afghanistan from returning to its status as a terrorist breeding ground. But without having thousands of vulnerable boots on the ground, the Pentagon has used drones, missiles and airstrikes to successfully target terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and perhaps other nations as well. There is far more reason to believe this would work in Afghanistan than to believe that strategies that failed under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush will work under President Trump.

We very much hope Trump’s old-is-new policy will work. But history offers little reason for this hope.