All Commentary
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Afghanistan and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

When you're fighting a losing battle, it's best to cut your losses, not double down.

For a few blissful moments on Monday afternoon, there was peace in this country. No matter your race, religion, or creed the solar eclipse managed to unite a nation that has become increasingly divided over the last few years.

There are literally dozens of reasons to oppose the continuation and escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

But as short-lived as the eclipse was, so was the feeling of human camaraderie. Only hours after the excitement had ended, Trump announced that he would be reigniting the war in Afghanistan.

In spite of his many faults, Steve Bannon was relatively solid on military foreign policy (trade is another matter). But in less than a week after Bannon was relieved of his White House post, Trump is already keen on beating the drums of war. Within minutes of Trump’s speech, Breitbart News Network, with Bannon once again at the helm, blasted the president’s decision.

One of the many articles on the topic criticizes Trump by saying, “President Trump unveiled his plan for Afghanistan after seven months of deliberation Monday evening, announcing tweaks around the edges of the current strategy instead of a different approach.” Another went on to say that Trump’s Afghanistan strategy  “specifically echoed his predecessor’s 2009 speech, after acknowledging that the war had gone on too long.”

All potential bitterness aside, Bannon isn’t wrong about Trump’s strategy. Not only is it a continuation of the administrations that preceded his, it is also the epitome of the sunk cost fallacy.

The sunk cost fallacy screams out from the text of Trump’s speech on Afghanistan.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

There are innumerable reasons to oppose any continuation or escalation of the American occupation of Afghanistan. But disregarding the most important deterrent, the loss of human life, and even more specifically, innocent civilian life, there is one economic principle that screams out from the text of Trump’s speech on Afghanistan: The sunk cost fallacy.

If I were to spend an exorbitant amount of money on a dress only to decide later on that I despise it for one reason or another, it would be a fallacy for me to believe that I must continue wearing the dress in order to take full advantage of the value I already spent on it. Sure, I spent too much up front, but why would I then cause myself further anguish just because of the initial mistake of purchasing the dress? I would be doubling my losses.

If the dress example is lost on you, imagine instead a Las Vegas buffet. To justify spending the high cost of entering a buffet in Vegas, you deduce that you must therefore stuff your face until it becomes physically impossible to ingest anything else into your body. Sure, you may have technically gotten your money’s worth, but now you are also so sick and you have lost the entire evening you had planned.

Examples of the sunk cost fallacy exist all around us. You paid for a subscription to a bad online service so now you might as well use it (no, do not compound your error). You work so hard to get this man to fall in love with you, so you might as well stick with him, even though he is super lame (no, you should dump him). You spent so much money on a concert of a band that turns out to be terrible but you therefore must stay until the end (no, you should leave). You bought this movie ticket so you should stay to the end even though you hate every minute (walk out!).

All of this is fallacy. It is this belief that we are already in too deep, so we might as well double-down and keep going. Unfortunately, this almost always leads to further loss.

Trump’s plan for Afghanistan is no different.

Increasing the Cost of War

Addressing the crowd on Monday he acknowledged America’s fatigue with constant conflict:

And we must acknowledge the reality I’m here to talk about tonight, that nearly 16 years after the Sept. 11 attacks, after the extraordinary sacrifice of blood and treasure, the American people are weary of war without victory. Nowhere is this more evident than with the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, 17 years.

Upon hearing or reading this statement one might logically assume that Trump would follow these words with a promise to de-escalate the conflict. But just like our friend at the Vegas buffet or the woman with the lame boyfriend, Trump doubled-down on the failed policies of his predecessors and re-committed the American people to perpetual war.

Working up the courage to unveil his “new” plan, Trump said:

My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, in other words, when you’re president of the United States.

I will let you guess what is coming next. That’s right, a recommitment to the war that has already claimed human lives both American and Afghani:

The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort and shelter to terrorists.

America’s war was never directed at the entire country of Afghanistan. The conflict’s enemy was originally the Taliban and all the radical groups that popped up in its place after America got involved and drove them underground. The people of America have no personal or direct conflict with the civilians of Afghanistan. In fact, many of the youths of Afghanistan were not even alive for the September 11. 2001 attacks. Of course, many have had to grow up without fathers because of America’s desire to drone first, and ask questions later.

Trump droned on:

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq.

President Trump seems to forget that in the absence of the United States’ occupation of the Middle East, ISIS may never have come to fruition in the first place. And while a Google search and a few hours of research would clarify this for the president, he has made the mistake of so many before him and has insisted on staying the course, the consequences be damned.

Describing his plan he says:

Our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives. The men and women who serve our nation in combat deserve a plan for victory. They deserve the tools they need and the trust they have earned to fight and to win.

We were never going to win in Iraq because there was no reason for us to even be there.

Suddenly, the rhetoric has changed from recognizing that we have long overstayed our welcome abroad while simultaneously putting our own soldiers’ lives at risk. Now, Trump’s words convey that to leave Afghanistan is to let down the troops who are desperate to stay and win this fight.

I cannot help but be reminded of Senator John McCain’s statements during the 2008 Republican Presidential Debates. When Ron Paul was questioned about the Iraq War, he responded that we should leave as quickly as possible. In response, McCain asserted that we owe it to the troops to stay. In fact, he even claimed that upon visiting our military forces overseas, they pleaded with him to continue the war so that they may bring victory to America.

Why do we keep doubling down on policies that are costing us money and human life?

This, once again, has sunk cost fallacy written all over it.

Iraq was a disaster even before we got there — the second time. We were never going to win that war because there was literally no reason for us to be there in the first place. We now know that there were no weapons of mass destruction. And while Saddam Hussein was clearly a bad guy, it wasn’t our war to fight. But after years and literally trillions of dollars spent, the politicians who supported the war preferred to double-down on their stances, rather than admit defeat and put a stop to the madness.

The Iraq War cost the American people over $2 trillion and Afghanistan is now into the trillions as well. Yet, we keep fighting, we keep doubling down on policies that are costing us money and human life.

But this has been going on long before the War on Terror began.

Like Iraq, Vietnam was a losing battle. Without a comprehensive view of the cultural and societal traditions of Vietnam, America was ill-prepared to intervene in a civil war. Not to mention, like Iraq, there was also no substantial reason for the United States to be there in the first place.

The sunk cost fallacy has claimed many stubborn, prideful leaders who would rather be right than moral.

But no matter how badly we failed in the distant swamps and tropical mountainous landscapes of Vietnam, there was this unfortunate habit of politicians to double down when things got worse.

Cut Our Losses and End the Madness

Trump’s foreign policy blunder is not a new phenomenon, but it is a dangerous one. Throughout history, it has claimed many stubborn, prideful leaders who would rather be right than moral.

“We do not have the luxury of going back in time and making different or better decisions,” Trump said on Monday. He continued, “In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear. We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America.”

It almost sounds as if Trump has put little to no effort into studying the issue of American foreign policy. The mission he spells out is the same mission we have been engaged in for years, and it just doesn’t work.  

If we get out of Afghanistan now and don’t ever look back, America will still have to deal with the 2,386 deaths and the 20,049 wounded military personnel resulting from our presence in the country. These numbers are dismal and depressing, but they can always get worse.

Staying in this war will only double, if not triple or quadruple these numbers. There is nothing to be gained and everything to be lost. Yet, just like that ridiculously expensive dress I purchased and forced myself to continue wearing, Trump is effectively multiplying the negative repercussions of war.

  • Brittany is a writer for the Pacific Legal Foundation. She is a co-host of “The Way The World Works,” a Tuttle Twins podcast for families.