Doubling Down in Afghanistan

Why We Refuse to Fold a Losing Hand

As Congress moves toward rubber-stamping yet another
"emergency" supplemental bill that includes more
than $33 billion
for military operations, mainly to fund the latest
surge in Afghanistan, maybe we should take a page from the new British
government. Facing debilitating deficits, the conservative Tories and
their Liberal Democrat partners are proposing painful cuts to
governmental budgets, including military operations in Afghanistan. As
the Independent put it, quoting
a senior military source, "Essentially, the Americans know we are broke
and we are getting blokes killed for no good reason. Whatever the
[British Ministry of Defence] says, it absolutely isn't business as
usual." In other words, an overstretched government, low on chips and
recognizing a losing hand in Afghanistan, is finally moving to cut its
losses, perhaps even to walk away from the table.

The question is: Why can't we join them? We're losing even more
chips (adding up to a staggering $299
billion
for the war in Afghanistan, and counting) and "blokes" (more
than 1,000 U.S. troops killed, with their average age dropping).
Isn't it time to know when to walk away, as Kenny Rogers sang in The
Gambler
, before we have to cut and run?

Instead of recognizing a losing hand and folding, however, Washington
continues to double down, whether our gambler-in-chief is named George
W. Bush or Barack H. Obama. And so we're putting on our game face
again, as we shove tens of billions more into the Afghan pot, along with
roughly 100,000 of our troops supported by an even greater
number
of private military contractors, hoping that, against the
odds, we'll draw to an inside straight even as our opponents hold
flushes.

And, in case you're not a poker player, a flush beats a straight
every time.

Of Poker and War

If my poker metaphor sounds frivolous for a deadly nine-year-old war,
consider it a bow to the great Prussian war theorist, Carl von
Clausewitz. He classically described war with all its uncertainties as
resembling, above all, a game of cards.

To extend the metaphor in Afghanistan, we're engaged in a high-stakes
poker match at our opponent's table, and his card sharks are remarkably
adept at dealing from the bottom of the deck. Of course, we're alert
enough to know that the game is fixed, but strangely, that only makes us
more determined. We are, in fact, insistent that ultimately we'll make
his table ours; in the meantime, we'll bribe or browbeat his
bottom-dealers for better cards, bluff or shoot our way out of losing
hands. Or so we gun-slinging Americans like to imagine.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., land of risk-takers and winners, our
Washington beltway policymakers have become inured to the risks this
sort of compulsive gambling entails. They continue to throw money and
men on the table, no matter the odds in the unkindest of houses (and,
whatever else they've been, Iraq and Afghanistan certainly haven't been
kind to American agendas).

Think about it. In the next year or two, no matter how well or how
poorly we play our cards in Afghanistan, it doesn't appear that we'll
seriously consider folding and walking away.

Take, for example, our latest
do-or-die offensive
about to be launched in Kandahar, the country's second largest city,
and environs. If all goes well this summer and the U.S. military wins a
few hands in the Kandahar region, Washington's addictive mentality will
doubtless take this as evidence that the tide has turned, our luck has
changed. In short, we'll double down.

And if our offensive goes poorly? Undoubtedly, Washington will take
this as evidence that we had a chance, but didn't ante-up enough chips
or simply hit a stretch of bad luck. Then, like compulsive gamblers
everywhere, they'll insist on playing a few more hands, but this time
just a little more smartly. In short, they'll double down.

So, if they win, it's "we're on a roll"; if they lose, it's "next
hand, baby, next hand." And what about President Obama's pledge to walk
away from the Afghan poker table beginning in 2011? Fuggeddaboudit.

Knowing When to Fold'em

War, as any sane person knows, is a life-or-death gamble, usually at
long odds -- and let's face it, we've been gambling at the longest odds
for years now. It was never a smart move to invade either Afghanistan
or Iraq, and then try to plant pseudo-democracies in soil that was
unlikely to sustain them. In Afghanistan, it wasn't smart to squeeze
local card sharks and tough guys even as they squeezed us, whether by stealing
outright
or forcing us to pay protection
money
in a rigged game. It wasn't smart to woo hearts and minds
while busting heads and bodies ("aggressive interrogation") and plugging
mid-level thugs ("targeted assassinations") with missiles and slugs,
all the while knocking
off
far too many civilian noncombatants as we went.

Under the pressure of so many losing hands, our tactics in
Afghanistan have become increasingly erratic, swinging from idealistic
plans for nation-building to pragmatic "clear-and-hold"
counterinsurgency, from upbraiding
Afghan leaders to uplifting them. Like a flustered gambler, we've lost
all sense of the cards staring coldly back at us.

Now, let's return to our British partner, sweating it out at the
table. Low on chips and holding bad cards, he'd like nothing more than
to swallow his pride and get out of Dodge. He looks for a nod from us,
some recognition that walking away with our shirts still on our backs is
better than losing it all.

Yet his Washington partner stubbornly plays on, compelled to double
down yet again in spite of the odds.

Tell me: Is the fight truly worth it? Is Afghanistan really the
place for us to go "all-in," whatever the cost to our military, our
economy, even our way of life?

Only a compulsive gambler would answer yes.

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