The Economics of US Military Interventions: Part Two – Effectiveness


This is the second in a two-part series on the economics of US military interventions. The first part provided cost and fatality numbers of past and current wars. This one focuses on the most recent interventions – Afghanistan and Iraq. It asks if these wars have contributed to achieving America’s global strategy objectives.

For this article, I have again asked Jerry Silverman to help me address these issues. Jerry has worked overseas for most of his career and has written extensively on foreign policy issues. He wrote on the Afghanistan situation in a “National Interest” piece.

The following assessments of Afghanistan and Iraq each have two parts: motivation for intervention and what is happening now. The article ends with a broader discussion of what should be done moving forward.


1. Motivation

Elliott: After 9/11, the US government believed Bin Laden was in Afghanistan. At the time, I publicly urged that we drop a small nuclear bomb in some desolate area of Afghanistan and be done with it. Why did I take that position? I wanted to avoid a ground war in that country. What happened? It took Bush 6 weeks to launch a ground war and then he lost interest.

I speculate that Obama’s interest in support of the war stemmed primarily from domestic political considerations: he was on record in opposing the Iraq War, and he (or the advisors he listened to) did not want him to appear as a peacenik. So he emphasized the importance of winning the Afghan War.

Jerry: Well, I certainly would not have subscribed to your “nuclear” solution – either then or now. However, your desired objective was spot on. There is a sense in which we won the war in Afghanistan following the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul and the installation of Hamid Karzai as Head of an Interim Authority at the Bonn Conference on December 5, 2001. As for Osama bin Laden, it is much more likely that we could have successfully found and prosecuted him — or dealt with him “extra-judiciously” — during the few months after our initial success in Afghanistan if we had accepted Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan fell within its sphere of influence. That acknowledgement would no doubt have resulted in closer cooperation by the Pakistani’s early on. And although that would not have been to India’s liking, such a posture toward Pakistan would have been a bigger problem for Iran than for us.

But that is the past. With respect to President Obama’s motivation in the present, your analysis is plausible as at least a partial explanation of his current policy. Nonetheless, it should still be kept in mind that he inherited a full-blown and complex military conflict in Afghanistan. That said, he would not be the first President to feel the need to prove his bona fides as a “liberal” civilian Commander-in-Chief, as I was reminded while re-reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest first published in 1972. It is perhaps not surprising that the narrative fits the situation we face today – all one needs to do is change the names of the principal actors or labels: Obama for Kennedy, al-Qaeda for international communism; the cold war for the war on terrorism; and Viet Nam with Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. Current Situation

Elliott: In our last interview, I suggested negotiating our way out by telling both Afghanistan and Pakistan we would leave if they gave us Bin Laden. You made a pretty convincing case that at this point, having Bin Laden in US custody would create more problems than it would solve.

So I pose the following question to you. The Defense Department is spending $9.1 billion per month in Afghanistan. So far, 1,206 Americans have died. In 2010 the death rate is 38 monthly. Is it worth continuing this war? What are the benefits? And what can be accomplished in this politically divided country with corruption out of control?

Jerry: I am neither a fan of Karzai, his Government, or corruption. Nonetheless, whether or not Karzai is corrupt misses the core issue of political legitimacy and distorts our understanding of it. Indeed, being corrupt does not automatically mean the loss of political legitimacy or negate the ability to establish it. Thus, insurgent groups from Colombia to Afghanistan are effective despite, and sometimes because, of their corrupt involvement in, for example, the drug trade. Our own experience of integrating immigrants of many different cultures through “machine politics” in our own cities during the first decades of the twentieth century suggests that exchanging benefits for political support in culturally and politically un-integrated political environments has worked as often as not. Further, Afghan history is replete with examples of short-term alliances among various tribes, clans, and more secular political factions in response to the unifying presence of foreign troops.

Thus, the more relevant question must be — is Karzai’s Government in Kabul viewed as sufficiently legitimate by a sufficient number of Afghan citizens to cause them to obey its laws, rulings, or other edicts and, if necessary, lay down their lives to defend it? If not, is there any reasonable prospect that Karzai or anyone else in Kabul could achieve such legitimacy while being supported by the direct intervention of American or other foreign military forces? Or are we trapped by the conundrum that our military intervention in and of itself is an important catalyst for unifying a wide-range of Afghan factions against the Karzai or any other possible government in Kabul? If so, the withdrawal of our military forces would be a necessary pre-condition for any future possibility of a stable US-friendly government there. That might not be as far-fetched as it might seem, as illustrated by the dramatic shift in the relationship between the US and Viet Nam between 1975 and today. The withdrawal of our military forces from Afghanistan would almost certainly presage the end of the Karzai Government and increased violence at least during the short-term. But the retention of the Karzai Government surely cannot be the objective of our military intervention there nor does the fall of Karzai presage a Taliban victory. To the contrary, our withdrawal and the fall of Karzai’s Kabul Government would almost certainly increase the intensity of Afghani’s multi-directional competition for power. Nonetheless, our own entry into what is at root intra-Afghani violence has not resulted in reducing such violence either — nor is there any reasonable promise that it might do so.


1. Motivation

Elliott: It is pretty clear we did not go into Iraq for the stated reasons – to spread democracy in the Middle East or because Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to the US. I believe I stumbled upon the real reason in doing research on a recent article on energy: Iraq’s oil reserves are huge: second only to those of Saudi Arabia.

Jerry: If oil was the reason, then the Bush Administration’s miscalculation was even more egregious than even I had thought. As it turns out, the primary beneficiaries of Iraq’s increasingly restored oil capacity now appears to be the Chinese state-owned oil companies that are frequently displacing the American and British there. But whatever that case might be, I don’t think there was a single reason for going to war in Iraq. The 9/11 attack was the catalyst for a perfect storm. It fueled explosions of American patriotic machismo and intellectual hubris rooted in growing frustration with the ongoing air war in the skies over Iraq and an increasing number of attacks on American military and diplomatic targets in the Middle East and Africa since the end of the first Gulf War in February 1991. But that is neither here nor there now. The more important issue is that we were this last week celebrating a supposed “victory” in Iraq defined by the removal of main-force combat units – an action that would not have occurred if we had not inserted those troops into Iraq in the first place. And that, in turn, is once again evidence that we had no clear understanding of America’s core and priority secondary national interests in the first place.

Even now, although asserting that “the Department of Defense balances resources and risk among four priority objectives,” those “priorities” are much too broad to provide useful guidance with respect to strategic security threats or prioritization of secondary interests. If you don’t believe me, read their formulation of the four priority objectives yourself: “prevail in today’s wars, prevent and deter conflict, prepare to defeat adversaries and succeed in a wide range of contingencies, and preserve and enhance the All-Volunteer Force.”

2. Current Situation

Elliott: So far, 4,402 Americans have died. In 2010, monthlies are:

  • death rate 22;
  • military expenditures $4.5 billion.

The US is in the process of an orderly withdrawal. When I was in Argentina last November, I regularly listened to once-a-week show on Al-Jazeera where the heads of the various Iraqi power groups were interviewed. In essence, they all said we will wait for the US to leave and then we will resolve things in our own way. At the insistence of the US, Iraq held an inconclusive election in March. And despite US pressure since then, a new government has yet to be formed. By removing Saddam, we destabilized the Middle East where historically, Iraq and Iran focused hostilities on one another. As the Iraq leaders said last November, shortly after the US exits Iraq, the power groups will resolve issues in their own way. The Shiites are the majority in Iraq, so it will come under the influence of Iran, and US access to its oil reserves will end. So what good is served by keeping US troops in Iraq? I don’t see it – retreating in an orderly fashion is the best option.

Jerry: What to say. I only wish that I could agree with the American soldier of the 42nd Stryker Brigade who, upon crossing the border from Iraq to Kuwait just this last Wednesday shouted “We’re out of Iraq. The War is Over. We Won.” Unfortunately, that conclusion is premature for many reasons, not least of which is that we still do not have an unambiguous formulation of our objectives in Iraq, how such objectives might fit into a broader American strategic framework, or even whether or not achieving any such objectives might be possible. Indeed, the most likely outcome for the indefinite future is that Iraq will continue to be governed by a weak authoritarian regime in Baghdad. And whether or not that regime turns out to be relatively benign or actively anti-American — or antagonistic to or allied with Iran — is anyone’s guess. But even in the most benign case, Iran’s position would be better than it was in March 2003 when we actually invaded Iraq (as you point out below).

What Should Be Done?

Elliott: Jerry, to this point, our focus has been on what should be done in Afghanistan and Iraq. In this final section, I would like you to consider these two wars in the context of our broader national security interests.

Jerry: You are correct in thinking we should look beyond Afghanistan and Iraq – both of which are symptoms of our Government’s broader strategic assumptions and objectives. From that broader perspective, it is useful to differentiate between threats that would deprive the United States of its independence as a sovereign-state and threats to achievement of desired, but secondary, interests. Thus, although threats to vital security interests require a state to — at least figuratively — “fight to the death,” threats to secondary interests are discretionary. That does not mean that secondary interests should not be defended – they too enhance America’s global political or economic position. But, determining that the defense of any specific secondary interest is achievable is not enough – calculating the relative cost-benefit of doing so is also necessary. Further, it is also essential to determine the credibility of the potential enemy. It is not enough for Osama bin Laden or others of his ilk to declare his intention to re-establish some mythical Caliphate from Spain to Indonesia unless they have a reasonable possibility of doing so. Thus, strategic threats must be thought of in terms of longer-term outcomes – not shorter-term tactical wins or losses.

But that sort of nuanced approach is not reflected in the Department of Defense’ most recent Quadrennial Defense Review (February 2010), which explicitly characterizes the United States as:

“a global power…deeply intertwined with the fate of the broader international system”…[that] therefore [must] be prepared to support broad national goals of promoting stability in key regions, providing assistance to nations in need, and promoting the common good.”

That view of the role and obligations of the United States, if taken at face value, portends a never-ending escalation in the number of military interventions. That, in turn, raises the question of whether or not Afghanistan and Iraq should be viewed in the conventional way as two distinct wars or, rather, as merely different battles within a single unconventional war of global scope against….. – well against whom exactly? The Review once again provides a clue:

“we must recognize that first and foremost, the United States is a nation at war. In Afghanistan, our forces fight alongside allies and partners in renewed efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In Iraq, U.S. military personnel advise, train, and support Iraqi forces as part of a responsible transition and drawdown. Above all, the United States and its allies and partners remain engaged in a broader war—a multifaceted political, military and moral struggle—against Al Qaeda and its allies around the world.”

Elliott: Al Qaeda is mentioned twice in the above statement. It is not clear to me how ground wars in the Middle East are an effective way to deal with this threat.

Jerry: You are missing the broader point. Getting out of Iraq and/or Afghanistan will not end the “militarization” of our Government’s capacity to pursue, capture, and punish terrorists, provide foreign aid nor, more broadly, respond to national emergencies ranging from hurricane damage relief and reconstruction to damage caused by oil spills. Nor is it likely to curtail the increasing tendency to base our military forces in substantially hostile overseas environments rather than in the more friendly political climes provided by Germany, Italy, Japan, or South Korea.

It is instructive to note that the 2005 Report of the Commission on Review of the Overseas Military Facility Structure of the United States sets forth the clear intention to expand America’s network of Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs), Forward Operating Sites (FOSs), Naval Support Facilities (NAVSUPPFAC), relatively small unconventional warfare bases, and other more conventional military facilities like airbases in locations closer to the world’s “arc of crises.” But basing our forces in ever more politically sensitive arenas is almost certainly viewed as provocative by both neighboring countries and locals who oppose those regimes that have agreed to accept American military contingents on their soil. Even the suggestion that the United States intends to substantially increase its presence in an area generates opposition that might not have arisen otherwise – as demonstrated by the failure to reach agreement with any Sub-Saharan Africa government (other than the mini-state of Djibouti) to locate the headquarters of a proposed American Regional Military Command within one or another of their borders. But that failure has been the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, it has recently been reported that America’s post 9/11 basing expansion into Bahrain, Djibouti, Kenya, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan has been followed by recent anti-terrorist military and other clandestine attacks on targets in Somalia and Yemen.

An expanding number of interventions will almost certainly result in the generation of yet other new enemies and the increased probability that we will continue to be sucked-into other peoples’ conflicts. That is especially the case since, the rhetoric of international cooperation within the Quadrennial Review notwithstanding, our actions represent a dangerous unwillingness to accept the historical fact that our recent military superiority in a supposedly uni-polar inter-state system is the exception rather than the norm. Instead, the dominant view within the Department of Defense appears to be that, as “the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale operations over extended distances,” the United States must serve as “responsible stewards of the power and influence that history, determination, and circumstance have provided.” That core view is premised on the assumption that American dominance throughout the world is a good, necessary, and sustainable thing. But is that the correct view – or is it a distortion of our national priorities and an unnecessary drain on our human, material, and financial resources?

Beyond fundamental conceptual errors and the emotional desire for continued American military dominance, the all-encompassing and undifferentiated character of current military assumptions reflect plain old-fashioned intellectual laziness. Losing the ability to differentiate among policy objectives and the means employed to achieve them ignores Karl von Clausewitz’s (1780 – 1831) still valid aphorism that “Policy (politics) is the continuation of War by other means” as reinforced by another principle that “no one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war and how he intends to conduct it.” Adhering to those principles require that objective(s) be clearly established, prioritized, understood in relative terms, and articulated.

A look at the post-WWII history of United States military interventions strongly suggests that successive American governments have not established fundamental criteria for differentiating between vital core and priority secondary interests since the need for “Cold War Containment” policies began to decline during the 1980s. Although United States military forces were directly involved in combat during sixteen of the forty-two years from 1950 through 1991, they have been almost continuously engaged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Relying on the continual deployment of our military forces in that way is clearly not sustainable for much longer. A more economical approach to defending our vital core and priority interests must be found.

Elliott: Jerry, thanks for your thoughts.

I end with quotes from another person I respect – Robert Borosage

The country finds itself constantly at war. New presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors. They are faced not with deciding to go to war, but whether to accept defeat in one already in progress….And slowly, the great power declines from the inside out. The wars are costly, running up national debts. Vital investments are put off. Schools decline. Sewers leak. For a long time, circuses distract from the spreading ruin….Other societies become productive centers, capturing the new industries. Some begin providing better education for their citizens, better support for their citizens. Their taxes, not drained by the cost of wars past and present, can be devoted to what we used to call “domestic improvements.” This is a very rich country, despite the years of conservative misrule. But even wealthy countries must choose. We can afford to police the world – to sustain 800 bases across the globe, to station troops in Korea, in Japan, in Bosnia, in Europe, fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sustain fleets to police the seas….

South Waziristan, Yemen, Somalia, Kosovo, the Taiwan straits, the North Korean border, the seven seas – we can do this. But the result is that we are continually at war. And the wars cost – in money, in lives, in attention. And inevitably, domestic priorities, as well as emerging security threats that have no military answers, get ignored. A rich country, Adam Smith wrote, has a lot of ruin in it. We seem intent on testing the limits of that proposition.

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