May 12, 2014

Sunk cost fallacy watch

Globe and Mail today:

Graeme Smith and Louise Arbour offer their "won't somebody think of the Afghans" cri de coeur in advance of the ICG's report on Afghan security forces, not yet available online. (I hate it when opinion writers do that, by the way... if you can't link to the report you're touting yet so people can judge the quality of your arguments in full, you shouldn't be appearing in an opinion section.)

The entire piece can be summed up with one quote:

"Perhaps the best way, though, for Canada and other donors to respect the sacrifices of their soldiers would be to help the Afghan government survive after their departure...

"But the fledgling Afghan state does not have the ability to pay for its own security forces, and countries such as Canada have an obligation to continue funding the unfinished war."

I have no idea on what basis that obligation would rest, other than the principle of good money after bad.

The writers talk about the district of Ghorak, deep in the mountains northwest of Kandahar, and how local security forces are suffering there, now that Western military helicopters no longer drop them supplies.

What Arbour and Smith don't mention is that Ghorak is a completely non-strategic district with a tiny population (about 8,000, less than 1 per cent of the province's population), locked in by mountains and a multi-day journey from anything or anywhere. Canadians never went there in numbers... in 2008 and 2009 we occasionally got pleas from the completely indefensible local police station, for more ammunition, to replace what they'd expended "against" the insurgents. It was generally assumed the police were handing over the ammunition and weapons to the insurgents to permit their continued presence in that location. The Taliban could have wiped them out at any time, as they regularly did to isolated police stations that didn't play ball so well. And the number of defiles and IED locations on what could only laughably called the "road" to Ghorak is so very many that ground transport of any kind was and is simply out of the question. The Afghan army never went there. The aid programs never went there. And the handful of police in that location served no larger law-enforcement or counterinsurgency purpose other than to keep the Afghan flag on the flagpole so the Karzai government could say the district was still "government controlled" in the statistics.

There are lots of little mountain outposts in Afghanistan like Ghorak. Keeping them resupplied and doing anything other than symbolic flag flying would be like trying to maintain an active RCMP presence in the north of Canada in the face of an active Inuit insurgency armed with SAM missiles. You need helicopters and planes, and lots of them. And it would never ever be worth the cost, in money or lives. For Arbour and Smith to use it as their example of what the Afghan government no longer controls due to its losing Canadian military support is deeply misleading. It was never theirs to lose, in any real sense. You could have the full Canadian 2,500 person contingent back there right now and it would make no real difference to the security situation or significance of Ghorak, at all.

Arbour and Smith also tip their hand in describing what the requirement actually is:

"Donors must go beyond the annual commitment of $3.6-billion (U.S.) made at the Chicago 2012 summit and provide funding for maintenance of an ANSF personnel roster approximately equal to its current size, until stability improves in Afghanistan... The Afghan government also needs international assistance with logistics, air support, intelligence and other technical aspects of security operations sometimes known as 'enablers.' There is, for example, a pressing need for more helicopters and armoured vehicles."

These are three different things. The first is the West paying for the Afghan army at its current unsustainable size, paying far more than the currently promised amount, which is already a couple times the Afghan government's entire revenue base. The second is Western boots on the ground sufficient to manage medical, logistics, fire and air support, intelligence, no doubt training, special forces, etc., etc. The third is not an example of either of the other two, but a continued supply of more military hardware, with all the options for graft and diversion that has permitted for over a decade. Armoured vehicles and aircraft are not an "enabler", unless Western personnel are driving or piloting them. So their prescription is to continue to pay and arm the Afghan military, and continue to provide their logistical, air support and intelligence support (which would involve a substantial continued Western military presence) and continue to purchase and hand over military weapons and vehicles on request: check. So basically: everything we were doing before. (Let's be honest: by enablers, though, what they really mean is the continued air support provided by US drones and manned aircraft flying out of Kandahar and Bagram airfields, which is the only thing that really ever gave the national Afghan forces a fighting chance.) And remember, even that wasn't enough to ever do anything positive for a place like Ghorak.

It's been 12 years. There is no believable end state offered in their proposal. And providing the Afghans all those things demonstrably made no difference whatsoever in their key example of what's failing now. Honestly, if a deteriorating security situation in Ghorak is the worst example they could have come up with, I would have said the Afghans would be doing surprisingly well with what they have. I don't know that that's true, but it makes for a thoroughly unconvincing argument to be appearing in the Globe, if read by anyone with any knowledge of the Kandahar region at all.

PS: As far as the example of grass-eating in Ghorak goes, let's be clear. No one has ever delivered the Ghorak police their food by air. Every now and again you'd sneak somebody in with a load of afghanis for them to support local market purchases. It's just a few guys in a small town, who go to the market like everybody else in Ghorak. If they're running out of food now, it's either because they insurgency so controls the locals that they can't find anyone to buy from at any kind of reasonable price anymore, which has happened and will inevitably force them out of the district if that's the case, or they've spent all the money they've received in extortion to the insurgency to just stay alive, and now the insurgents want them to ask for some more. That's the Ghorak situation that more Canadian funds to the Afghan government is going to fix... somehow. It's a nice headline, sure, but this is magical thinking, at best, on the part of the opinion column writers.

Posted by BruceR at 08:50 AM