Doubling Down on War Tends Not to Make Things All Better

News outlets are publishing pieces about the aftermath of the Afghanistan war as US forces prepare to withdraw. We should take them as a lesson to treat war rhetoric with skepticism.

In the LA Times, David Zucchino reports that the US military is dismantling and selling for scrap as many as 2,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles (MRAPs). This will save up to $500 million dollars on the cost of shipping the MRAPs back to the United States where they would only collect dust.  This surplus of MRAPs comes a few years after massive pressure to mass-produce the vehicles:

“MRAPs provide far more blast protection than the “up-armored,” or armor-enhanced,— Humvees used by American troops here before the MRAP rush order, which circumvented the Pentagon’s sclerotic procurement process. The emergency order was pushed hard by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates because of soaring U.S. casualty rates among troops in Humvees, who were being decimated by roadside bombs.“

During the acquisition debate, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps James Amos said,

“Fielding this capability will save Marine lives and any delay in the acquisition process will result in avoidable and inexcusable injury or death of Marines and other forces.”

Viewed from ear-deep in our once-avoidable mess, this was a sensible acquisition. It’s indisputable that many (American, combatant) lives were saved by the MRAP’s V-shaped hull. That said, it should not come as a surprise that we are spending $24 million to dismantle these wonderweapons a mere six years after a $50 billion production rush.

Before the rush order of MRAPs, it was up-armored Humvees that were going to make everything all better for the beleaguered troops. The rhetoric put forth to justify their purchase—that it was a moral imperative to save the lives of troops—applied as well to a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ultimately, these acquisitions were not just to protect the troops but to double down on the status quo.

How did doubling down on a bad hand pay out? According to WaPo, the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) predicts that the post-2009 “surge” gains in Afghanistan are likely to be undone by 2017:

‘The report predicts that Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014 — a precondition for the delivery of billions of dollars in aid that the United States and its allies have pledged to spend in Afghanistan over the coming years.

“In the absence of a continuing presence and continuing financial support,” the intelligence assessment “suggests the situation would deteriorate very rapidly,” said one U.S. official familiar with the report.

That conclusion is widely shared among U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, said the official, who was among five people familiar with the report who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity to discuss the assessment.’

In fairness, WaPo includes some pushback from a “senior administration official.” We’ll never know the full content of his/her remarks, but WaPo published mostly ad hominem dismissal of the NIE and lazy fallacy as rebuttal. The NIE is “just a view,” the surge gave the Afghan government “more of” an edge, that sort of thing (which is not to say that NIEs should be taken as gospel).

Pushback aside, US national security will remain roughly unchanged for our efforts. It remains to be seen how well gains in Afghan quality of life will hold.

The central task for a citizen hoping to improve national decisionmaking is to remember why the surge happened in the first place:

“Some have interpreted the intelligence assessment as an implicit indictment of the 2009 troop surge, which President Obama authorized under heavy pressure from the U.S. military in a bid to strengthen Afghan institutions and weaken the insurgency.”

Defense rhetoric almost never acknowledges that war is, in a sense, a waste by definition. We should learn from our Afghanistan experience that revenge and military mystique are poor reasons to suspend our skepticism of those with a professional interest in war. Despite every intention to the contrary, war tends to destroy national resources, trigger escalationary spirals, and leave ordinary citizens at a net welfare loss. Let’s not let this happen again.

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