Calculating Cost to Benefit in Afghanistan

This Thomas Rid analysis of the Afghanistan strategic debate has been making the rounds, and rightly so. It gets to the heart of why both sides of the argument are so hard to defend in a way that appeals to my Gemini nature — namely, because neither side is really wrong. Terrorism is simultaneously a global threat with local manifestations, the war against al-Qaida will simultaneously damage it while helping it attract new followers, etc.

At best, the only thing we can conclude with certainty is that both approaches come with uncertain benefits and more certain costs, which leads to his conclusion that the decision comes down to not who is right or wrong, but to an assessment of when the costs of the war outweigh the benefits. Part of that assessment will necessarily include a speculative projection into the future, and it’s along that line that I find it hardest to justify the investment now being proposed.

Rid offers a boardroom analogy for the current debate, but I think a highway analogy is more fitting: If you’re driving a car at high speed with no chance to brake, and up ahead you see a group of people on the road, with a cliff on one side and a car filled with a family in the oncoming lane, do you stay the course or swerve? And if you swerve, which way?

There are no certain choices in Afghanistan, which means there are no easy choices either.