The downing of a Chinook helicopter carrying 31 Americans on Sunday graphically highlighted the continuing costs of fighting the war in Afghanistan. The presence of Navy SEALs among the dead made an emotional connection with the May killing of Osama bin Laden almost inevitable. The logic of that connection, though, has largely remained implicit: With bin Laden now dead, how long should the United States continue to accept the loss its very best in Afghanistan? Ending wars can be very difficult, even when the strategic ends of a war no longer justify the costs incurred. For the U.S. in Afghanistan, the question has become, at what point are the benefits of victory eclipsed by the costs of achieving that victory? In other words, would it make sense for the United States to "lose" the war in Afghanistan simply to put an end to the steady stream of casualties and the ongoing political and military investment in the survival of the Afghan government?
Some argue that the idea of winning by losing is a contradiction in terms. If the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai fell and the Taliban returned to power, they say, U.S. interests around the world would suffer grave reputational harm. Defeat would also increase the likelihood of additional terrorist attacks. However, the idea that the United States must "win at all costs" isn't very satisfying. Even maximalists will find some measures -- a domestic draft, for instance, or the mothballing of the aircraft carrier fleet -- too high a price to pay for victory.
Assessing the cost of victory is complicated by two factors. The first is that costs are most clear in hindsight. It is very difficult while in the middle of a conflict to project how long the current level of spending and casualties will continue into the future. This is doubly true of counterinsurgency conflicts, which most often lack clear victory points. Second, the measure of "national interest" is more complicated than it sounds, as not everyone in the United States has the same foreign policy interest. To take an obvious example, workers very often benefit from protection against international competitors, while capital benefits from mobility and the relatively free movement of goods.