“We walk the highwire
Sending the men up to the front line
Hoping they don’t catch the hell fire
With hot guns and cold, cold lies.” — Mick Jagger
I scarcely have spent any time opining on Afghanistan. I certainly feel awful for the soldiers that have lost their lives in a quagmire that we all should have known was coming. What’s always peculiar is that we decry the ones most recently lost. Those are somehow more tragic. I suppose when you can see the finish line it is that much more bitter to come up short.
There is a clip from George W. Bush that has been making the rounds. It came from 2002 where he was describing past efforts in Afghanistan. He mentioned initial success followed by ultimate failure. It was hard to tell whether he was simply be ironic or if he had powers of clairvoyance.
This is a basic pattern of history that also goes along with a law of human behavior. For lack of a better term, I call it the law of sunken costs. I could be a jackass and simply say I made it up, but unlike certain ex-presidents, I’m almost certain someone before me has stumbled onto this concept. I’m certainly not taking credit for it either way.
Imagine you’ve bought a car. It’s a vintage car, but it hasn’t run in years. You think to yourself that with a little hard work and a little investment you could get the car running again. So, you pour hundreds of dollars into parts, but nothing seems to be working. Hundreds turn into thousands, but there’s no change in the prognosis.
We all know eventually we will run out of money. We all know eventually we will run out of time. We all know eventually we will run out of patience. We know all of these things and yet we continue to throw good money after bad. We do this because we are all thinking the same thing. We are thinking that we’ve invested far too much to give up now.
We do this in relationships. We do this with our time. We might do this at work with an employee that just doesn’t seem to get the job done. The psychological mechanisms at work are portable across the spectrum. It’s happened before in Vietnam and Korea. It’s happened before in Afghanistan itself with the Russians. In fact, we are a product of it here in the United States. The English fell prey to the same sunken cost syndrome.
This is a historical law. Occupying countries eventually leave. It is only a question of when and under what circumstances. I’m sure the Bush administration knew this day would come. They simply hoped for the best and hoped you wouldn’t remember that it was them that got us into this mess in the first place.
The current situation has millions of Americans blaming Joe Biden. There have been mistakes and hiccups to be sure, but I’m not sure how this thing was supposed to go. If Trump were still president it would be the same deal. Sure, we could say he shouldn’t have freed the prisoners. Sure, we can say Biden should expedite the red tape and get out more refugees. We can say a lot of things. This was always how this thing was going to go down.
Afghanistan is devolving into a world where religious extremists (that represent a minority of the people) have a stranglehold on the country at large. I have no idea what that’s like. That statement couldn’t possibly describe any other situation right under our nose. Let’s ignore that and just keep whistling past the graveyard.
We can continue to finger point at different administrations over the past 20 years. All of them deserve blame in this moment. All of them perpetuated this mess. All of them contributed to the sunken cost. No one is happy when more Americans lose their lives. There’s more than enough blame to go around.