Small Wars and the most missing metric

Only years after the Western involvement in the Afghan conflict began did the public discussion amongst experts pick up on the topic of metrics. Suddenly, many experts were seriously discussing how to measure the situation and its changes: How to measure success and failure? Much attention was paid to avoid Vietnam-era body counts. The body counting was largely left to journalists and NGOs, which began counting civilian bodies, especially so in the context of the unintentionally high profile drone strikes.

Neither attention nor resources were allocated to the one most important metric of all: Benefits.

How much benefit – such as public security – was being and is being created by the multinational engagement in Afghanistan? How much benefit is being generated by “small wars” in general?

It is hard to quantify (in cash terms) the costs: Material costs, personnel pay, opportunity costs of those people not working in productive jobs, retirement costs, long-term medical care for veterans, capital costs (public debt interest paid on the expenditures) minus the reflux of taxes from domestic expenditures. We could also judge the human suffering of the Western people involved, even though that's not a popular activity.
It is difficult to evaluate the costs of small wars, but it has been attempted. The concluded engagement in Iraq did apparently cost one to three trillion U.S. Dollars.

How much benefit has been generated with these expenses (and for whom)?

We need to determine for policy reasons and to explain to the public what benefit came from such an allocation of national treasure and will.

How much benefit (or utility) has been and will be generated by the Western coalition in Afghanistan? Does it at least come close to the costs? Does it at the very least come close to the costs, which are not sunk costs yet?

How can politicians decide that continuing the mission is worthwhile if they most likely do not know and likely cannot properly estimate the costs or the benefits?

All they can do is to follow their feelings. This is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs, and reflects badly on our very sophisticated societies. Our leaders send men abroad to kill, maim and destroy (amongst many other activities) and all they can possibly come up as justification are their feelings and public relations “spin”.

This is the unsatisfactory situation during a war, but what’s it like in advance to it? Let us assume we had methods to accurately determine the future costs and benefits of the Afghanistan involvement and were thus able to make a correct, rational decision about whether to continue with it or to stop. This would still be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs.

In order to justify the launch of such a mission we would need to have a really good idea about the costs and benefits in advance of the mission. Without having such a really good, reliable if not totally accurate, estimate our political leadership could still make major mistakes based on its feelings only. Our sophisticated societies should be able to do better.

Maybe a look into history can at least discern a pattern of evidently profitable “small wars” and those politicians could justify their decision with the (foolish) assumption that the next or current conflict would follow the pattern?

It is possible to find “small wars” abroad which were concluded "successfully", but it is very hard to argue that they actually had a good cost-benefit ratio for the committing country as a whole. More often only a few participants such as shareholders and CEO of the United Fruit Company, the oil business and defence contractors rightly deserve the label “war profiteers”. I would add occasionally those gambling politicians.
Citizens in the uniformed communities tend to follow a can-do attitude; to say "no" is rarely a good answer to an order. Soldiers need to deploy once assigned a mission by their civilian overlords (unless they can get pregnant in time).

Civilians, including retired soldiers and reservists, do not need to hone such a professional attitude and pattern of thought all the time.

Much thought has been focused on how to fight “small wars” better. The "defence" communities have paid very little attention whether small wars are a good idea.

Most of us have an opinion on this, but those opinions are not voiced as vocally as the feverish attempts to change or circumvent the fundamental problems of occupation missions.

The discussion about war or not war should not be left exclusively to people who can easily be smeared as 'hippies' or 'potheads'. In the event of a crisis, it's the generals and backbench defence politicians who need to advise the less specialised heads of governments and members of parliaments about the costs and benefits of warfare: Even so if this includes stating outright that no rational point can be made about a particular hypothetical mission being advantageous for one's country as a whole.



1 comment:

  1. These "small wars" are quite large if you look at the bigger picture. A decade after the Cold War, from Tunisia to Afghanistan, the world gets restructured in a number of events under strong US influence. It's an expensive endeaver and none knows if it's worth the trouble. The attack on Syria is not yet finished nor has the war on Iran yet started. Both are sure to come one way or another. All these lands share vast natural resources and important geostrategic positions for the transport of these resources, plus a population altogether of 240 millions and growing. It's world power politics. It's not conquest and colonialism, it's more akin to the creation of client states. Whether or not this investment is worthwhile will show future events. Are resources and influence secured this way? Can a position be created that makes war for a future competitor with the USA futile? It's like Cecil Rhodes wet dream of a Pax Britannica with the United States that makes future wars futile. This time it's not about a north-south axis through Africa, but an east-west axis from India to Europe (Napoleon was already on that some centuries ago).