“The Upside of Quitting”: Sunk Cost, Opportunity Cost, and the 10th Anniversary of the War in Afghanistan

Today marks ten years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. To reflect on the meaning of this tenth anniversary and the future of U.S. foreign policy, I invite you to listen to a recent Freakonomics podcast on The Upside of Quitting. You can also read a transcript of the podcast on the Freakonomics website.

Two of the crucial economic concepts that are colorfully explored are sunk costs and opportunity costs:

You know the bromide: winners never quit and quitters never win. To which Freakonomics Radio says… Are you sure? Sometimes quitting is strategic, and sometimes it’s the best thing you can do. It’s all about opportunity cost: when you’re doing one thing, you can’t be doing another. So when do you quit the one and start the other?

Society often considers quitting as failure, but Freakonomics Radio’s Stephen Dubner argues we should think more about the upsides to giving up.

In regard to the War in Afghanistan, simply because we have been there for ten years does not mean we have to continue:

The sunk-cost fallacy is when you tell yourself that you can’t quit because of all that time or money you spent. We shouldn’t fall for this fallacy, but we do it all the time. Arkes and a colleague learned something that makes falling for the sunk-cost fallacy even more embarrassing. It turns out that children don’t fall for it — or even animals.

The opportunity cost of maintaining high troop levels in foreign countries is that time and energy cannot be redirected to crucial domestic needs, as the Occupy Wall Street protests are calling us to address.

To weigh the sunk cost and opportunity cost even after a decade, consider the following evaluation, as reported in The Huffington Post:

The U.S. began the war in Afghanistan with a “frighteningly simplistic” view of the country, and even 10 years later lacks knowledge that could help bring the conflict to a successful end, a former top commander said Thursday. Retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal said in remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations that the U.S. and its NATO allies are only “a little better than” 50 percent of the way to reaching their war goals….

McChrystal, who commanded coalition forces in 2009-10 and was forced to resign in a flap over a magazine article, said the U.S. entered Afghanistan in October 2001 with too little knowledge of Afghan culture. “We didn’t know enough and we still don’t know enough,” he said. “Most of us –- me included –- had a very superficial understanding of the situation and history, and we had a frighteningly simplistic view of recent history, the last 50 years.” U.S. forces did not know the country’s languages and did not make “an effective effort” to learn them, he said.

McChrystal also said that the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq less than two years after entering Afghanistan made the Afghan effort more difficult. “I think they were made more difficult, clearly,” he said because the Iraq invasion “changed the Muslim world’s view of America’s effort. When we went after the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, there was a certain understanding that we had the ability and the right to defend ourselves and the fact that al-Qaida had been harbored by the Taliban was legitimate. I think when we made the decision to go into Iraq that was less legitimate” in the eyes of much of the Muslim world. Iraq also diverted some military resources that could have been put to good use in Afghanistan, he said.

The economic lenses of “sunk cost” and “opportunity cost” are an opportunity to see that our past decisions do not have to dominate our future. And, perhaps it is important to say again that one way of supporting our troops is to take them out of harm’s way and to bring them home to their families.There can be an upside to quitting.

Visit the Freakonomics website to listen or read this episode.

I welcome your comments about this blog or the linked podcast.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Mark

    Your article reminded me of something I heard the other day about Reagan pulling out of Lebanon. Did a search and found this on that subject:

    Lest we forget, after America’s first encounter with jihadist violence in 1983 – when 241 US military personnel were killed – Reagan, to use the disparaging lingo of the neocons, chose to “cut and run”. Every single soldier was pulled out of Lebanon within four months. “Perhaps we didn’t appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and the complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle,” Reagan later wrote in his memoir, adding: “The irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy there … If that policy had changed towards more of a neutral position … those 241 marines would be alive today.”

    These are the words not of a hawk but of a dove; of a leader who did not share the neocons’ blind faith in the use of military force to spread freedom.

    The truth is that Reagan wasn’t a Reaganite; he ended the cold war through negotiation and with far fewer military interventions than his successors have managed so far in the war on terror. His actions, rather than his occasionally bombastic words, reveal a president more interested in jaw-jaw than war-war.

    A quote from Margaret Thatcher on the plinth of his statue in London reads: “Ronald Reagan won the cold war without firing a shot.” There is an important lesson in those words for today’s hawkish, gun-toting conservatives.

  • Carl Gregg

    Thanks, Mark, great points and solid historical example.