Foreign Policy Blogs


In chess, zugzwang is when a player has no good moves.  Anything he does will weaken his position.  However, since it is his turn, he must move.  Therefore, he is forced to weaken his position.

This is America’s current situation in Afghanistan.  Should the U.S. continue fighting a long and costly war or withdraw?

Last month Stephen Walt wondered whether withdrawal in such a situation is actually ever bad.  He asked:

Are there good historical examples where a great power withdrew because a foreign military intervention wasn’t going well, and where hindsight shows that the decision to withdraw was a terrible blunder? If there are plenty of examples where states fought too long and got out too late, are there clear-cut cases where states got out too early?

For a case to qualify, you’d have to show that early withdrawal led to all sorts of negative consequences that might otherwise have been avoided. Hawks normally argue that getting out will embolden one’s adversaries, undermine one’s credibility, or jeopardize one’s geopolitical position, but how often does any of these anticipated misfortunes really happen? Or you could argue that the withdrawing state was very close to winning but didn’t know it, and that “staying the course” would have worked if they had just held on a little longer.

His commenters offered many answers, two being the U.S. involvements in Lebanon and Somalia.  One commenter wrote:

Our willingness to withdraw in these two cases convinced a great many in the Muslim world, including OBL, that the U.S. could be defeated in a conflict because we don’t have the fortitude to take casualties. And THAT has had very significant strategic consequences.

Pretty convincing.  However, if one wanted, one could still argue that continuing to fight would not have been a bad move because victory was actually possible.  So the debate can and did easily devolve into one over the feasibility of counterfactuals.  Even now, optimists argue that continuing to fight in Afghanistan is not such a bad move, for victory is possible (see Victor Davis Hanson, for one).  Hanson frames the stakes in similar terms as the Walt commenter:

We have no choice but victory. A failure in Afghanistan will reenergize radical Islam, as did the Soviet defeat, with implications that will affect everything from the current quiet in Iraq and the nuclearization of Iran to the behavior of Turkey, and the chances of more terrorist attacks within the United States. Failed invasions are more grievous even than lost battles. Those who think we can just leave Afghanistan and call it quits are sorely mistaken.

On the possibility of success, I find the analysis of the Rolling Stone article that brought down McChrystal to be more convincing:

The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”

…Whatever the nature of the new plan [to take Kandahar], the delay underscores the fundamental flaws of counterinsurgency. After nine years of war, the Taliban simply remains too strongly entrenched for the U.S. military to openly attack. The very people that COIN seeks to win over – the Afghan people – do not want us there. Our supposed ally, President Karzai, used his influence to delay the offensive, and the massive influx of aid championed by McChrystal is likely only to make things worse. “Throwing money at the problem exacerbates the problem,” says Andrew Wilder, an expert at Tufts University who has studied the effect of aid in southern Afghanistan. “A tsunami of cash fuels corruption, delegitimizes the government and creates an environment where we’re picking winners and losers” – a process that fuels resentment and hostility among the civilian population. So far, counterinsurgency has succeeded only in creating a never-ending demand for the primary product supplied by the military: perpetual war. There is a reason that President Obama studiously avoids using the word “victory” when he talks about Afghanistan. Winning, it would seem, is not really possible.

The U.S. can probably withdraw or scale down in Afghanistan without fearing a resurgence of Al Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan.  But the strategic externalities of which Hanson warns should also be feared.  Thus, the U.S. finds itself locked in a zugzwang scenario.