Victory And Interest Group Narratives

Far too little attention is paid to the political economy of war, and such attention that is paid tends to be too narrowly focused on the financial interests of defense contractors. Robert Farley’s point that the United States has a significant “victory” in Afghanistan lobby whose interests in “victory” are detached from any concrete considerations of the national interest is a more important and nuanced point:

The United States military may be the most important player in the negotiations, and elements of the military are absolutely dedicated to a narrative of victory in Afghanistan. While the actual impact of the Surge in Iraq will be debated for years, the increase in the size and tempo of military operations in early 2007 along with the major reductions in violence that followed gave the U.S. military a narrative of victory in that conflict. Whatever the shortcomings of U.S. operations in the first stages of the Iraq War, by its end, the Army — and to some extent the Marine Corps — could explain to itself and others that it had learned to fight counterinsurgency in the proper way, and that it had effectively defeated enemy forces in Iraq. The availability of such a narrative may have been crucial to the Army’s willingness to acquiesce in the substantial U.S. drawdowns of the past few years. Applied to Afghanistan, this logic makes the overriding institutional interest of the U.S. military — again, particularly the Army and Marine Corps — relatively simple: Avoid defeat.

There is also a network of elite commentators and analysts who are either similarly invested or else who have close personal and professional ties with members of the officers’ corps. And it’s of course a good thing that the American military has a strong organizational sense that achieving victory in wars is important. That’s one of the reasons why the U.S. military is a very high-performing public sector bureaucracy. We don’t have “incentive pay” for military officers, and indeed don’t really pay generals and admirals anything resembling a competitive market wage, but the organizational culture is very strong.

But this is not always the best way to assess the national interest. If the US government says to itself “victory at all costs,” then this creates different incentives for Hamid Karzai and others than if we say “victory at a reasonable price!” Indeed, victory itself is arguably made less likely if pulling the plug isn’t regarded as a credible option. It’s very difficult to push for political and economic reforms or altered diplomatic strategies if our allies think they have a blank check from the mightiest fighting force in the world.