Judah Grunstein writes [h/t Joshua Foust, emphasis mine]:
To my mind, the problem that the debate reveals, and that no one has addressed so far, is the degree to which Afghanistan now represents policy paralysis: We cannot achieve our goals with our current approach, but we can neither afford the costs that a fully resourced approach would entail, nor accept the risks that a more limited approach would expose us to. What’s more, because of the uncertainty of outcomes in Afghanistan, you could interchange the verb clauses of that sentence in all the various permutations, and it still holds up.
This reminds me strongly of a passage from The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene (ironically, about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan):
…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.
The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.
Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.
Various sides of this debate are right in ways other than those described by Grunstein: terrible things are happening now, terrible things will happen when we leave, and there’s no “win” to be had. Policy-makers in the United States made a gamble over the last year-and-a-half in Afghanistan, and they lost. The decisions on the table are not when we leave, but if, and how best to mitigate the inevitable fallout from a string of bad decisions. But staying in Afghanistan with a heavy military footprint because we can’t admit these things to ourselves will only make the inevitable pain that much worse.