Wars are expensive in terms of blood lost and treasure spent, but there are other, more subtle costs.
The long road to the trilateral U.S.-Afghanistan-Taliban memorandum of agreement was wearisome on all fronts. Wars are expensive in terms of blood lost and treasure spent, but there are other, more subtle costs. They take an emotional toll on affected populations, they degrade governance, norms, and even sovereignty, and they damage the environment and resiliency. It is impossible to place a sticker price on the cost of any war. But one truism seems clear enough: the longer wars last, the more expensive they are. Sustaining war requires prolonged funding for equipment (to include acquisition and maintenance), forces, and logistics. More importantly, sustaining a war effort over time demands a strategy that identifies a path to achieve a desired outcome and the political leaders who ensure unwavering commitment from all levels of government. Without a strategy and political commitment, additional resources only have a marginal effect on a war’s outcome.
In the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban had a painfully realistic goal: protract the war to diminish the likelihood of U.S. strategic success—that is increase the price and duration of the war with the hope of a war-weary U.S. giving up on its objectives. This strategy is, of course, not new. It has long been the strategy of the weak against a materially stronger opponent. Although the U.S. defeated the Imperial Japanese version of this strategy, the experience in Vietnam is more instructive for Afghanistan as the U.S. miscalculated both internally and externally, leading to poor strategy and conduct of the war.
The war in Afghanistan has dragged on for 19 years with fluctuating commitment levels and has now ended with a politically cosmetic memorandum of agreement. The agreement gave the United States cover to decouple itself and retreat from its string of mistakes. An end to hostilities may well be what all parties ultimately wanted; however, for the United States war fatigue, an overstretched military, and varying levels of domestic political consensus and disagreement meant that the road to the agreement was more difficult than it should have been. The United States likely could have achieved a more favorable outcome years before 2020—with an attendant reduction in tangible and intangible costs of this war. As the United States looks beyond the war in Afghanistan, it must learn to recognize and guard against the serious risks of war fatigue by having honest self-appraisals about the motivations for and likelihood of achieving its ultimate policy objectives.
Like individuals, nations and militaries can suffer from war fatigue. To combat war fatigue, military members train for occasions that require mental fortitude and physical strength, even when at their weakest points. Resiliency is not only rewarded but required. Military leaders actively look for ways to combat fatigue and psychological and physical burnout among troops. But this same mitigation against fatigue and an emphasis on resiliency is sometimes neglected at the national level. States, their citizens, and their militaries can also become fatigued by war. In addition to mounting casualties, war fatigue results from four factors: 1) prolonged conflict, 2) increasing cost, 3) increasing requirements for troop deployments, and 4) contradictory information from legitimate channels. Each of these factors was clearly present for the United States in both the Vietnam War and the War in Afghanistan. Comparing the American experience of war fatigue in these two wars will enable strategic leaders and decisionmakers to understand and mitigate the future dangers of war fatigue at a national level.
The United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began with President Harry Truman’s approval of financial assistance to Indochina in 1950. This escalated and culminated in the most significant American troop concentration between 1965-1973. The United States deployed troops to Afghanistan in every year from 2001 to 2020. In both cases, shifting strategic aims complicated war-termination efforts. These changes reflected weakened or divided indigenous leadership in both countries, and the long duration of the wars weakened the American political will to remain in both countries. This waning will result in the slow decline of American resources available to achieve strategic aims, which in turn further undermined the will to continue. Although there is no strict timetable for identifying how long is too long to be at war, in both cases, the wars dragged on longer than the public could tolerate. Eventually, American goalposts for defining “victory” shifted, and it did its best to discontinue these wars, realizing it could not continue them indefinitely.
Relentless and increasing costs
Wars are immense undertakings that normally carry a huge cost for the states that wage them, and in a prolonged, politically-divisive conflict, the power of the purse – often Congress’s only real leverage given the powers of the executive branch – is an important factor in understanding how war fatigue might occur. During the Vietnam War, the president and his advisors repeatedly asked for more money and resources, but they realized few tangible strategic gains in return. For example, the United States committed financial resources to the advisory mission in Vietnam as early as 1951, and by 1964 Robert McNamara authorized an additional $60 million in support of the Vietnam War. Fully declassified in 2011, the Pentagon Papers revealed the support was used for modernizing Vietnamese military vehicles, its aircraft fleet, and other critical programs.
The U.S. displayed some of the same patterns in Afghanistan that it had in Vietnam: ever-increasing budget requests for uncertain strategic (or even operational) gains and force increases. The U.S. spent an immense amount of money in a conflict that spanned the White House administrations of President George W. Bush (2000-2008), President Barack Obama (2008-2016), and President Donald Trump (2016-present). To put this spending in perspective, before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the DoD was spending roughly $1 billion in the region. At its peak in 2012, the DoD the war effort required nearly $100 billion in military expenditures, most of it part of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which falls outside of normal budgetary constraints and processes. During the Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars, the U.S. also engaged in a large buildup of forces, further expanding the size of its commitments in both regions by expanding the financial commitment for military pay and benefits, including veterans’ healthcare.
What does the U.S. get for ever-increasing funding? A never-ending conflict? This is a hard circle to square.
Resourcing prolonged wars contributes to war fatigue because it strains the country’s economy, asks Americans to prioritize efforts abroad over social programs at home, and highlights disconnects between increased funding and the attainment of strategic objectives. What does the U.S. get for ever-increasing funding? A never-ending conflict? This is a hard circle to square.
Increasing Requirements for Troop Deployments
Most wars require boots-on-the-ground as well as forces in the air and sea to augment them and a logistics tail to sustain them all. In a prolonged war, the number of troops deployed to a theater is a good indicator of the U.S.’ commitment to its goals. Continued troop deployments contribute to war fatigue when the public and other stakeholders perceive a lack of progress in exchange for their utilization. The idea seems to be that just a few more troops will get the job done, but rarely is this the case in a prolonged conflict.
In early 1965, President Lyndon Johnson approved a memorandum that described a three-phased plan setting the ground force authorization levels for Vietnam. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and others had successfully convinced Johnson to increase the number of U.S. ground combat forces in Vietnam to secure an independent, non-communist state. Without these troops, McNamara argued, the U.S. would have to settle for a compromised outcome and a diminished reputation on the world stage. Phases II and III of that memorandum’s plan required an additional 75,000 troops, on top of the 100,000-strong footprint already in Vietnam. By 1966, there were over 300,000 Americans deployed there, with a peak of over 500,000 in 1968. The troop levels began to decline subsequently, indicative of deteriorating U.S. will and a concomitant diminution of strategic aims.
The American war effort in Afghanistan also saw significant increases of U.S. troops on the ground over time, including “surges” at key strategic moments. In 2001, the U.S. presence was small and specialized, only 1,300 troops, but eventually reached 2,500 by the time the Taliban fell from power. Between 2003-2006, American attention turned to Iraq, giving the Taliban an opportunity to regroup. Then, between 2006 to 2008, President Bush injected 10,000 troops meant to “show the citizens of Afghanistan that the U.S. government and its partners [would] stand with them in the battle against the Taliban and extremists.” Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama, argued Bush’s 31,000 U.S. troops were insufficient to defeat the Taliban. Between 2009 and 2011, Obama sent roughly 70,000 more troops to the region. Still, more troops yielded neither strategic success, nor a war termination agreement.
Contradictory Information from Legitimate Channels
Financial costs and troop deployments are good barometers of war fatigue to measure whether the U.S. is operationally overextended, but conflicting communication and information flows are the fourth indicator of war fatigue. Dishonest or incomplete communications, and an unclear end state goal from the government makes it difficult for both civilians and service members to trust the information they are getting.
In 1964, the same year President Johnson authorized a U.S. troop increase in Vietnam, he publicly noted: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves …. We don’t want to get . . . tied down to a land war in Asia.” Similar miscommunications persisted in Afghanistan. Between 2010 and 2011, under the Obama Administration, the overall U.S. military presence peaked there, with troop levels topping 100,000. Yet, in a 2009 speech at the U.S. Military Academy, sounding eerily similar to Johnson, President Obama declared, “The days of providing a blank check are over …. It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interests in fighting endless wars.”
Fast forward to 2017, just prior to President Trump’s troop increase in Afghanistan. General John Nicholson, then commander of U.S. forces there, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the current security situation in Afghanistan [is] a stalemate.” It is hard not to question America’s true assessment of the war when two legitimate senior public officials, President Obama and General Nicholson, are publicly at odds on U.S.-Afghan strategy. Inconsistent communications contribute to war fatigue when U.S. presidents and senior military leaders promise success, such as the eradication of radical Islamic terrorism, but reap lackluster results.
War fatigue’s outsized impact
The U.S. suffered war fatigue in Vietnam and again in Afghanistan. In both wars, those in power inadvertently increased the five factors of war weariness. Contrary to traditions of previous wars, where those who held national public posts were on the same side as the governed, Vietnam and Afghanistan were different stories. In 2019, the Pew Research Center published a survey that analyzed the U.S. public and military’s dissatisfaction about the U.S.-Afghanistan conflict as its end drew near. Nearly 60% of roughly 300 million U.S. citizens said the war was not worth it. In 1995, McNamara’s statement on U.S. involvement in the Vietnam was, “We of the Kennedy and Johnson administration… acted according to what we thought were the principles and the traditions of this nation. We made our decisions in the light of those values. Yet we were wrong, I believe we were terribly wrong.” Prior to engaging in a war, public opinion should be considered. The U.S. displayed multiple signs of war fatigue, but politicians and senior military leaders were seduced by the prospect of winning a war so much that it forgot about the limitations of U.S. military power.
When signs of war fatigue present themselves, it is time to abandon operations. It is not an invitation or sign to increase commitment levels. The war fatigue indication model is only avoidable if policy makers are realistically aware of domestic and international politics. Spotting war fatigue early will help the United States mitigate costs in lives and money in the long term.
Chandler A. Myers is a 1st Lieutenant and a Maintenance Operations Officer in the U.S. Air Force. He is a 2017 Air Force Academy graduate (BS in English), and a Norwich 2019 graduate (MA International Relations with a focus in Cyber Diplomacy). He is currently deployed to Kuwait in support of a C-17 unit. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: (L) Unknown infantry soldiers in Vietnam (R) Spc. James D. Fetherson takes a knee and pulls security with fellow platoon members during a pause in their patrol in Andar Province, Afghanistan. The Soldiers are from Company B, 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team