Saving the town too unimportant to lose
Long time readers with good memories may recall a column some years ago that described the Dollar Auction, a device invented by Yale economist Martin Shubik to demonstrate how bidding on sunk costs, whether in business, gambling, or war, can result in painful and often catastrophic over-investment.
The central dynamic of the process is reluctance to abandon an investment of money, lives, or reputation that should never have been made in the first place, but once made, has the effect of endowing the effort with an importance wholly disproportionate to the value of the original objective.
In the vernacular, we call that throwing good money after bad. Just such a process is at work today with respect to the Syrian town of Kobani, which has become, for no good reason, the focal U.S. effort in the fight against ISIS, and the source of serious strains with NATO ally Turkey.
Writes Center for Strategic & International Studies' Anthony Cordesman in a recent on-line post, "The U.S. air campaign has turned into an unfocused mess as the U.S. has shifted limited air strike resources to focus onÖa militarily meaningless and isolated small Syrian Kurdish enclave at Kobani at the expense of supporting Iraqi forces in Anbar and intensifying the air campaign against other Islamic State targets in Syria."
Note that less than two weeks have elapsed since Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at a press conference in Cairo, Egypt that preventing the fall of Kobani to ISIS militants was not a U.S. military priority. "It's a tragedy what is happening there," Kerry acknowledged, but insisted that preserving the town wouldn't and shouldn't "define" coalition strategy.
That strategy originally focused on Iraq, where ISIS still holds the important city of Mosul and has overrun much of Anbar Province, threatening Baghdad itself. So why have coalition air efforts increasingly focused on a nondescript and by now largely evacuated Kurdish town on the Syrian-Turkish border?
According to U.S. Central Command boss Gen. Lloyd Austin, ISIS's attack on Kobani was just too tempting a target to resist. "As long as [ISIS] pours legions of forces into that area, we'll stay focused on taking them out," he told reporters at the Pentagon last Friday. "The more we attrit him in Kobani," he insisted, "the less ability he has to reinforce efforts in other places."
Not so's you'd notice, if events in Western Iraq are any indicator. Meanwhile, every air strike flown in support of Kobani's beleaguered defenders - now far and away the majority is one not flown against ISIS in Iraq, or even against more productive targets in Syria itself. As strategic justifications go, Gem. Austin's is unconvincing to the point of embarrassment.
On top of which, in addition to shifting the weight of its air effort, the U.S. has begun airdrops of weapons and supplies into Kobani, and now proposes to redeploy Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, the most effective ground troops in the fight, from Iraq to Kobani - this, in the teeth of acute Turkish reluctance to invite still more Kurds into an area from which the Turkish government would greatly prefer to see them ejected altogether.
All of this, to defend a town that all concerned repeatedly have insisted is strategically unimportant. And so it was, until the administration decided to commit coalition military forces to its defense. That commitment, not any intrinsic military or political value, is what invests Kobani with strategic significance.
As Cordesman writes, the U.S. "underestimated the extent to which the Islamic State could exploit humanitarian issues in Syria like the Yazidis and the Kurds." Having allowed itself to be pressured by the CNN effect and domestic politics into supporting Kobani's exiguous defenders, the administration has now turned it into The Town Too Important To Lose, the military equivalent of the bank too big to fail.
As U.S. spokesmen have been careful to warn, it may be lost anyway. Despite nearly 200 airstrikes in and around the city, killing hundreds of ISIS fighters, attackers and defenders remain engaged in intense street-by-street fighting, the Kurds barely holding the western part of the city even while ISIS continues to reinforce from elsewhere.
Hence the real impulse driving U.S. escalation in Kobani is the very same one underlying the Dollar Auction: If Kobani goes under, what would have been a strategically meaningless ISIS victory until we invested in its survival will instead constitute a very public U.S. and coalition defeat. It's above all to avoid that embarrassment that U.S. commanders now find themselves stuck to the Kobani tar baby.
There's a lesson here about how easily strategic priorities can become distorted, although it's not one that we've ever been very willing to learn. When a nation like the U.S. commits military power, it starts digging a hole from which extracting becomes progressively difficult absent sufficient strategic justification to invest whatever winning might take.
From which perhaps the crucial take-away is, absent that justification, don't commit in the first place.