It’s increasingly clear that the only thing that will redeem the Afghan war effort is cooperation: from local village elites, from local soldiers and police, and from across the border in Pakistan. The war effort centers around the goal of building sustainable institutions that will remain in place after foreign troops depart and prevent Afghanistan from reverting to its pre-2001 condition. Scholars of international relations often use game theory to model situation like this in which the outcome depends on the choices that various actors make independently of one another, depending on the options available, the relative desirability of each option, and their beliefs as to what choices the other actors are likely to make.
The Obama Administration’s view of the war is something like the game Stag Hunt. The game represents a situation in which two people go hunting. Each individual can choose to either hunt stag or hunt hares. Hunting stag yields four times the payoff of hunting hares, but can only be done successfully if both players hunt the stag together. Any attempt to hunt stag alone will yield no payoff at all. A successful hare hunt only yields one quarter of what a successful stag hunt yields, but a successful hare hunt does not require assistance from the other player.
The result is a trust game. Both players share the goal of earning as high a payoff for themselves as possible. It’s obvious that both players would benefit the most by choosing to hunt stag together for every round of the game. In fact, the only conceivable reason a player would not choose to go on a stag hunt is suspicion that the other player will not be there for her. In that case, the player would hunt hares for the security of knowing that she will at least get something for her efforts.
When U.S. officials talk about the critical importance of building trust between allies for success in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they see the situation as analogous to Stag Hunt. But there’s a problem if the other players don’t see it that way. What looks like a clearly superior payoff to America—a stag—might not look that way to most of the other players in Afghanistan or Pakistan. In fact, the goals of the other players—Pakistani ISI operatives, Afghan police, village elders—often seem to be at odds with America’s own security and humanitarian goals for the war. The Obama Administration seems eager to avoid hunting hares through a unilateral counterterrorism strategy, but crucial partners in the war often show little interest in helping us hunt our stags. True cooperation games require that the players have at least a similar view of the playing field: the available choices and their costs and payoffs. There is no prisoners’ dilemma when only one player sees the possibility of jail time in their future.
America isn’t playing that game it often seems to think it’s playing. This goes a long way toward explaining why we’re finding it so difficult to win, or even to keep score.