Center for Strategic Communication

Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran has published a devastating account of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Last week, he was on PBS News Hour to speak with Ray Suarez about the amount of money the U.S. spent there:

Watch Did U.S. Dollars Fuel Corruption in Afghanistan? on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Rajiv is speaking here about the corrupting influence of U.S. money on Afghanistan. “They equated spending with effects,” he says, referring to the belief that spending lots of money would result in lots of success on the ground.

It is a classic example of Magical Thinking, or “causal reasoning that looks for correlation between acts or utterances and certain events.” It is a very human construct, to assume certain actions or words — in this case spending astonishing amounts of money in a very short time — will result in a good outcome.

The journalist Matthew Hutson wrote about this in his recent book, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking. “We all believe in magic,” he argues, “even when we say we don’t.” The reason, he explains, is that often assuming patterns and seeing connections have helped us evolve. “Survival requires recognizing patterns—night follows day, berries that color will make you ill.” This trait doesn’t always result in an accurate view of the world, but it is an understandable one with its roots deep in human heritage.

The problem with magical thinking, however, is that it can result in confusing coincidence with causality — you think your actions are related to an outcome, but they’re really not. In Afghanistan, many US officials thought spending enough money would result in a better outcome in the country. As Rajiv explains in the video above, that’s not necessarily true: “What many Afghans wanted was not a huge pallet of dollar bills dropped on them, but a sustained American commitment.”

ASP is launching a new paper soon that examines Magical Thinking and other ways the war in Afghanistan has failed to live up to expectations. We explore Magical Thinking first: what it means when the government thinks a certain policy will result in a certain outcome when it does not. We also examine related problems, like how the planning process has failed, and how the government has relied too much on the military to accomplish political goals.

The last problem that we identify is a failure to think in the long term. There are some signs that the U.S. is finally embracing long term planning, however — the recently inked Strategic Partnership Agreement is one example where policymakers are acknowledging the need for long term planning and long term commitment to the country. Afghans are noticing this as well, as ASP’s Senior Adjunct Fellow Mitchell Shivers recently reported for Forbes.

But Magical Thinking? It will take more than an SPA to overcome that. It remains to be seen how well the government will incorporate that lesson into its next adventure.