What Will We Learn From Afghanistan?

By: - September 9, 2021

As it concerns Afghanistan, we are currently in the finger-pointing stage. We love to accuse everyone else for the mistakes, demanding a scapegoat, a sacrifice for our failures. Politicians see an advantage in accusing the other side, looking to lay blame so that they can get more votes next year. The experts are busy deflecting blame so that their images are not tarnished and they still have a chance at a senior job in some future administration. The military will remain silent because this is a greater shock to them than anyone else. They will wait a while before launching into lessons learned. The media? Well, some will jump into the political fray and side with one party or another. The rest will find whatever catches our attention and replay it, they are a business after all.

None of that will help. We have had a significant failure in our national security policy. I use the word failure for a purpose. I don’t believe we were defeated, but we did fail overall. How big a failure only time will tell. This is not the first such failure we have had, nor the worst. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—it is getting to be a trend, however. We have a problem and we need to figure out what we are doing wrong. To do that we need to stand away from the last few weeks, the mess of the withdrawal, the ongoing angst over Afghanistan and look at the full 20 years of the war.

I fear that Washington will do what it always does and form a series of studies and hearings. They will be driven by politics, making them next to useless at finding answers. The purpose will be either to defend or attack various administrations and political opponents. No one will actually want to get to the truth. Other fact-finding groups will be formed by long-time national security experts, many of whom were involved in either the decision-making or providing advice to the decision-makers. You might get some useful answers from them, but I doubt they will be totally unbiased, at least when it comes to their performance.

What we need is an unbiased commission to study our failure in Afghanistan and Iraq. It should not include anyone involved in the war. Those involved should provide testimony, opinions, and facts, but they should not sit on the commission. That would bias the outcomes. There should be no politicians or anyone serving in government. Politicians would politicize the commission findings, and if you want the truth, the last people you go to for that are politicians. Current or former senior government officials are problematic because Washington is a very incestuous community. All these people know each other and it is in their interests not to be too critical of current or former colleagues.

Think tanks are always a source of experts for these types of commissions. The problem is that think tanks are beholden to the same people they would be investigating. There are right-wing think tanks, left-wing think tanks, think tanks that depend on the Defense Department not only for access so they can do their studies, but funding as well. We are not likely to get a completely honest account.

We should include academics with no or minimal government affiliation, as well as some former military for expertise. We should also include foreign nationals in the commission, after all, the majority of individuals involved in the conflict were not Americans. Part of our problem has been that we do not understand foreign cultures and view everything through our own, unique nationalist viewpoint. To have a really complete review, we need to have non-Americans look at the issues from the outside. We can’t let a review of our failures be biased by our own limited scope.

We also need to ensure accountability, though we need to be careful how we handle this accountability. The initial reaction will be to blame a few individuals, the high-profile officials. The Republicans will want to blame President Biden and any general officers that don’t tow the Republican party line on Afghanistan, demanding their resignations. Democrats will lay blame on Republican presidents, but I have not seen them go after the military. This will accomplish nothing. This has been a failure building over 20 years and previous administrations are equally accountable.

We need to go deep into this issue. While commander in chief and the final authority, presidents do not command the troops, do not design the campaigns. They base their decisions on the advice of others, experts. Therefore, we needed to look at the advice given by the military, by national security experts. They need to be held accountable. We need to look at ground commanders and the role they played in strategy and tactics. Some of these people have been around for decades and while doing some excellent work have also been responsible for some of our greatest failures. We see them come in and out of government, officially or unofficially, viewed by many as wise and knowledgeable. Some are. Some are adroit bureaucrats who can use the system to their own advantage. Too many are egotistical and cannot admit when they are on the wrong course.

We need to look at Congress and their involvement in Afghanistan or lack thereof. By design, Congress is the preeminent branch of government. They hold ultimate power through making the laws and controlling the money. Yet, they have abrogated their responsibilities and become a rubber stamp for our various overseas interventions. They could have taken action years ago to push for answers, push for a resolution to the conflict, but they didn’t care. As long as Afghanistan did not involve votes, both the potential loss or gain of votes, Congress did not care. They have failed the American people and should also be held accountable.

We need to conduct a deep and serious review of how we manage insurgencies and nation-building. Up until now, we have generally sucked at it. The strategies we employ do not lead to success. We need to understand why and how to change that equation.

How do we hold people accountable? Most post-action reviews turn out fairly benign. Some mistakes will be acknowledged, a few recommendations made, but no serious consequences, and the results left to gather dust. To hold individuals accountable, we need to name names. Normally the results of such investigations refer to various offices and bureaucratic entities. This time we must name names. We need to identify the individuals, at all levels, who were involved in developing the strategies and tactics that failed us in Afghanistan. We need to assign names to the mistakes and miscalculations that were made, and make those names public. This should include senior officials and mid-level as well. It should include those holding government positions and those who were informal advisors. The identities of the individuals who failed us time and time again need to be made clear. This is not for public shaming, but instead, it is to ensure that they are never seen as trustworthy advisors and senior officials ever again. Remember, this is not just about Afghanistan. We have had a series of national security failures and the same people involved in those failures keep coming back into government service. That must end.

Some will see that as harsh. It has never been done before. It gives the impression that we are scapegoating individuals, we are ruining careers. Tell that to the thousands of Americans and Afghans who died because of their mistakes.

This article was first published on Debrief: A Rundown of Today’s National Security, which can be found on the OpsLens app.