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We Are Not Capable of Learning the Lessons of Afghanistan

October 19, 2021

It seems like everyone has an opinion to offer about the “lessons” that the United States needs to learn from the war Afghanistan.

“Here’s what we must learn,” asserts the former NATO Commander, James Stavridis. Anthony Cordesman, one of the war’s great chroniclers, asks readers to “examine the full range of civil lessons as well as the military lessons.” Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas worries that “we could learn the wrong lesson.” The Heritage Foundation suggests “Biden’s Afghanistan exit ignores lessons from Iraq,” while President Biden counters by asking his detractors to “consider the lessons of recent history…”

Most observers agree on some core topline lessons: poor strategic planning created an ambiguous definition of success, a failure to manage endemic corruption, and attempts to map Western institutions onto a foreign context were misguided. Yet in the rush to write the first draft of history, a bigger theme is being underemphasized. 

An inability to effectively learn is a liability for U.S. national security

These lessons are empty wishes without national security institutions capable of actually learning and evolving. Learning, like war, requires an effective strategy and organization to accomplish success. Much of the expertise and wisdom gained from twenty years in Afghanistan will come to naught if we overlook this fact. If twenty years of war have proven anything, it is that our national security institutions have a hard time learning from failure.

The stakes are high. The United States is doing a poor job adjusting to a more complex, competitive world. And an inability to effectively learn is a liability for U.S. national security.

Are we doomed to repeat the same mistakes?

Four challenges stand in the way of the United States learning from its experience in Afghanistan.

First, the debate about Afghanistan has become highly politicized. Many efforts to identify the causes of failure are not intended to promote learning, but rather to point fingers and pass the buck. Research demonstrates that organizational failures are not simply data points about poor performance. They are also political events for which credit and blame will be assigned.

Feedback loops are necessary for learning: new lessons should instigate changes to old patterns

Second, the culture of decision-making in foreign policy does not make learning a priority. Intelligent and well-read policymakers are quite capable of gleaning their own perspectives on the lessons of Afghanistan — but U.S. foreign policy will not adapt simply because our officials are wise. The assumption that organizations will adapt simply because individual employees understand what went wrong is both flawed and risky

Take, for instance, this headline from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s latest report: “U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what Afghanistan’s reconstruction should look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve.” Even when lessons exist, they are too easily ignored by a policy process that is not held accountable to past learning.

Feedback loops are necessary for learning: new lessons should instigate changes to old patterns. Yet such systematic processes are missing at the State Department, and insufficient resources for training make learning unlikely. Even the military, with its network of training centers and war colleges, does “very little to systematically train defense leaders on how to use evidence to inform longer-term decisions.”

Third, the failure in Afghanistan reveals structural deficiencies rather than individual shortcomings. The systemic weaknesses of our national security apparatus led one prominent scholar of U.S. national security institutions to term them “flawed by design,” and the late Richard Holbrooke called the U.S. foreign affairs bureaucracy “the machine that fails.”

Each new administration tailors the foreign policy process to its preference, especially the National Security Council, but changes tend to be marginal. Reform of the policymaking process is unlikely in the absence of a presidential administration or congress willing to expend political capital to make it happen. Four decades have passed since the last update of the Foreign Service Act.

Fourth, a lack of accountability in foreign policymaking dims the prospects for investments in lessons learned programs. Political leaders are loathe to admit setbacks or failures, making the pivot to a winning strategy unlikely. The United States spent $83 billion trying to build a stable Afghan security force, and a steady flow of officials dutifully reported “important progress” over the years — despite evidence that such an effort was always likely to fail.

The professional civil service was designed to create a class of experts capable of speaking truth to power, but that system has been undermined by a deep layer of political appointees, especially at the State Department. Political appointees typically serve relatively brief stints in government, incentivizing quick wins over sustainable strategies. And research shows that political appointees reward party loyalty over competence.

Accountability for career professionals is also daunting. Observers describe a “culture of timidity and self-censorship” in the bureaucracy dating back to the McCarthy era. Promotion incentives for professional bureaucrats reward “kissing up“ to one’s manager more than standing up for what one believes is right. Presidents of both parties regularly become frustrated by careerists at the State Department, the Department of Defense, and in the intelligence community

Yet there is still hope for efforts to draw lessons from Afghanistan. Reformers have an opportunity refocus their attention to improving the processes and institutions of US foreign policy.

Learning how to learn

Organizational learning is defined as “the process through which organizations change or modify their mental models, rules, processes or knowledge, maintaining or improving their performance.” Experts recommend shifting the burden of learning “from intuition to institution.” Effective organizations know the deceptively simple truism: process is policy. The outcome of any particular policy is often less important than designing an organizational process that can improve over time.

There is no perfect recipe for organizational learning, but political leaders who want to avoid repeating the failures of Afghanistan should consider implementing the following recommendations.

First, efforts to foster and maintain a culture of learning must come from the very top. Creating a learning culture is not a task that can be handed off to a lower-level official.

Second, an evaluation body should be created to conduct careful and in-depth studies to produce high quality lessons from past experience. Effective evaluation requires specialized skills, adequate resources, and unfettered access.

The Department of State has done well to recently open the Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy to “incorporate lessons learned into tradecraft and leadership training.” Unfortunately, the office was sequestered to an office far from Foggy Bottom with few resources or authority. The Secretary of State must elevate this office to a prominent position in the bureaucracy. Better yet, the National Security Advisor should convene the war colleges, the Foreign Service Institute, and other training centers to create an interagency lessons learned office endowed with real authority.

Blaming individuals for organizational failure is a surefire way to kill a culture of learning; blame should be assigned to processes, not people.

Third, policymakers at all levels must be given adequate time and incentives to produce and incorporate new lessons. Officers throughout the bureaucracy can be encouraged to prioritize learning if promotion standards are updated to incentivize new lessons learned requirements. Adequate staffing is necessary for such an undertaking: learning processes, by design, requires key officials to step away from their day-to-day responsibilities. The military, for instance, maintains a 15% surplus of personnel to accommodate rotations to training and continuing education.

Fourth, proficient learning organizations need knowledge management systems to acquire, organize, and communicate priority knowledge throughout an organization. Most such systems used today are badly out-of-date and dependent on voluntary crowdsourcing.

Lastly, Congress and the White House can restore accountability in the policy process by creating new expectations for foreign affairs bureaucracies to engage with lessons learned. Blaming individuals for organizational failure is a surefire way to kill a culture of learning; blame should be assigned to processes, not people.

In sum, the institutions of U.S. foreign policy should commit to basing all new policies on evidence of what works and what doesn’t. My organization, for instance, has prototyped a new policy memo that demands policymakers weigh evidence for and against their recommendations. Congress and the White House have taken steps to implement evidence-based policy processes across government, but foreign policy lags far behind other policy areas like public health

There is no turning back the clock on the United States’ two decades of war in Afghanistan. But compounding any perceived failure of the war will be an inability to learn from the experience. It is now time for political leaders to invest in building a national security apparatus capable of meeting the next generation of international challenges.

Dan Spokojny is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley and the founder of fp21. He previously served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including in the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as a foreign policy legislative assistant in Congress.