A year after the heartbreaking and humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan, many Americans would like to know what lessons their leaders learned.
Don’t hold your breath.
‘Learning lessons’ is rarely straightforward, especially when applied to complex foreign policy and strategy. The process inevitably falls victim to the same preference-driven bickering and parochial demagoguery that caused disagreement in the first place.
It is a rare thing when previously opposing factions slide gracefully and collectively into the intellectual utopia of 20/20 hindsight. Instead, the interpretations of the past - and thus the lessons learned -- will be riddled with strong doses of confirmation bias and tribalistic blame games, playing out in the snake pits of social media where complex social and political dynamics are turned black and white by memes and TikTok videos.
One year ago, after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it seemed that every side of the argument was right all along. The national security hawks, like myself, said we knew this would happen if we instantly created a power vacuum.
Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg on Afghanistan one year later: Biden ‘walked away’ from this 'debacle'Video
The isolationists, keen to prove that any and all foreign intervention is essentially immoral, were quick to use Afghanistan as an example of why we should never have wasted our time in the first place, or disingenously claim, "We had to leave, but not this way!" (How, exactly, do we do it then, huh? If our goal was zero troops left, then this collapse was always going to be the outcome).
Democrats, desperate to spin the horrors more favorably for their party leader, mostly just reenacted the public relations version of a pee wee soccer game and chased the ball around until they found it, raised it up, and screamed "Trump’s fault!"
Here’s the thing. Not everyone can be right. But figuring out who is more right and less wrong is more an art than a science.
For lessons to be agreed upon after the fact, there has to be some agreement on what the desired outcome was to begin with.
One of the reasons there will never be ‘lessons learned’ for Afghanistan is because different factions had different outcomes in mind. The national security hawks wanted to prevent the return of a strong and capable Al Qaeda and Islamic State, or a Taliban who would harbor them. We wanted a strategic forward presence and capable partners on whom we could rely. But the isolationists (or populists, or liberals, or "no more endless wars" sloganeers, whatever you want to call them), never gravitated towards any of that. This group places moral value on keeping our military locked up behind tempered glass ready to "break in case of emergency." And the Democrats? I can’t figure out what they really wanted and neither can they.
Maybe one thing all sides agreed on was this: Someone screwed up, and his name rhymes with Joe Biden. He refused to listen to the advice of his Secretary of Defense or his generals. He wanted "zero" troops and that meant leaving a defensible Bagram Air Base deserted. He wanted to ‘make good’ on a vapid campaign slogan to "end the endless wars" and nothing was going to get in his way -- not common sense, not reality on the ground, no national security considerations beyond his presidency. But Biden didn’t arrive at this point in a vacuum. His decision was the product of a long series of bipartisan narratives and slogans soaked in half-truths and emotional appeals.
Arriving at some form of consensus over what lessons we might learn from the Afghanistan disaster won’t be easy, but we should try.
The first lesson is leadership. I’ve seen plenty of social media famous know-it-alls castigate broadly "the generals" or the "military industrial complex" as a convenient scapegoat for the prolonged conflict.
Some blame lies there, to be sure, but in the end, the answer was far simpler than that: politicians. For 20 years, politicians failed to articulate what our mission was. You see, we faced two simple choices in 2001: take revenge or prevent another attack.
We chose to do both (a perfectly rational decision, whether you agree or not), but only articulated the revenge part to the American people and then wondered why they grew impatient after years of military occupation. To say the complicated reality could have been explained better is an understatement.
The second lesson is how to control our emotions. The decision to rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years of hard-fought gains was a purely emotional one, a product of strategic misunderstanding (see lesson one) that led to fatigue and frustration. Had we used our heads, we may have done a quick cost/benefit analysis and discovered that after 20 years we were finally in a decent balance, wherein our goal of prevention was being accomplished at relatively little cost in terms of lives (no combat deaths in well over a year before the withdrawal) and resources.
And that leads to the third lesson: seek balance. There isn’t a perfect model for foreign interventions, declaring war, or determining when America’s interests are truly threatened or not. But the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan gave us some hints, where we convulsed between surges and withdrawals and nation building and MOABs (Mother of All Bombs). And what did we discover?
Our limits, for sure, especially with nation building. But we also discovered our ability to fortify and equip allies and project national security. By year 20 in Afghanistan, a small commitment was maintaining the stability we needed, not to mention a major air base strategically located near Pakistan, Iran, and China.
If we continue to prove that we don’t have the stomach for the world’s chaos and unpredictability, and react by throwing our hands up and turning inward, then we ought to prepare ourselves for a far more dangerous world – one run by war lords with nuclear weapons.
Slogans shouldn’t dictate policy. As much as loud mouthed demagogues wanted to make this a simple contest between peace-loving Americans and war-mongering elites, it never was. The world is complex and dangerous and there is no perfect way for America to navigate it, both because perfection is subjective and because the world is…messy.
We ran away from Afghanistan because it was messy and inconvenient, and politicians thought the American people were too simple to hear tough truths. The Afghan people paid the price, as did thousands of American Gold Star families who now wonder what their sacrifice ever meant. The least we owe them is some lessons learned.