Small Wars Journal

What Have We Learned From 20 Years In Afghanistan?

Mon, 10/18/2021 - 6:47pm


What Have We Learned 
From 20 Years In Afghanistan

A ‘Think-Piece’


Mike Shaler


“No Valor Citation ever began: ‘As things went according to plan….’ “

Attributed to Mike Nelson (Tweet), August 25, 2021


The War In Afghanistan had a beginning --- In Central Command Headquarters, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa,  Florida --- Army General Tommy Franks was the Commander of United States Central Command --- In his book ‘American Soldier’, he wrote:


“October 7, 2001.  It was 0900 on Sunday, October 7, 2001,

less than one month since 9/11.  The war would begin

in three and a half hours.” [Footnote 1]


And today, President Biden, in a speech delivered from the White House,

announced the end:


                        “Last night in Kabul, the United States ended 20 years

of war in Afghanistan – the longest war in American history….

As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided

our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes….

My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over.” [Footnote 2]


The United States Army has long regarded itself as a LEARNING ORGANIZATION,

so, as the President noted, we should ask ourselves: “What have we learned --- both positive and negative --- from our 20 years involvement in the Afghanistan War?”


In an article in Joint Forces Quarterly, Dr. Anthony J. DiBella, a Faculty Member at the Naval War College, offered a definition of the Learning Organization:


                        “As the definitions of the learning organization grew, several

clear themes emerged.  Among them was the distinction and

interdependence of individual level learning and

organizational learning, and that one could not exist without the other.

Another theme was that learning is linked to adaptation,

whether to external events or knowledge gained internally through experience.

One point of commonality was the necessity for organizations to learn.” [Footnote 3]


This ‘Think-Piece’ is offered as a beginning effort to build upon the Army’s solid history of learning from our experiences --- including the introduction of

After-Action Reviews in our training system, and the establishment of the Center for Army Lessons Learned.


OBJECTIVE.  Assemble the Army and Marine Corps General Officers who have served as the Senior Commander on the ground in Afghanistan.  In a private setting, have them discuss and analyze the challenges facing them during their tour and discuss with their fellow commanders what they enacted in response to the challenges --- and what they learned in the process of implementation --- and what, if anything, they wish they would have done differently.


OUTCOMES. Using the ‘Astarita Report’ which was directed in 1974 by then-Chief of Staff, Army General Creighton Abrams as an excellent model of concise writing, compose a written document summarizing the learning from our involvement in Afghanistan and proposing recommendations for the future of our military forces. [Footnote 4]



Sponsor.  Seek a well-regarded, nonpartisan organization in the National Capital Region (NCR) to fund the conference and writing of the report.

LocationPrivate setting, self-contained with dining facilities, closed to the public, with overnight accommodations.  Located within the NCR to ease the travel requirement.

Moderators and Reporters.  Enlist the assistance of proven professionals such as Lieutenant General (Retired) Jim Dubik, Major General (Retired) Bill Hix, and Major General (Retired) John Ferrari to act as moderators for the discussions with the former commanders.  For reporters, it may be helpful to have some serving officers, who have a career in the Army ahead of them to serve as ‘Keepers of the Concept’ (to respond to a possible query from Senior Leaders who might ask, in the future: “What do we know about our 20 year involvement in Afghanistan?”). My suggestion here would focus on those serving officers who have demonstrated abilities in research and writing, such as Colonel Todd Schmidt and Lieutenant Colonel Nate Finney – both of whom were selected by the Army to pursue their PhD and have a healthy reputation as great writers.

[NOTE: I have not contacted any of these officers, but offer them as ‘exemplars’ in selecting those who would be excellent choices to assist in this process.]

Rules for the Conference and the Report.  The Chatham House Rule should apply throughout: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”


POSSIBLE TOPIC AREAS FOR DISCUSSION.  These are initial suggestions for Topic Areas to be discussed by the participants.  Prior to the conference, the principals attending the gathering should be queried for their input on topics.




















This ‘Think-Piece’ is designed to start a process for furthering the cause of enhancing the US Army’s Learning.  There will be a number of actions over the coming years to understand better what has happened in the past 20 years, but I think it is critically important for the Army to start now to LEARN from our involvement in Afghanistan.  As a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, I lived through the years following our departure and saw our Army switch our focus from a Counterinsurgency environment in Vietnam to a preparation for the defense of Western Europe.  The development of new doctrine, equipment, training, and leader development programs was central to our readiness in Western Europe – and resulted in the successes we all saw in Desert Storm.

Gathering the General Officers who provided the command in Afghanistan is the first step we should take – and take it soon in order to take advantage of their combined wisdom in facing the future.


  1. ‘American Soldier’, General Tommy Franks, 2004, HarperCollins.
  2. Remarks by President Biden, August 31, 2021, Transcript from White House.Gov.
  3. ‘Can the Army Become A Learning Organization?’, Dr. Anthony J. DiBella, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 56, 2010.
  4. ‘The Astarita Report: A Military Strategy For The Multipolar World’, 30 April 1981, US Army War College

About the Author(s)

Mike Shaler is the President of the Steamboat Leadership Institute, a leadership consulting organization he established in Steamboat Springs, Colorado in October 1992.  He has been at the forefront in the design and implementation of leader development programs for leaders and managers at all levels in organizations.  He has been involved in the design & development of executive development programs for the world's largest financial services organization, and served for 6 years on their executive development faculty.  He additionally serves as an executive coach for senior executives in corporate, governmental, and non-profit organizations; has facilitated several groups of senior executives in strategic planning sessions and corporate-level solutions efforts; and has developed and implemented a series of 360 Degree assessment programs. Mike directed the US Army’s Strategic Leadership Development Program for eight years, and was a Strategic Advisor to the Army Chief of Staff for eight years.

The Steamboat Leadership Institute originated a comprehensive program for enhancing leader performance through the delivery of focused and structured feedback to leaders while they performed their assigned jobs, resulting in rapid growth and development of leadership skills.  Mike has also pioneered in the development of focused programs to help organizations develop their skills as learning organizations.  Through the use of After-Action Reviews, Mike has guided organizations through the process of reaping the benefits of individual learning combined with the power of organizational learning.  These efforts also include a ‘train the trainer’ component which helps individual leaders develop their skills in conducting After-Action Reviews.

Prior to establishing the Steamboat Leadership Institute in 1992, Mike served for 30 years in the US Army where he was a leader at every level from Second Lieutenant through Colonel.  When not in direct leadership positions, he was engaged in leadership research, teaching leadership, and in the design of leader development programs.  These assignments included teaching leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York; leading the Army’s personnel, leadership, and training research laboratory where he was in charge of the Army’s people research program and was the leader of 240 PhD research scientists around the globe; and an assignment as Senior Army Research Fellow, conducting in-depth research of innovative training and development programs for senior defense executives.

Mike earned his MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and his BA in Psychology from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He is a graduate of the National Defense University and the Army War College, and served as a member member of the Army Science Board for 8 years.  He and his wife, Sheila have lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado for 29 years and have 4 adult children. 

Michael D. Shaler

Post Office Box 775490

Steamboat Springs, Colorado 80477

Telephone: (970) 879-0536   E-mail: