What Have We Learned
From 20 Years In Afghanistan
“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.
Location. Private 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.
CHAIN OF COMMAND/UNITY OF COMMAND/UNITY OF EFFORT –
CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING –
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT --
STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES –
TRAINING OBJECTIVES FOR INDIGENOUS FORCES –
CONTRACTOR RELATIONSHIPS –
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.
- ‘American Soldier’, General Tommy Franks, 2004, HarperCollins.
- Remarks by President Biden, August 31, 2021, Transcript from White House.Gov.
- ‘Can the Army Become A Learning Organization?’, Dr. Anthony J. DiBella, Joint Forces Quarterly, Issue 56, 2010.
- ‘The Astarita Report: A Military Strategy For The Multipolar World’, 30 April 1981, US Army War College
About the Author(s)