Afghanistain lesson not learned

There will be much finger pointing and recriminations following the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. There will be Congressional hearings and white papers from think tanks, and none will address the root cause of this and other problems that face the government and the people. The culture within the decision-making process sucks.  

Much of what I am going to say can be summed up by a saying attributed to Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the House in the mid 1950s to early ‘60s. When speaking to young congressmen who told him of their ambitions his reply was, “to get along you have to go along.” This is the basic philosophy that drives career government and military leaders as they advance, don’t rock the boat.

This is not to say that there are not those who do indeed rock the boat, but they are few and do not last long. Those in the Intelligence Community are known as Cassandras, from the Greek woman in mythology who was given the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed.  While there should be a place for different analysis, and in fact has doctrinal support, it is seldom if ever used. Those who go the route of “Red Team,” or Devils Advocate,” rarely survive, it’s a career ender.   

While this mentality is less evident in the military it begins to rear its ugly head as people advance. To that end those that reach the higher command levels tend to be more politician than warrior. This was not always the case. There is an old story about a Soviet officer saying that the difficulty in planning against the Americans is that they rarely read their regulations or feel an obligation to follow it. Today strict adherence to doctrine is the road to success. George Patton would likely not have made it past captain.

I am not sure this problem will be, or can be, address. Those who write reports for the decision makers have their own form and language. If they are certain of the results, their superior wants they can structure the report to fit the desire. If not, which is more often the case, they can structure the report to be interpreted as needed. An absurd example would be a report that should read, “it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, we conclude it is a duck” would conclude more like “… we conclude with a high degree of probability that it is some form of waterfowl.”

Many have touted the results of a recent final report to congress from the Afghanistan Study Group that had listed several courses of action and the resulting consequences. Today most zero in on courses of action from the chapter of Alternative Pathways. The recommended pathway was to maximize existing US leverage to achieve an acceptable negotiated peace agreement. The most risky pathway was called a Washing of Hands and warned of the results, which we have now seen. The conclusion of the report stated that

“With the launch of peace negotiations, the conflict in Afghanistan has entered a new phase. This new phase requires a new understanding. Afghans must take primary responsibility for their own future. The United States must orient its efforts and resources toward shaping the conditions around the peace process—resetting and reframing it in ways recommended in this report—in order to give it the best chance to succeed. It should be reiterated, however, that our troop presence is a key point of leverage. U.S. troops play a vital role in ensuring the continuity of state structures, and thus their presence is essential to brokering a lasting peace. Success, it should be acknowledged, is not guaranteed. But there is a clear path forward. There is now a real possibility of the conflict winding down and Afghanistan becoming a country that needs far less help from the United States. If this happens, the United States can bring its troops home and both countries can move forward as sovereign nations with friendly relations based on shared values and sacrifices.”

 The answers were given to the decision makers, not from the IC or DoD but a select group empowered by Congress. This groups membership consisted of retired politicians and retired military as well as former diplomats and academics. In other words, this group consisted of people who could speak their minds without fear of professional recriminations, and they got it right.  This also shows that the information was out there for anyone willing to see it and think.

This failure of allowing the unpopular analysis to get through to the decision makers needs to be corrected and the culture of fear over being out of step with the mainstream needs to end. This needs to be a major lesson leaned or this problem will just continue.

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