If you missed Part I of this series, make sure to start your leadership lesson there.
“Listen, I don’t care anything about the information operations you’re going to do or how many villages you’re going to build wells in. I want to know how many Taliban you’re going to kill on this mission.”
Those were the words I heard time after time from a certain special forces commander who was adamant about taking out as many Taliban as we could. We, as a Special Forces organization, were really good at hunting down targets and pulling them off the battle field. And we did this for nearly a decade.
After the initial invasion of Afghanistan, Special Forces linked up with the the Northern Alliance and Pashtun tribes and, using guerrilla warfare, routed Taliban forces and Al Qaida from the country in less than 90 days. It was a historic win—at least in the beginning.
And then we shifted focus. We started a very conventional approach with a large military, development and diplomacy footprint. It started a very top-down approach in a very bottom-up country.
What did that mean for leadership?
Our approach to stabilizing these countries was all top-down. We only applied solutions, whether it was diplomacy, development or security, to what we understood through our own lens. The lens we look through as Americans and as Westerners is quite different the lens that most people in places like Afghanistan and Iraq look through. These are generally traditional societies. They are based on honor and shame they emphasize the group, not the individual. Revenge and feud are part of everyday life there. Traditional society still governs, secures and develops most of the country. That is what folks there know and understand.
Afghanistan is called The Graveyard of Empires for a reason. There have been a range of very successful conquerers, from Genghis Khan to Alexander the Great, who have tried and failed to change this country and its realities. And if you look at the United States in its first 15 years of the war, you could make the same argument that we have failed to change this country because we have tried to change it from the top down.
It makes it so much easier for the bad guys to mobilize people against us because they can simply say, “Look, they’re trying to change your way of life. They’re representing a corrupt government and they’re coming to hurt you.”
That’s what I mean by a top-down approach in a bottom-up country.
Leading from the top down
Next, the Taliban, after the initial routing they got in the early days of the war, displaced across the border to Pakistan. Pakistan, having a vested interest in an unstable Afghanistan, gladly housed the senior leaders from the Taliban, Al Qaida and the like, waited to see what we would do.
And we did exactly what they expected. We came in with tanks and a kill list and we started working from the top down. And it made it so easy to marginalize the villages and the folks who have been marginalized for so long.
Then, under the cover of darkness, the Taliban quietly made their way back into the villages. Pointing at us they said, “Do you like this? Is this what you want for your children? Do you know they’re going to take your tribal ways away from you?”
They mounted a very successful narrative campaign that portrayed the United States and the Western allies as occupiers bent on partnering with a very corrupt Kabul government (and it was) that was coming for the way of life that was all the locals had. And by our well-intentioned, misinformed actions, we played right into that narrative.
A focus on security
Security, economic development and governance are the three legs of the stool holding up stability in a country. These are the things that a nation-state must have to provide stability for its people.
The United States and NATO forces evaluated these three “lines of effort,” and identified security as a critical effort. Once the Taliban was gone, it looked like there was virtually no security in Afghanistan. We need security, and we needed it bad.
Make sure to listen to the podcast for a special reading of this excerpt from my book Game Changers on security.
“[Security] involved a large-scale but limited campaign of conventional forces, and Special Operations Forces acting like conventional forces. We projected combat power against shadow extremists who were embedded among a society of status we did not understand, or care to understand.”
Despite the seemingly obvious lessons from Vietnam, enemy body count became trendy again. Enemy attrition was a critical measure of our success by leaders at all levels. We briefed excited visiting Congressmen and other U.S.-based senior military leaders on numbers of Taliban killed in our Command PowerPoint briefings, drone videos and Excel spreadsheets. We wanted to show that we were winning in a zero-defect leadership climate. ‘The Taliban are fractured’ was a phrase uttered by just about every senior commander returning home from deployments to brief his leadership. The phrase ‘scalps on the barn’ became common language throughout Afghanistan.”
“Scalps on the barn”—killing and capturing enemy leadership—was a mentality that was pervasive throughout the first decade of the war.
This was a very impactful aspect of the fight. It pushed the population away from the coalition into the waiting arms of the extremists. We would roll out of our outposts looking like something from a James Bond movie and it pushed locals away from us in so many different ways. Most of the interactions we had with any villages were largely to gain intel on bad guys and get more ‘scalps on the barn.’
We absolutely needed to remove dangerous insurgent leaders from the battle field.
However, on the security front, we projected a large military footprint that was just invasive in a very tribal, honor-based culture. And it gave this perception that we were occupiers.
Connecting with local tribes from the bottom up
The reality is, if we don’t work with the local tribes, you could have all the security forces in the country you want and it’s not going to work.
The security application in the first decade-plus of the war in Afghanistan was top-down, projecting this large military footprint out into the rural areas, usually threat-centric. If we did some kind of development or charity, it was often to derive intelligence. And if it was not, it was often not in sync with the realities of how development works in these local areas.
So in many ways, we actually created more problems trying to help these folks than we solved. And that is why so many people today say, “I don’t want to do nation building.” Because we wasted an inordinate amount of money trying to help folks. We might have had good intentions, but we didn’t take the time to understand the local realities of this place.
If we want the next fifteen years to be different, we can’t look through every problem through our lens. We must work in a bottom-up fashion that resonates and connects with local tribes.
In part three of this series, we’re going to get deep on the realities of economic development of Afghanistan. Where we went wrong and what we can learn from it.