Around here, we talk about stuff that ranges from leading your family, to leading in the corporate world, to leading in your community and even leading in the world. Because to me, there’s no difference between leaders without a title and leaders with a title. We all have big work to do. And I don’t feel comfortable outsourcing a lot of the leadership issues out there today to the folks who are currently holding the mantle.
Frankly, I have not been impressed with what I’ve seen in formal leadership these days and I cite Afghanistan as an example. We have been through two administrations—both two-term presidents—who had a crack at the war in Afghanistan and we are beyond where we started.
As we go into the sixteenth year of this fight against Islamic violent extremists, I think it would be nice if we could get some things in front of this new administration that would allow them to listen to some of the men and women who are Washington D.C. and military outsiders.
My role in this movement is the lessons I wrote in my book Game Changers. It took about four years to research and write this book and at least 5,500 interviews spanning from the halls of Congress to dusty villages of Afghanistan and what seems like every point in between.
We learned a lot in this war, specifically in Afghanistan, and my observation has been that we have shelved virtually everything that has to do with Afghanistan. When we pulled out of there, it was as if the military institution and all of the instruments of power of the United States said, This was a bad idea. We shouldn’t have done it. Shelve everything. We just put everything in the proverbial attic of good intentions and forgot about everything we learned, both good and bad.
Leading into a different future
I’m passionate about our freedom and the kind of country we hand off to our children. But I have to tell you, I get tired of having circular conversations with a lot of our political leadership and even senior military leaders and diplomats who either don’t get it or choose to ignore it. And I’m not sure which is more egregious.
It’s been 16 years, three times longer than World War II, and we’re still having conversations that make very little sense. We’re talking about how we’re going to destroy ISIS in the next year or two. Does anybody who knows anything about this enemy believe that? That you’re going to destroy a grand narrative that manifests and resonates with so many people around the Muslim world and is built around the establishment of the caliphate and the perceived end of days and the return of the prophet? Does anyone believe that you’re going to knock that out with some Predators and SEAL raids? It’s beyond intellectually unsound—it’s unsafe.
And now my son, who was three years old when the war started, is 18 and going through Army ROTC. He’s going to have the exact same strategy and the same ill-defined policy that I had unless something changes. We owe our blood and treasure more than that.
Most of the things that are kicking our butt right now are self-inflicted. We still don’t look at the realities of war in a holistic way. We’re not adapting to it.
So as the Trump administration is circling the wagons, maybe we can take some of these lessons learned from the Afghan campaign and take a hard look at ourselves. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I believe if we can, then we can possibly get in front of this thing. I’d love for the Trump administration to step into it differently—to look at it with a different lens, and at least consider some of the possibilities.
A Square Tank in a Round Jirga
The Western law of stability is greatly flawed, and that’s what the chapter A Square Tank in a Round Jirga from my book Game Changers is about.
I believe that we started off right in this war after the Twin Towers fell, particularly in Afghanistan, by putting in a small number of Special Forces advisors and other Special Ops units and by linking up with the Northern Alliance and other Pashtun tribes.
I believe mobilizing from the bottom up to push Al-Qaida and the Taliban out of the country in less than 90 days was the right move. Unconventional warfare was a very powerful approach. It secured momentum for us, and I interviewed dozens and dozens of local Afghans from politicians down to villagers who agreed with that approach and were then expecting the new coalition government to come in and work with the Afghan people at a local level to stand up on their own. And in many ways, to reestablish some version of their traditional society in addition to this new government. That’s what they were waiting for, and that never came.
Instead, what came was a massive coalition force compiled of mostly U.S. as well as NATO forces flooding into the area, all well-intended and eager to get into the game. And they descended on that country in a way that was indescribable and we very quickly went from celebrated liberators to dreaded occupiers.
Afghanistan has a long history of occupation. We allowed ourselves to inject a Western way of war once we had already secured momentum and already set up conditions for a long-term, bottom-up approach that, frankly, would have required much less blood and treasure. And as we did that it opened the doors for the recently displaced Al-Qaida and Taliban to simply jump over to Pakistan and quietly make their way into the villages that we continued to ignore for a decade. Meanwhile, we projected this top-down approach onto the Afghan people from a central government that was reviled by most of the locals.
This conventional approach that we like to call population-centric counter-insurgency was a very top-heavy, top-down approach. And it continued for many years.
Learn to lead by looking to the past
If we can’t step back and analyze the emotional aspects of what we did and where we made mistakes along the way, not only are we never going to get out of this thing, but we are also opening ourselves up to a cataclysmic attack here at home. Because the longer we go into these places and apply top-down Western strategies, the more we mobilize local tribes and clans to pursue honor-based revenge against us here at home. That’s how it goes. And if we can’t wake up and see those local realities, eventually there’s going to be a reckoning.
ISIS is pushing for a manufactured holy war. They need us as that pissed off enemy that they crave that will fulfill their prophecy. It was our emotion that drew us into our response in Afghanistan. In many ways it blinded us—it blinded me. We can’t let that happen with this enemy, ISIS, because they’re even smarter. In many ways they know how we will respond and we have to be mindful of that.
In the next few posts, I’m going to break down what a bottom-up approach looks like and we’re going to look at how we did security, economic security and governance.
If you stay with me, you’ll have more understanding and knowledge of the realities of Afghanistan than most people around you. Then we’ll start taking a look at ourselves and our own biases and how we can start to get out of our own way.