Campus & Community

Key Lessons from the War in Afghanistan from Former Ambassador Dougherty

On October 6, Former Ambassador Tom Dougherty, Warburg Chair of International Relations, presented, “9/11 + 20: Afghanistan After the ‘Forever War.’” The 2021 Warburg Conversation focused on the War in Afghanistan from both a historical and current context.

According to Dougherty, the United States has ​​lost a good deal of credibility and trust from the many missteps in Afghanistan — and it’s going to take a while to rebuild credibility. Dougherty outlined a list of lessons from the war that need to be considered going forward during the conversation.

Afghanistan cannot be a partisan issue.

“In order for the lessons to have any validity, we have to quit making it a partisan issue. We have had four administrations that have made consistent mistakes with Afghanistan: two Republican and two Democrat. There’s credit for what we did accomplish to go around for both, but there’s blame to go around for both. It can’t be a partisan issue if we want to draw lessons for the future.”

Don’t build countries in the image of the United States if it doesn’t fit.

“We will want to support countries that are working hard to open their political and economic systems. We’ll need and want to be helpful. But what did we do wrong in Afghanistan that we might be able to do right the next time?

We have a tendency to make things too centralized. We have a tendency to judge success by having big national elections early on. A much better way of doing it is by starting small and local — establishing democratic systems and processes in countries where they don’t exist before doing things on a grand scale. When someone says we’re going to work on democracy-building, it has to be looked at objectively. It is a long-term goal.”

We have to deal with the issue of money.

“Too little money came in at the beginning and too much came in at the end. It wasn’t just a matter of huge corruption in Afghanistan; the system itself encouraged corruption. Some have even said that the US military supply chain was the biggest contributor to corruption because of the sheer amount of money involved. Some like Richard Boucher suggested it may have been better sometimes not to give so much to Beltway contractors from the US where 80-90% was often spent on overhead and profit. The funding might have been better spent directly and on smaller scale projects.”

You need to go into a country and understand it.

There was very little understanding, linguistically, politically, economically, culturally, and historically.

There needs to be a coherent policy.

“You can't say a mission has been accomplished if you haven’t clearly and consistently defined what the mission is. Mission goals need to be set by conditions and not by timelines.”

We can’t blame the Afghan military for disbanding.

“The idea that we aren’t faultless and that no one could have anticipated that the Afghan military would have lost the will to fight is a bit facile. In the last 6 or 7 years, the Afghan military lost more soldiers annually than the US did in the entire war. Once a decision had been made to remove all US forces from Afghanistan and remove all of the 15,000 contractors, it wasn’t a surprise that the military dissolved as quickly as it did at the time of the withdrawal. Just as the Taliban disappeared very quickly 20 years earlier in 2001 when they realized what the outcome would be.”

If we genuinely learn these lessons, we still have an opportunity to do good in the world.

“Forever wars are clearly a mistake, but we do need to go forward. We have huge opportunities to do things right in the world. The US plays the biggest role in the world on many issues that are important to us, such as food and health security, economic development, democracy and governance, and international cooperation. If we learn our lessons well, we have the opportunity to set things right. No matter what we’ve done wrong, we have a really important role to play. There are areas in human security around the world where the United States really does have the expertise and the values that can have positive impacts.”

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