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Lessons to be Learned from the Fall of Afghanistan

Balanced pyramid of pebbles and the identical stones collapsed next to it.
image credit: iStock / horstgerlach

I think there are a few very broad lessons we Americans can learn from the rapid fall of the Afghan government over the last few days.

1. Any enterprise is in trouble when it is not informed by the boots on the ground.

The view from those doing the work on the ground is necessarily different from the more lofty view of those in charge. But when an enterprise is working well, there are ways for the working level view of reality to be taken into account by those at the top.

From what I’ve been able to glean, it was not any great surprise to many members of the American military who had served over there to see how quickly the Afghan army faded away.

I imagine that Biden was well informed on this point, and was not under any illusion that the outcome would be materially different from what we have seen play out in recent days.

2. Our American society is more complex and multi-faceted than any of us can know.

We all have our parts to play, and we all know a bit about our parts and a few others.

But if any of us thinks we know enough about our own society, and all its complex workings, to be able to help create something akin to it in a foreign country, we are just kidding ourselves. There are far too many moving parts that interact with each other in myriad complex ways.

Any society has to evolve organically. We can perhaps influence its growth in some ways but, even then, the outcomes are often different from our intentions.

Democracy is a wonderful thing but, as the last several years have shown us, it’s hard enough to keep one functioning in our own country, let alone trying to set one up somewhere else.

3. Cultural evolution takes time.

We are often tripped up in our modern world because we have different sorts of things happening at such different speeds.

  • Digital communication is practically instantaneous.

  • International travel and transport can happen in a matter of hours.

  • The acquisition of almost any sort of material consumer goods can be completed within a few hours, a couple of days at the most.

  • Advances in technology come along every year, if not every month, and entire markets can be upended within a decade.

  • And yet sociocultural evolution, outside of the realm of technology, takes generations.

We would do well to remember the words of John Adams, a founding father and our second US president, who observed:

I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.

One cannot help but feel that the Taliban were adeptly studying politics and war, while those in charge of the recently fallen Afghan government were perhaps studying more advanced topics, before having mastered the basics.

4. We can’t dismiss power pyramids.

In any human society, power is built and wielded through hierarchical organizations. Such organizations are built around trust and competence and tradition and loyalty to colleagues and to leaders. It has become fashionable to label these sorts of organizational models as “command and control,” and to dismiss them as being old-fashioned, giving way to more egalitarian structures.

But this is a dangerous illusion. The way that these hierarchies are structured will necessarily evolve and change over time. But no amount of warm egalitarian sentiment will remove the necessity for their existence.

There are many different interests loose in the world today, all grappling for power. One may wish to see such power distributed equally among all of our world citizens, but there are two unavoidable realities that we must keep in mind:

  • Humans find ways to band together in order to accomplish ambitious goals;
  • Such bands of humans compete with each other for access to valuable and scarce resources.

These same conditions are true for companies as well as for nations.

Human rights are wonderful things, but they can only be granted (alongside a balancing set of responsibilities) within an overarching hierarchy holding enough power to maintain an orderly access to necessary resources. Such rights can’t simply be wished into existence, even when they are committed to paper.

Bottom Line

These are important lessons that apply to our efforts to “improve” other countries, but they apply equally to our efforts to improve our own country, our own companies, and our own organizations.

  1. The realities available to those attempting the actual work must make their way to leadership, and leadership must not turn a blind eye to these observations.

  2. Modern societies, established within nations and within other sorts of organizations, are almost unfathomably complex, and must grow and adapt organically.

  3. Sociocultural evolution happens over generations; if it appears to be happening more rapidly, then it is probably being faked.

  4. Power hierarchies can be used for good or for evil, for liberation or oppression, but they cannot simply be dismissed as irrelevant: it is the evolution of these hierarchies, and the results of the competition between them, that will determine the fate of humanity over the next years, decades and centuries – just as they have over the past millennia.

August 17, 2021