You Never Know


When someone mentions the law of unintended consequences, it is almost always in reference to unanticipated, negative outcomes.  However, as a self-proclaimed champion of counter-intuitive thinking, I forever look for a case or cases which suggest the opposite can also be true.  This morning I found it, in Afghanistan of all places.

Until this morning, many foreign affairs specialists identified two paradoxes which were early contributors to the events of the past two weeks.

  1. Nation building should not be an element of U.S. foreign policy or national security.  It did not work in Vietnam.  Iraq.  Libya. Yet, that did not stop one more failed attempt in Afghanistan.
  2. Following 9/11, we were told the war against terrorism would not be a conventional conflict.  It would not involve engagements based on geopolitical boundaries or governments.  Neither would success depend on large, well equipped armed forces.  Instead it would be about intelligence, analysis of the data and precision strikes by special ops and manned or unmapped vehicles delivering guided ordinance.

The initial 9/11 response, ironically, was totally consistent with these assumptions.  Consider the following excerpt titled “The First Salvo/October 7, 2001” from an analysis of the two decades war prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The U.S. military, with British support, begins a bombing campaign against Taliban forces, officially launching Operation Enduring Freedom. Canada, Australia, Germany, and France pledge future support. The wars early phase  mainly involves U.S. air strikes on al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that are assisted by a partnership of about one thousand U.S. special forces, the Northern Alliance, and ethnic Pashtun anti-Taliban forces.

It proved sufficient to result in the total collapse of Taliban forces by December 9, 2001.  The only piece of unfinished business was bringing al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to justice, the justification for the introduction of large numbers of ground troops to prosecute the war into the Tora Bora region where bin Laden was believed to be hiding.  As we later learned he had escaped, probably on horseback, to the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Interview - David FrumDavid Frum, staff to George W. Bush during this period, shared his perspective that the troop build up and 20 year war could have been avoided in an August 15, 2021 article in The Atlantic titled, “The 1 Thing that Could Have Changed the War in Afghanistan.”

Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward. I cannot prove that. It’s only an opinion from my vantage point as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002.

If true, one wonders if the major deployment of U.S. ground troops to secure the new constitution, democratic elections and Karzi government was a substitute for failing the prime directive, capturing or killing bin Laden.  Not to mention the second Iraq war which diluted resources which could have been devoted to the hunt for bin Laden.

Which brings us to the present.  And my long standing but unproven theory the real tragedy in Afghanistan was the U.S. effort at nation building only postponed an inevitable civil war in which Afghans would decide the nation’s future direction.  If the American war between the states settled some major issues on which the founding fathers punted, why couldn’t a similar intra-national catharsis serve the same purpose elsewhere around the globe?

Strangely, this may become the unintended consequence of the 20 year U.S. presence in “the graveyard of empires.”  Not to shore up a corrupt government.  Not to train a self-sufficient Afghan security force.  Instead, the lasting legacy may be time for a new generation of Afghans, who were unborn or too young to remember Taliban 1.0 in 2001, to grow up in a more open society.  With access to the outside world.  Where women could fully participate in the community.  Where young girls could go to school and dream of becoming doctors, teachers, etc.  A whole generation who is willing to tell the Taliban, “NO!  We do not accept what you offer.”

The first signal this new generation may become a thorn in side of the Taliban emerged in the last 48 hours as reported by two Washington Post correspondents.

(Afghans) staged protests in Kabul and other cities Thursday, challenging Taliban fighters in scattered demonstrations, including at least one that turned deadly…In the capital, men and women carried the black, red and green flags of the Afghan Republic, chanting “our flag, our identity,” according to videos posted online.

~Erin Cunningham & Rachel Pannet/August 19, 2021

The numbers are not in the Taliban’s favor.  The United Nations Population Fund in Afghanistan (UNPFA) reports 63.7 of the 37.3 million residents are 25 years of age or younger.  Compare that to the estimated 200,000 members of the Taliban.  Yes, there will likely be a continuing humanitarian crisis, bloodshed and days on which the cause may seem hopeless.  Nor will it resemble the American Civil War.  The optics are likely to be more akin to “Les Misérables” than “Gone with the Wind.”

But if this new generation of Afghans become the force for change and modernity in this ancient land, this unintended consequence means the expenditure of U.S. talent and treasure, along with that of our allies, will not have been in vain.

For what it’s worth.


3 thoughts on “You Never Know

  1. Thank you! I’m always amazed when your thoughtful and thought provoking ideas take me in a 180 spin!

  2. Excellent. Very thought provoking. Is there any way that the 10th Man strategy applies here?

    1. When you say “here” do you mean in your community? It can apply in any situation. Suppose you are looking to change behavior or attitude. Start by listing all the assumptions which you think explain the status quo. Then be your own 10th man/woman. Start by taking each of those assumptions and asking, “What if the opposite were true?” Use the example of anti-vaxxers. You assume there is a subset of the population which is dead set against vaccinations. But what if they’re not. What if they see what’s happening around them and they really want to be vaccinated. But fear they will lose face if they reverse the position they held the last three months. Then you are dealing with a different issue. Not, how do I get a needle in an arm? Instead, how do I give someone a graceful way to back out of the corner in which they find him or her self. What if their aversion to the COVID vaccine is a symptom, not the root cause? Much like a skin rash. That is a symptom caused by something else. Find the root cause and the solution often becomes obvious.

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