Afghanistan and the Common Knowledge Game

Former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani in happier times, before fleeing Kabul with “four vehicle

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  1. Recently I find myself extolling the virtue and power of AND much more often.

  2. Agree with the general point and the Common Knowledge Game logic you first raised in the Harvey Weinstein context. But would quibble with your blaming last week’s mess in Kabul can be entirely blamed on a myopic focus on “domestic political ramifications”.
    In some cases there are “missionaries” openly pushing competing narratives that outsiders could evaluate on their merits. In cases like these the work of many missionaries is largely hidden from public view, but their messages are along the lines of “if you report views outside the ones we approve you will never get another interview with anyone in our organization again” or “if you openly discuss critical views with outsiders we will destroy any career opportunities you thought you might have” or “our paid advocates will do everything to cancel you and your friends”.
    As you note thousands of expert people knew Afghanistan was a hopelessly lost cause many years ago. They were not marginalized by organized domestic political interests who thought the war was winnable, but by specific corporate interests who wanted the gravy train to continue, politicians who wanted the big donations from those companies to continue, and senior military people hoping for lucrative jobs with those companies. No domestic voters felt strongly about the war in the sense that many domestic voters have strong views about immigration or abortion or taxes or infrastructure spending or other issues. My strong sense is that domestic voters largely supported the Obama and Trump claims that we needed to bring our troops home long ago.

  3. Great article and it truly does help me understand how this FUBAR action occurred.

    But the real surprise to me was your statement “people in the DOD and IC who knew better but were only too happy to see a painful debacle unfold”.

    Ben, these were Sins of Omission, not Commission but aren’t you saying these people that let it go should be labeled Saboteurs nevertheless?

  4. EVERYONE thought that the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban, and EVERYONE thought that they had plenty of time to square things away. Until they had no time at all.

    I find this fascinatingly true and it rings of “normalcy bias”. It happens again and again in disasters. The Titanic with guests still at the bar as the ship goes under (cue the band as Missionary for all is well!). The hordes of souls that went BACK IN to the Twin Towers on 9/11 to get back to work after having already successfully evacuated. I imagine this is also what happened in the Pogroms in Russia, Germany in the 1930s, the Armenians prior to 1915, etc.

    The signs are all there, and everyone knows it’s true. But they don’t have a Missionary speaking loud enough so that they know everyone else heard it too.

    Kind of like the fact Social Security is bankrupt, or the fact that the American security state doing warrant less mass surveillance spying on American citizens. It doesn’t matter that it’s true. Fundamentals don’t matter anymore. Narrative is what matters. And right now there is still no Missionary more powerful than the Emporer and he is saying he has new clothes on.

  5. Is it possible the Biden administration have naively relied on a structure that saw (under the past administration) a brain-drain of competent beurocrats? I.e. anyone who would have had the sense to stand up to these plans resigned months ago?

  6. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Hubert, thanks for the thoughtful post. When I say that the Biden WH (like all WHs) was focused exclusively and myopically on domestic politics, I’m not at all saying that domestic politics favored staying in Afghanistan. On the contrary. My view is that Bush’s initiation of the war, Obama’s continuation of the war, Trump’s … whatever that was …, and Biden’s fleeing of the war have ALL been designed and implemented to reflect whatever the WH thought was the winning domestic political stance on the war. NONE of these Administrations made policy for some war-fighting or nation-building or war-ending goal in itself, but only as it played in Peoria.

  7. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Peter, appreciate the note! I think “saboteurs” is way too strong, but if you’re on Biden’s WH team you probably think it’s too weak. I think the DOD slow-played any analysis that would help out the WH here AND I think that the WH ignored whatever strategic analysis the DOD provided.

  8. Avatar for bhunt bhunt says:

    Hi, Andrew, thanks for posting! I think that career State Dept. officials are some of the best people this country has, and it’s notable to me that they wrote a letter asking the WH and Blinken to reconsider their exit plans. Honestly I don’t think we have a shortage of smart career people in State (although Trump did his best to drive them out), but we have WAY too many not-so-smart political appointees in State who only care about the re-election of whoever the Big Guy is at the time.

  9. Got it, appreciate the response. Thanks

  10. Ben, you once wrote about the most dangerous failure being that which comes as failure of imagination. The Afghanistan conflict is the perfect illustration of this, from beginning to end.

    Our conflict started those 20 years ago because we failed to imagine a threat that was willing to use commercial airliners as weapons of mass destruction. The conflict ended even after we imagined this exact scenario playing out. Literally the outcome that was easiest to imagine was what happened. Afghanistan spans the entire chasm of failures, beginning with imagination and ending with whatever the opposite of imagination is. The perfect bookends to hold together those two lost decades.

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