Purpose, Power, and People - The Western Failure in Afghanistan one year on

Jonny Singh Afghan Blog

This month marks the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the fall of Kabul, and the retreat of Western military forces. August also marks 11 years since I finished the last of my four deployments to Afghanistan as an RAF helicopter pilot.

The scenes of fear, confusion and chaos we saw from Kabul last year were shocking, as was the apparent inability of powerful nations to act to protect people desperate to flee from the chaos. How did we get to this point where the Taliban were back in control of the country? What had gone wrong in over 20 years of Western intervention in Afghanistan when the US alone invested over a trillion US$ directly into the country? How will the people of Afghanistan now navigate their way through the multiple crises of conflict, human rights abuses, drought, hunger, and economic collapse?

Part of my motivation for becoming an On Purpose Associate was to develop a better understanding of the ways we can drive meaningful social change. I wanted to learn about techniques and tools that would help put into perspective my experiences in Afghanistan and the other conflict zones I worked in. While a Friday afternoon at Canopi or the Arts theatre feels a world away from the heat and fury of an Afghan summer fighting season, the framework of looking at complex problems through the lenses of impact, leadership and systems change has helped me reflect on the failures of the Western intervention in the country.  Understanding those failures is key to growing as a leader, and as an agent of positive change in the world.

Theories of Change

Most of you will be familiar with the tenets of a good old Theory of Change. You figure out the change you want to see (Impact), then define the measurable changes that you want your work to achieve (Outcomes). You bounce around some ideas for Activities that will deliver the changes you want, stick in some Indicators of whether your Activities are making a difference and then get on with your work.

In Afghanistan we had a huge amount of Activities across the military, humanitarian, diplomatic and political spheres. We had some clear indicators ranging from the number of girls in school, to the number of bombs we dropped.  What we lacked was a vision for the Impact we wanted to make, and the outcomes we could measure to track that Impact. 

Or rather, we had too many visions. The intervention started in 2001 with the intention to overthrow the Taliban government and dismantle Al Qaeda’s capacity to commit terrorist acts outside the country. We then moved our Impact goal posts successively from trying to turn Afghanistan into a liberal democratic nation, to eradicating the transnational heroin trade in the country, to thinking of the conflict as part of our response to domestic terrorism in Europe, to acting as a bulwark to China and Russia, to preventing mass migration, back to protecting human rights. In the end we were arguing that we had to be there because we had already been there for 20 years….

None of those aims were necessarily wrong, but as the narrative from political, diplomatic, and military leaders shifted over the years, the idea of an effective Theory of Change became more and more confused. A clear Theory of Change gives everyone in the organisation a structure to work towards, and allows technical specialists to design their approaches within a structured framework. Your people know what you want them to achieve and how their progress will be measured. Instead of this if you had asked a hundred Western soldiers, aid workers, diplomats, or journalists why NATO was in Afghanistan, they would have given one hundred and thirty different answers! Explaining what we were doing in Afghanistan became like trying to explain cricket to an American. Tiring, confusing, and frustrating for all concerned.

Human Centred Disaster

The story of Afghanistan over the last 20 years should not really be about “us”. Our Human Centred Design training teaches us that we should pay attention to people from outside our organisations and outside our modes of thinking. We can then test and question the assumptions at all levels that underpin our approach.  

We didn’t do this effectively in Afghanistan. Whether politicians, aid workers, military officers or diplomats, those of us on the ground did not understand the people who lived in Afghanistan. Worse than our ignorance was our arrogance. I don’t speak any of the country’s languages, I don’t follow any of the country’s religions, I don’t have an in-depth understanding of the history and politics of the region, and almost all my interactions with Afghans involved us pointing weapons at each other. Yet I thought I was helping them.

It may seem hopelessly naïve now, but at least initially, I thought we were there for “good” reasons. Looking back, I believe that emotion extended up, down, and across the political, military, aid, and diplomatic hierarchies. Despite our technology and advanced degrees, we didn’t pay attention to the people who knew the land and culture, and who knew the forces at work within the country.  The Afghans at all levels realised this far quicker than we did, and from the central government down to village elders, Afghans turned our ignorance and arrogance to their short term advantage. We did not seek out and learn about their experiences and priorities, meaning we could not achieve the depth of understanding to design interventions that would meet our ever changing aims, nor solve the immediate problems faced by the Afghan people. Afghans at all levels of society saw this disconnect and lost faith in what we were doing, turning instead to their tried and tested ways of managing life in their country.

The Afghan Iceberg

Many of you will have heard Tom Rippin and others talk about the Iceberg Model as a way of thinking about transformative change. The events that we observe above the water line emerge from the patterns, structures and paradigms that make up everything that happens below the water line. In order to deliver transformative change we need to change the paradigm at the base of the iceberg, not just tinker with the patterns and structures just below the surface.

In Afghanistan we were occupied with making pretty patterns. We reacted to events, and we responded to the patterns that we could see. We didn’t help co-design effective new structures that met the needs of the Afghan people, and we didn’t transform the values, beliefs and assumptions that make up the base paradigm of Afghan society.

Extending the iceberg metaphor further, we also paid no attention to the body of water the iceberg floated in. Afghanistan has been shaped for centuries by outside forces from the Mongols to the Soviets. We misunderstood the power of these currents, particularly in relation to Pakistan and Iran, two more nations that the average Westerner knows a minuscule amount about.

We also failed to shift our own paradigms. The military did military things, the aid folk did aid things, the diplomats did diplomatic things. Collectively though we failed to adapt our deeply held mental models in a way that addressed the reality we faced. When put under pressure we fell too easily back into our intellectual comfort zones despite all the evidence that our approach was failing.

A year on from the Western withdrawal the Afghan people are suffering more than ever. We should have done better for them, and we should have done better with them. To support them now, and to help us prepare to face future complex international engagements, we need to humbly reflect on our past actions and understand what went wrong.

Jonny Singh is a current On Purpose Associate and a former RAF officer and aid worker.  He has worked around the world with communities affected by conflict and crisis, and is currently working with the education charity West London Zone. 

Image from Unsplash: Andre Klimke