What Twenty Years in Afghanistan Can Teach Us About the Importance of Evolutionary Perspective

I’ve written extensively through the years about the price both academics and policy makers pay for failing to understand culture in evolutionary terms (and often being specifically averse to doing so). I gave this observation particular emphasis in the years following the 9/11 attacks of the World Trade center and the subsequent U.S. incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. As the U.S. now prepares to remove its troops from Afghanistan, we can learn from revisiting these observations. 

With both Iraq and Afghanistan, applying what Creative Systems Theory calls “Patterning in Time” distinctions would have resulted in decidedly better policy. The following reflections from my most recent book, Creative Systems Theory: A Comprehensive Theory of Purpose, Change, and Interrelationship In Human Systems draw on observations from that time: 

“The belief among American leaders at the beginning of the second Iraq War that the Iraqi people would celebrate the presence of U.S. soldiers—certainly for any length of time—would be naïve enough were Iraq a modern nation. But the larger portion of modern Iraq’s population in fact resides in the equivalent of a late medieval (in CST terms, late Middle-Axis) reality. There is significant diversity—some people embody more modern sensibilities, and some reflect sensibilities of an earlier sort—but drawing analogy to the 14th or 15th centuries in the West makes a useful analogy for policy. Appreciation of this fact, and its implications, would have produced some very different choices. Given the cultural stage, polar intolerance for occupying forces was totally predictable, as were protracted antagonisms and struggles for power between ethnic factions following the end of Saddam Hussein’s rule.

“U.S. military action in Afghanistan was arguably more justified, but seen from a developmental perspective, we would predict the task to be even more daunting. In his book The Wrong War, Bing West (who spent ten years fighting in Afghanistan) describes how he reluctantly came to the conclusion that modern Afghanistan resides in the equivalent of about 9th century Europe. (We also find what CST would call Early-Axis cultural stage dynamics in Afghanistan, but early medieval makes a good general approximation.) Note that this observation not only affects the prognosis for success, it also means that lessons learned in Iraq were not going to be as applicable as leaders assumed. We can debate whether U.S. involvement in Afghanistan ultimately provided value. With regard to disrupting the training of international terrorists, it may have been of benefit. But it is also the case that at the time of this book’s writing, the Taliban has a stronger presence in the country than it did at the time of first U.S. involvement in the country. 

“With both Iraq and Afghanistan, applying a Patterning in Time lens would have at the least alerted the modern world to the fact that efforts at regime change and nation building—and, in particular, efforts that might consider the establishment of Western-style democratic systems an appropriate goal—were very unlikely to be successful, and would easily lead only to further destabilization.”

Was involvement in Afghanistan a mistake? I’m comfortable asserting that because of a lack of evolutionary perspective we were blind to much of what we needed to understand if our actions were to provide  significant benefit. And we would not have needed nuanced development notions like those of Creative Systems Theory to at least have been more humble in our assumptions. The simple recognition of Russia’s failures—and well before that, those of England—should have alerted us to the fact that we were dealing with more complex dynamics than the frameworks commonly available to policy makers could provide.  

I remain of two minds as far as the results of involvement, and the likely consequences now of our departure. I come down very close to the thoughts of Tom Friedman in a recent New York Times article where he reflected on visiting Afghanistan with Joe Biden at the start of the war: 

“Our nation’s effort there was worth a try; our soldiers and diplomats were trying to make it better, but it was never clear that they knew how or had enough Afghan partners. Yes, maybe leaving will make it worse, but our staying wasn’t really helping…. Our leaving may be a short-term disaster, and in the long run, who knows, maybe Afghanistan will find balance on its own, like Vietnam. Or not. I don’t know. I am as humbled and ambivalent about it as I was twenty years ago, and I am sure that Biden is too.”

One of the most important challenges ahead when in comes to culturally mature leadership is how to make good choices in the context of an increasingly globalized world where cultures rooted in very different developmental realities more and more often collide. What I can say is that if our policies are to provide benefit, at the very least they must be grounded in a deeper appreciation for evolutionary dynamics and, with this, a better understanding of both the limits and possibilities particular developmental dynamics present.