Kabul has fallen, and today is a dark day for America – and an even darker day for Afghanistan. But the speed of the Taliban’s advance, while stunning, was hardly surprising.
I’m no expert, but in conversations over the past few weeks with friends who served in Afghanistan, all of them predicted this rapid collapse of the Afghan armed forces and the Taliban’s rapid advance on Kabul. And all of them thought the insurgents would reach the capitol far faster than American politicians and military planners were predicting.
So, how did Washington get it so wrong – again?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I’m not talking about America’s failed attempt at nation building in a country long known as the graveyard of empires; I’m talking about the failure of imagination that led American planners to believe, as intelligence officials said just three days ago, that “Kabul could fall within 90 days.”
Back in 2004, spurred by similar failures of imagination that led to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the disastrous wars which followed them, the U.S. Army launched its ambitious decision-support red teaming program to force its planners and decision makers to challenge their assumptions, stress-test their strategies, and ensure that their plans were flexible enough to succeed in an increasingly volatile and uncertain world.
The program was the brainchild of Gen. Peter Schoomaker, an O.G. Green Beret commander who had retired from the Army in 2000 after failing to win support for his plan launch a small, surgical strike to take out Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan before they could mount a serious attack against the United States or interests.
In 2003, just as the wheels began to come off of America’s nation-building campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, Schoomaker was recalled to lead the Army and fix the fine mess the country now found itself in in the Middle East. Avoiding the temptation to say, “I told you so,” the general got to work putting out the fires he’d inherited while at the same time taking steps to ensure that the Army did not make the same mistakes in the future.
Schoomaker had spent his entire career in Special Forces, where critical thinking was not only encouraged, but required. When he took over as the Army’s Chief of Staff, he explained this approach to the regular Army generals who now worked for him.
“Team A builds a plan. Then they take that plan and they give it to another team to rip up. We call that red teaming,” Schoomaker said. “How does the regular Army do it?”
The answer was, “We don’t.”
Schoomaker set out to change that. He established an elite school at the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth to train critical thinkers and red team leaders, tapping Col. Greg Fontenot, a hero of the first Gulf War and one of the Army’s deepest thinkers, to lead it.
“They told me they wanted to train people to be devil’s advocates and critique the army’s planning from the inside,” Fontenot told me when I was researching my book Red Teaming, adding that the goal was to surface alternative perspectives, challenge the conventional wisdom, and make better military decisions.
Fontenot and his team developed a dense curriculum based on the latest research into cognitive psychology, human decision making, and neuroscience. They began training cadres of Army red teamers, then sending them back to their units with orders to launch “an intellectual insurgency” in the Army.
The school was so successful that other allied nations began sending their officers there, too.
I learned about the Army’s red teaming program in 2014 and thought the same tools and techniques could help businesses make better decisions and better cope with today’s complex and rapidly changing world. So, I asked the Pentagon if I could audit the course. It took some doing, but I finally got the green light. In 2015, I became the first – and only – civilian from outside government to graduate from the Army’s Red Team Leader course.
I say only because, last year, the Army decided to close the school.
The decision was, in part, a reflection of the diminished role red teaming came to play in the U.S. military during the Trump Administration.
That is really unfortunate, because red teaming works. But as I learned at Fort Leavenworth, it only works if you let it.
And these days, few in the U.S. military are doing much red teaming.
So, I guess it should come as no surprise that America’s military planners have been so surprised by the Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan and the equally rapid collapse of the Afghan armed forces that America spent so many years and so many billions of dollars training and equipping.
Maybe the fall of Kabul will spur the Army, the U.S. military as whole, and – most urgently – our political leaders to once again take the steps necessary to avoid these failures of imagination in the future.