Chris Kolenda

Chris Kolenda is Senior Military Fellow at King’s College London. Chris served as the Senior Advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the US Department of Defense and has served four tours of duty in Afghanistan. In this Insight he argues that inadequate strategic empathy by the United States in Afghanistan undermined its own counter-insurgency goals. A greater US willingness to get inside the minds of allies and enemies alike might have helped to avoid major policy misjudgments and setbacks.  

Sun Tzu said know your enemy and know yourself, and this is illustrated in numerous cases identified by Lawrence Freedman in his landmark work, Strategy. Your strategy will be flawed if you fail to understand your adversaries or partners, and are unable to see yourself through the eyes of others.

Insurgencies tend to succeed if they develop durable internal and external support and the host nation government loses legitimacy. Inadequate strategic empathy by the United States in Afghanistan exacerbated both problems.

In many ways outlined below, the United States misjudged allies, enemies and others. Greater empathy – a willingness and ability to get inside the minds of others – might have helped to avoid these misjudgements, which had a serious, adverse impact on the ground.

In Afghanistan, the United States failed to make a distinction between the Taliban and al Qaida until 2009 – eight years into conflict – and only distinguished between the two groups at policy level one year later, when the Taliban and al Qaida sanctions lists were separated. The United States aggregated its enemies, treating both groups as terrorists, and failed to seize early negotiating opportunities in 2001, 2002 and 2004, when representatives of the Taliban made overtures for peace talks. Later, the United States misunderstood how the Taliban were making major efforts to win the battle of legitimacy in rural areas, especially after 2009, combining intimidation with persuasion.

The United States was also unaware of how purported partners manipulated international forces into attacking political rivals. Northern Alliance factions saw Hizb-i Islami, an Islamist armed group, as a serious strategic threat and misled US troops into believing that Hizb-i Islami leaders were in fact Taliban or al Qaida. Some U.S. forces were also duped into backing people whom they mistakenly believed to be community leaders, which led to local alliances against U.S. forces and their local partners.

In the early years of the intervention, U.S. forces did not appreciate how widespread civilian harm caused by warlords and militias played a major role in the resurgence of the Taliban. Predatory actors filled the security vacuum and Afghans in a number of areas soon came to look back to the Taliban as a preferable alternative for providing security.

Broadly speaking, the United States failed to grasp Pakistan’s strategic fears, especially of Indian influence in Afghanistan, which led to Pakistani support for the Taliban, making it significantly more difficult to overcome the insurgency.

For too long the United States was unaware of how Afghan partners took advantage of U.S. naiveté and largesse to amass huge personal fortunes and establish a sophisticated kleptocracy. Nor did the United States see how U.S. empowerment of local warlords undermined President Karzai. The United States neglected to build a consensus on good governance, offer assistance on how to tackle corruption and help manage those who would be threatened by such efforts.

Lack of empathy also derailed efforts towards reconciliation, as the United States misunderstood the reasons why the Taliban sought to engage in talks. No meaningful effort was made to build a consensus on reconciliation within the U.S. government and amongst allies and partners. The United States completely alienated Karzai through its efforts in this regard, especially the disastrous opening of a Taliban political office. This is when Taliban leaders attempted to open an office in Qatar in June 2013, which had a Taliban flag and a sign referring to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, provoking a furious reaction from the Afghan government. Mismanagement of this effort, in many ways due to a lack of empathy, brought about something that no other actor has been able to achieve: it got the Taliban, President Karzai, Pakistan’s elite, the Afghan polity, international community, both Houses of Congress and both U.S. political parties all on same page – in agreement that the United States was mishandling the peace process.

Crucially, the United States failed to see itself and its actions through the eyes of others, often assuming the most favourable interpretation of its most problematic actions. Officials were unable to see how the United States often undermined its own efforts.

In Nuristan, where I served as a U.S. commander, empathy was a key factor in bringing about a local peace process, through which local shuras and Afghan leaders, supported by U.S. forces, were able to convince a key Hizb-i Islami leader and his followers to stop fighting, and to begin working together on areas of mutual interest. He later reconciled with the Afghan government and remains an important supporter. Sadly, cases of this kind were uncommon.

Improving U.S. policies and performance in remote conflict zones will be a challenge. We should accept that Washington, D.C. is unlikely to have sufficient strategic understanding and empathy to be able to manage all potential problems in remote conflict areas, where we have little connection and on-the-ground presence. Furthermore, the United States government decision-making process is entirely too centralised for nuanced approaches. Bringing a greater degree of empathy into our strategy and policy-making will require significant political capital and involve major audience costs – in other words, resistance to what is seen as a conciliatory approach. In the absence of such a shift, U.S. strategy needs to be sensitive to its limitations and lack of understanding, and develop ways to identify, and then to prevent or mitigate, associated strategic risks.


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