Learning the Right Lessons from the Afghan War

The U.S. has a poor history of making effective efforts to learn the lessons of its recent wars, and it is already focusing on other strategic issues and the crises that are following the collapse of Afghanistan. It will be all too easy for U.S. policymakers and Congress to ignore the need to learn from the preceding twenty years of conflict and to fail to preserve the data and institutions necessary to learn as much from the war and the collapse of the Afghan government and forces as possible.

The examination needs to focus on why the war ended with so many sudden Taliban gains, what lessons need to be drawn from each major phase of the war, and how the U.S. can act more effectively in the future. A valid analysis must look at the entire course of the war, each major decision or action that limited the chances of victory over a twenty-year period, and their cumulative consequences – rather than focusing on the final years and months of U.S. withdrawal.

Such an effort must examine the full range of data and reporting from the start of the war to its end, and it will need to actively challenge the integrity of the open source data that shaped political and public opinion as well as the increasing classification of critical and classified data and intelligence. It will have to examine the steady rise in the over-classification of key data that has already been flagged in SIGAR reporting to Congress. It will have to honestly assess the steady decline in the integrity and content of the reporting by U.S. official military spokespersons and the degree to which the State Department and USAID gradually ceased to provide any meaningful open source assessments of civil progress and problems.

This report contains the follow Table of Contents:


This report entitled, Learning the Right Lessons from the Afghan War, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210907_Cordesman_Right_Lessons.pdf?TOANXtTYP7mVmaTy5bapzai637ylirPt.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.