Never Say Never: Learning Lessons from Afghanistan Reviews

Rotmann et al Afghanistan Review 2024
Afghan students’ coats hang on a wall.  | Photo: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe/Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Tina Blohm, Philipp Rotmann, Florian Weigand
22 Feb 2024, 
published in
Friedrich Ebert Foundation

In this study, we undertake a review of reviews: we look at the processes and content of the most substantive reviews on the international intervention in Afghanistan conducted by various countries and international organizations carried out to date, with a view to learning from how others have tried to learn. We look at processes (in terms of the format and organization of each review, including its independence, membership, mandate, access to information, and budget) and at content (in terms of its main findings and recommendations). 

We have also sought to examine the implementation of lessons, looking – as far as possible – at whether the lessons identified have actually been learned. Finally, we ask whether we can learn together. If Afghanistan has been a massive joint international endeavor, are there signs that different actors have jointly learned from it?

One of the most fundamental lessons to emerge from the reviews we examined is the warning we have used as the title of this report: Never say never,” as former US diplomat Laurel Miller quotes the 1983 James Bond film, is a stark counterpoint to the common reading that the era of massive intervention is over and that most of the challenges faced in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 are irrelevant for the future. 

That would be a dangerous conclusion. First, there is the moral debt to the victims and casualties of the war to at least learn from the costly policy mistakes that were made. Then, there is the historical reason: we have seen the same story unfold over and over again. Some government will again find itself embroiled in a complex state-building or counterinsurgency project. Furthermore, in Ukraine, Syria, coastal West Africa and elsewhere, many national, regional and global actors are using the same bureaucracies, the same budgets, the same administrative systems, and only slightly adapted strategies and tactics. 

There is no doubt that some learning has taken place, but many hard nuts have not been cracked and results remain mixed. In order to learn faster, more deeply, and jointly, this study identifies key lessons in terms of objectives and strategies, interaction with an (il)legitimate government, knowledge use, and coordination.

This study was funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and jointly conducted with the Centre on Armed Groups in Geneva and the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin.