There’s been plenty of discussion in recent weeks about contingency planning in Afghanistan – or perhaps the lack thereof. Much remains to be learned and discovered about what was and was not done in preparation for the long-planned US withdrawal, and it’s certainly not our purpose here to critique or second guess specific US actions (or inactions, for that matter).
That said, however, President Joe Biden’s words that his national security team planned for “every eventuality” strike us as disingenuous at best. There does not seem to have been a plan for what actually occurred – a complete collapse of the Afghanistan military within a week and the Taliban’s unchallenged taking of the capital Kabul. If there was a plan, it was certainly not a robust one, given the chaos, suffering, terror and tragedy at the Kabul airport in those final days. Or maybe the fault was in the implementation – i.e., sound plan, poor execution. This is unlikely, but we just don’t know.
The purpose of reviewing all this in a blog essay is to suggest some important lessons for strategists and planners – even those with less immediate life-and-death issues than military and diplomatic planning for Afghanistan.
As we discussed in the most recent FSG blog, no matter what business or sector you are in, it all starts with planners imagining the widest (plausible) range of future operating environments. In highly complex and dynamic settings (including Afghanistan these past several weeks), we argue that this is more art and judgment than math and science. Data is backward-looking and prediction models are practically useless. So it takes disciplined imagination to consciously take seriously those alternative operating conditions that the experts in the room dismiss as unlikely, not worth worrying about, rabbit holes, etc. In FSG’s scenario planning practice, we spend considerable time and effort working with our clients in carefully mapping out “alternative futures” so we don’t miss anything big, and so that eventual plans take into account non-traditional or counterintuitive developments – especially those deemed potentially “high impact.”
But too often, busy, stressed-out planners focus only on core strategies, and pay, at best, lip service to the more extreme conditions – say, a seven-day take-over of Kabul – that would warrant a very different set of contingency plans and actions. Or, even if they do contemplate extreme events, they invest insufficient time and resources in serious contingency plans which can then be swiftly operationalized.
Admittedly, sometimes this can’t be helped. Once the emergency begins, it’s too late. Ideally, contingency plans need to be forged when there are time, resources and perspective to do these thoughtfully, and with sufficient rigor and detail.
This is not an empty business school platitude or marketing come-on. Some organizations, including FSG clients, really do commit to detailed strategic and operational planning in an open and sustained manner.
We worked with a major Wall Street firm after 9/11 to create business continuity plans in the event of future disruptions, including another terror attack, an extreme weather event, or something wholly unprecedented that would put people, facilities, systems or reputations at risk. The next big disruption was not a terror attack; it was Hurricane Sandy, and the bank was prepared.
At a military organization, we have worked with senior planning staff to specify hardware, personnel, support and R&D requirements for a range of threats and operational challenges, many novel and unfamiliar.
The mere act of thinking through alternative scenarios and questioning assumptions about the future is enlightening for any organization. But it’s the actual steps of developing scenario-based strategies, and detailing operational plans for contingencies, that provide both strategic foresight and operational preparedness.
So why aren’t these practices standard operating procedure? It always comes down to time, and priorities. And humbly recognizing that there are many, many more things that we need to wonder about than facts and certainties that we are sure of. Maybe that will be one of the lessons coming out of the Afghanistan tragedy.