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The problems with “Lessons Learned”…

August 2, 2012


By Tim Foxley


Summary:  Two papers have been published looking at lessons learned by the international community in the context of Afghanistan.  Although worthy, there are many risks associated with attempts at lessons learned.  Hindsight-fuelled narratives of past events in isolation are relatively easy to do but do not necessarily help show the way forward. Lessons – are they learned or just partially identified…?

Actually, some lessons are a bit obvious…

Two papers have recently emerged on the subject of Afghanistan lessons learned.  One is from the American Security Project, entitled “Five lessons we should have learned in Afghanistan”.  It is almost entirely focused on US government and military perspectives.  The other is from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, entitled “Snapshots of an intervention: The unlearned lessons of Afghanistan’s decade of assistance (2001 – 2011)”. This is a more mixed and wider set of vignettes from political, security and aid perspectives, primarily written by Europeans, it seems.  There do not appear to be any Afghan, Pakistani or other regional perspectives – certainly no Afghan writers – in either paper.

If the UK Ministry of Defence has taught me one thing, it is that lessons are rarely learned, merely identified.  But, I mean, its still got be pretty harsh to criticise lessons learned papers, hasn’t it?  I’m trying not to do so, but it nags away at me that such work is rarely as helpful as it appears to be and my overall conclusion from looking at both papers is somewhere between a “so what?” and a “so, with all these lessons we’ve now learned, what does that mean we should do now?”.  Lessons that are too generic or too specific can minimise the value considerably.  General exhortations to “be better prepared”, “do more planning” or “avoid assuming one particular solution is the only way ahead” are certainly helpful lessons for any aspect of life but do we really need them to be stated here? Picking apart the minutiae of particular programmes such as the Emergency Loya Jirga or the disarmament process may never be relevant to any situation ever again.  Hindsight-fuelled narrative descriptions of things that went wrong can often smack of “see, I told you so” and offer little relevant to future situations.

So, what is the value of “lessons learned” papers?  In 2001, I am assuming there were thousands of “lessons learned” available for international development and military operations in under-developed countries, but yet the international community seems – according to what we now know in 2012 – to have spectacularly messed up at every step of the way.

Writing a “lessons learned” paper is the first, and by far the easiest step, of a process that should probably look a little like this:

  1. Identify the  problem – a plan that failed
  2. Try to understand the reasons why – in particular whether it was a bad idea or simply that the idea was poorly implemented
  3. Devise new plan to fix the problem
  4. Present the plan to the key groups who will need to fix the problem – policy makers, strategic planners, implementers.  Get them to buy in.
  5. Implement plan
  6. Monitor to see if plan is working
  7. If plan works, incorporate into working practises, while continue to evaluate and evolve it as the circumstances evolve.
  8. Repeat with next problem…

“Lessons learned” papers rarely get beyond stage 1.  I suggest that only when stage 7 has been reached, has the lesson actually been “learned”.  Until then, I will still categorise them as merely “identified”…

A few concluding thoughts, therefore:

  1. Lessons are rarely learned, merely identified
  2. Many problems will never be fixed, however much the failings are exposed
  3. When a crisis erupts around the world, you cannot instantly “grow” cultural knowledge
  4. Most of the early key decisions that are taken in a crisis (eg military intervention, eg Bonn…) are made at time when the corporate knowledge of the international decision-making and implementing community  is least strong
  5. Lessons learned have got to be usable and accessible for policy makers, decision-makers, planners and (above all) implementers otherwise you are simply shouting into a void
  6. Why were all the lessons learned by the international community concerning military intervention, aid and development  across the world upto 2001 not effectively used in Afghanistan after 2001?
  7. What happened to all the international expertise gained in Afghanistan?  For example in the 1990s, where Europeans and the UN had direct and regular contact with the Taliban?
  8. Many lessons are already overtaken by events or will not be relevant to future situations
  9. Lessons learned papers often unhelpfully focus on easy hindsight narratives only without drawing conclusions for the future or weaving them into the lessons from other areas of relevance – a big bucket of individual, independent, unconnected and likely contradictory “lessons” surely condemns us to repeating the same mistakes?
  10. There are no “correct” answers to situations like Afghanistan, only hundreds of possible solutions, many of which contradict each other.  Achieving one coherent “solution” that everyone agrees on and works towards will never happen
  11. Pointing out the flaws in one area does not mean we know what the “correct” answer is, or that everyone will agree on the correct answer or that it can be implemented effectively (or even attempted at all)
  12. It is important to understand whether the idea was wrong or the implementation
  13. Point the finger at decision-makers, of course, but understanding the reasons behind a decision is crucial – starting with a base assumption that decision-makers are stupid, ignorant or do not listen to advice is unhelpful.
  14. “Fog of War”, complexity, fast-moving situations, lack of information, too much information, demands for action, and having to interact with a hundred different players can probably explain most poor decision-making.  But we knew this anyway, right?
  15. With each lesson identified, the question “so what does this mean for the future?” should also be addressed in order to gain best value

The AAN paper notes in its introduction:

“The experiences that the authors describe will probably sound all too familiar to anyone who has worked in post-conflict, aid-heavy conflicts…”.

This leaps out at me as the main problem with lessons learned papers – lessons were clearly not learned last time, so why should we expect them to be learned now?

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 3, 2012 4:47 pm

    ” lessons were clearly not learned last time, so why should we expect them to be learned now?” This says it all. Tim.


  1. Ways of thinking about Afghanistan… « afghanhindsight

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