Small Wars Journal

How the Limited Use of Lessons Learned Failed to Form a Cohesive Strategy in Operation Enduring Freedom

Tue, 11/04/2014 - 8:11am

How the Limited Use of Lessons Learned Failed to Form a Cohesive Strategy in Operation Enduring Freedom

Joel Lawton


The United States, with its endeavor in Afghanistan, has taken the course of many strategies that made diminutive positive impacts to the country. Initially, this paper reveals that strategy, policy, or even doctrine development has failed to synthesize knowledge of lessons learned from similar global or U.S. driven approaches. The purpose of this paper is to explore cognitive errors leading to poor strategic-level U.S. military decision making and policy adoption. This can be attributed to a paucity of analysis of historical knowledge captured in the form of lessons learned.

Common to business, academic, and military spheres, the study and implementation of practices that worked or failed are called “lessons learned.” One such Army Regulation 11-33, Army Lessons Learned Program (ALLP), states: “The purpose of collecting, identifying, analyzing, disseminating, and integrating lessons learned and critical operational information and knowledge is to sustain, enhance, and increase the Army's preparedness to conduct current and future operations” (United States 2006, 1-1). The purpose of collecting lessons learned allows the community of practice, unified action partners (UAP), or the Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational (JIIM) community to have access to job, task or mission specific tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs); best practices, or efficient operating procedures. They also help organizations improve information and communication through an established and vetted means of examining historical or tacit knowledge and making explicit inferences that can be used to guide process improvement (Niven 2003, 91). Unfortunately, many lessons learned were not adopted leading to perceived “magical thinking, misunderstanding of the environment, ignoring politics, poor planning, and a disturbing refusal to plan for the future” (Foust 2012).

The fault seems to lie in humans’ processing of their environment (a cognitive error based explanation) as well as a process implementation problem. Namely, cognitive errors “caused by the misuse, or lack or use, of knowledge” (Hurst 2008, 1) have lead to the U.S. largely not adopting enduring policy or strategy in Afghanistan. Furthermore, processes must be established in order to effectively adopt lessons learned. Change may occur through a top-driven approach, where military leaders and policymakers institutionalize lessons learned and adhere to several fundamental tenants for success (Fernandez 2006, 169). This paper seeks to answer the question: Why have military lessons learned programs largely failed to drive positive strategy or policy changes in the current state of affairs in Afghanistan? General questions used to direct research to answer the aforementioned are: 1) What general or specific cognitive errors or organizational shortfalls largely impeded adopting lessons learned in a military setting? 2) What tactics, strategy, or policy has been affected by not adopting lessons learned? 3) What lessons learned programs exist? 4) What are some solutions to mitigate these scenarios? Further, this paper is organized to give a background on lessons learned, provide an overview of cognitive and logic errors that inhibit development of effective strategy, identify potential solutions, define utilized methodology, and provide analysis and draw assumptions of the findings.  

Lessons Learned Background

Lessons learned are a process of capturing information from a situation or issue for the purposes of providing feedback or best practices for those in the future who may encounter a similar circumstance. For current situations, lessons learned that were captured from previous similar circumstances may reveal potential solutions or TTPs that can be used to mitigate or improve upon a circumstance.  Army Regulation (AR) 11-33, ALLP, defines the importance of collecting best practices, observations, insights, or even personal lessons are for the purposes of preparing for the current and future operational environment (United States 2006, 1-1). Klaudi Tani, editor of Afghanistan Post 2014 – Lessons Learned and What to Expect, identifies the importance of using lessons learned as a means to prepare for the future operational environment. The article further notes that organizations, “either military or civilian analyze their experiences and try to learn from them” (Tani 2014, 2) through the application of lessons and knowledge gained from environments they operate. Associated to the current and future operational environment in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the overarching command for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), is dependent on international cooperation and “intensely on securing lessons learned from the mission in Afghanistan…such lessons [are] of outmost importance to both NATO as an alliance, as well as the individual member states” (Tani 2014, 3). The success of ISAF and U.S. Forces in Afghanistan is related to their propensity to understand the insurgency as well as the operational environment; making lessons learned critical to mission success.  

The Impact of Lessons Learned in Afghanistan

Literature reveals that the fundamental use of lessons learned at the strategic or policy level is limited, whereas a focus on tactical lessons learned is emphasized. In order to adjust strategy and impact the latent issues, tactical lessons are not enough to secure unilateral and multinational objectives. For instance, Tani states, “It is not enough to focus on tactical lessons taken from combat operations…[where] the Allies need to focus on the full-spectrum of operations conducted as part of the ISAF mission, as well as from all levels of operations from tactical to strategic” (Tani 2014, 3). Lessons learned currently utilized in Afghanistan are thus low-level (tactically oriented, or typically for improving TTPs from an operational security or force protection perspective) and have little effect on the strategic outcomes and governing policies.  These tactical lessons may include measures to protect troops against improvised explosive devices (IEDs), communications and technical advancements, and force protection procedures.

William Byrd, author of Ten Lessons the U.S. Should Learn from Afghanistan’s History, postulates that past lessons could have prevented some of the faults or failures to U.S. strategic goals in Afghanistan if proper consideration of historical variables were integrated into strategy, doctrine, or policy. Ten of the most pertinent lessons not adopted by U.S. strategists, as derived from Byrd’s historical analysis of strategic failures are: 1) Afghanistan as a nation has never had a significant secessionist movement; 2) Expectations regarding the speed of progress must be kept modest; 3) The nations that surround Afghanistan may act as “spoilers,” and undermine the goals of Coalition Forces due to geopolitical circumstances; 4) The nation has historically been “characterized by chronic succession problems and associated conflict;” 5) Afghan National Security Forces have generally been low quality and limited in their ability to provide security to most of the nation; 6) The establishment and funding of militias (i.e., “arbakis”) risk long-term stability and pose threats to a synergetic environment; 7) “Effective Afghan leadership, pursuing a national agenda is critical for achieving positive outcomes in times of change and transition …including foreign military withdrawals; 8) Afghanistan historically has depended on external financial support; even in the absence of resident security forces or peace keepers; 9) the Afghan economy is poised better than most periods in history, in order to continue its growth the U.S. must maintain “political stability, avoiding deterioration in security, and building confidence…[and avoid] abrupt declines in international aid,” and 10) rapid implementation of policy perpetuating equality of rights based on gender and equality will largely fragment or destabilize the social structure (Byrd 2012). William Dalrymple, author of In Afghanistan, we Never Seem to Learn our Lessons, validates the aforementioned and makes the point that Coalition Forces continually repeat historical failures (Dalrymple 2013). For example, he quotes Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, saying “Our so-called current allies behave to us just as the British did to Shah Shuja. They have squandered the opportunity given to them by the Afghan people” (Dalrymple 2013). Thus, literature suggests strategic goals and policy fails to implement historical lessons, leading to nominal changes to Afghanistan’s operational environment. The following section will explore possibilities as to why the U.S. failed to adopt historical lessons or best practices into strategic level policy.    

Faults in Adopting Lessons Learned

Adopting lessons learned from present and prior circumstances is vital to the success in any operational environment where the U.S. has committed assets. Cognitive errors such as bifurcation, which presumes a situation is mutually exclusive and “exhaustive” of potential “alternatives” even though other possibilities may be present (Engel 1994), have caught the U.S. in a pattern of rigid focus on the immediate conditions. Lessons learned typically fail at the policy or strategic level due to a combination of cognitive and logic errors, or even flawed implementation policy.

Cognitive or Logic Errors: Implementing Lessons Learned

In terms of cognitive or logic errors, the use of analogies and counterfactual reasoning in the adoption of lessons learned to policy or strategy may lead to poor judgments and errors as they override critical thinking and input knowledge. The confluence of mixing historical analogies with present decision making may allow the decision maker to exclude evidence or context that is outside or not in-line with the derived historical example (i.e., lessons learned). For instance, Bowman and Dale, in a research paper to Congress, articulated the need for U.S. objectives and strategy to be congruent with lessons learned by conveying the following points: The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan must clearly define “its interests in the nation, define strategic objectives determined by interests, as well as identify which diplomatic, economic, and military approaches to implement; how to allocate resources, and determine how to prioritize objectives in Afghanistan versus other national security concerns” (Bowman 2009, 2). This is only possible through examining past events as paradigms that can equip policymakers with the data and knowledge base to make informed decisions. However, it appears that most “political behavior is guided by individual beliefs about what is appropriate and [a] beneficial activity” (Young 1998, 63) when determining courses of action that implement strategy or policy in an operational environment.

Elaborating on the above point Joshua Foust, writer for Need to Know: PBS, identifies five important lessons learned not adopted by U.S. policymakers. Each is then associated to common errors in logic: 1) “The danger of magical thinking” assumes U.S. strategy does not logically follow good judgment based on present events impacting the environment (Foust 2012). For instance, military leaders often follow the error of cum hoc ergo proter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this” (CSUN 2006)), i.e., irrational correlation to cause and effect relationships. 2) “The need to understand the environment” suggests that the U.S. does not appropriately understand the enemy or latent issues leading to the current state (Foust 2012). This may represent one of many errors to include a cum hoc fallacy in which leaders do not understand the environment because they assume “that because two things occur together, they must be causally related” (Logical Fallacies 2014). Thus, previous lessons of nations and people where the U.S. has operated did not advance our modus operandi, but only led to “billions of dollars wasted on schemes that had little chance of success” (Foust 2012). 3) “The war is a political conflict” suggests U.S. forces do not understand the political environment they are immersed in (Foust 2012), but tends to focus on tactical initiatives. Sylvan and Thorson refer to this as a “problem representation” or “options selection” error. This type of error can exclude relevant variables or context. When policymakers focus “primarily on options or alternatives” they may “obscure the most critical determinants of decision making” (Sylvan and Thorson 1992, 710). 4) “The consequences of the failure to plan” (Foust 2012) is where the U.S. has not incorporated the right stakeholders, used appropriate logic, or identified acceptable requirements. This factor may include errors of bifurcation or a variety of other cognitive mistakes. 5) Lastly, “real success only matters over the long term” makes suppositions that contingency or exit strategy planning is critical to success (Foust 2012). As the U.S. has failed to plan for its exit strategy, this is indicative of errors such as faulty generalizations or a variety of errors suggesting the uniqueness of the situation (i.e., nothing is historically comparable).

Policy and Process Issues: Implementing Lessons Learned

In addition to cognitive constraints hindering the implementation of lessons learned at the strategic level, literature suggests that policy or processes also may contribute to the issue. Due to the complexities and errors such as policymakers’ propensity to engage in counterfactual reasoning, few top-driven changes have occurred in adopting lessons at the strategic level. Policymakers are inundated with vast bodies “of work [that] abounds with complexities, including multiple and conflicting theories and research findings and a good bit of inconclusiveness” (Fernandez 2006, 168). Specific approaches such as “organization transformation,” which includes everything from tactics to facilitate “large-scale, planned, strategic, and administrative change” (Fernandez 2006, 168) have not been developed by the military strategic planners or those affecting policy (in Afghanistan or elsewhere). In order for lessons learned to be adopted to impact the latent causes of an issue, leaders need to practice how changes can be implemented. J. Willis Hurst, author of Cognitive Errors (Can They Be Prevented?), suggests that leaders or policymakers are fundamental in adopting change, i.e., a top driven approach to preventing cognitive errors, leading to organizational improvement (Hurst 2008, 1). Initially, Hurst suggests lack of knowledge and improper application of knowledge (Hurst 2008, 2) prevents processes from making change to the operational environment. Strategic leaders must champion a process (regardless of specificity) and employ it tactically through cascading the effort through all command echelons (i.e., strategic through tactical) in order to implement lessons learned impacting a specific issue. In sum, lessons learned must be used as the catalyst for change through nesting them in an organizational process that is championed by strategic leadership.

Potential Solutions

Among various strategies used to improve cognitive and critical thinking abilities, the most prevalent method for adopting lessons learned at a strategic level is process oriented. When processes are adhered to, certain cognitive errors are avoided or diminished. As cognition is largely a process in itself, processes can go astray as action “is guided by individual beliefs about what is appropriate and beneficial” (Young1998, 65). It can be deduced, that in order to implement a strategy this vetted in lessons learned, a systematic approach must be taken to avoid personal or group errors. One such process, suggested by Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey, is comprised eight successive tasks that drive change. It is further championed by executive policymakers, and uses lessons learned as the catalyst for implementation.  Its fundamentals incorporate: 1) ensuring there is a need (i.e., a desire to solve an issue); 2) developing and providing a plan for implementation; 3) identifying and structuring internal ownership and overcoming institutional opposition; 4) championing senior leadership; 5) organizing external support and associated initiatives; 6) allocating financial support and resources; 7) institutionalizing changes through established processes and culture, and 8) aligning comprehensive change to the organization’s mission and strategy (Fernandez and Rainey, 168-173). Not any one process may be deemed more efficacious than another; whereas literature simply revealed that enduring change can only occur if there is a process implemented.


Findings suggest that lessons learned can drive change in a military environment when applied correctly. Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey, authors of Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector, suggests that change can occur through a top-driven approach in which leaders and policy makers institutionalize lessons learned and adhere to several fundamental tenants for success. All of which to be successful must incorporate lessons learned and avoid biases or logic errors.  

Findings also imply that the adoption of lessons learned or the use of paradigms in decision making is faulted for two primary reasons. Initially, the prevalence of certain logic errors or counterproductive reasoning may impact strategy or policy adoption. Secondly, military organizations lack strategic processes that cascade the adoption of lessons learned throughout command echelons. Literature suggested that some lessons learned are adopted at the tactical levels of commands (i.e., brigade and below), but large strategic or national command groups generally fail to implement lessons learned in decisions that affect overarching strategy or policy. Tactical adoption of lessons learned frequently works as there is a localized emphasis to mitigate a specific threat in the operational environment. For example, military leaders, in order to protect deployed troops from operational threats and adapt to the counterinsurgency environment, can make rapid and varying degrees of changes based on historical trends. Colonel William Ostlund, U.S. Army, says that tactical leaders are able to adjust to environments in Afghanistan, as their lives depend on “Leaders know[ing] their units and their capabilities and the physical and human terrain in the area of operations. Commanders must support their subordinate commanders, and leaders must continuously seek to understand the operating environment” (Ostlund 2009). However, strategic policy and practices has had little influence from lessons learned.

Inhibitors to Adopting Lessons Learned

A confluence of poor planning and logic errors, such as counterfactual reasoning, led to misguided policies and has left Afghanistan devoid of any real success. Specifically, errors of logic and reasoning are determents to critical thinking. The art and science of critical thinking increases the chances of success, as resources and manpower can be allocated in a coordinated effort. Learning from past mistakes and successes through the study of similar paradigms only enables this process and allows strategic decision makers to efficaciously implement policy or strategy that is aligned throughout subordinate commands. Logic fallacies such as argumentum ad antiquitatem (the appeal to traditionally accepted practices), cum hoc ergo proter hoc, or bifurcation have contributed to the current discourse in the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Even fallacies where commanders and strategists view the operational environment as unique or completely different from past conflicts have contributed to the current discourse failing to adapt and adopt lessons from similar circumstances that may provide value added in critical decision making. Generally, critical thinking is enabled by lessons learned, which allows multiple historical and present aspects of any given situation to be studied. However, literature reveals that more of a process oriented explanation than logic is to blame for strategic blunders.

Processes, when used correctly, enable military organizations to plan and prepare for the present and future operational environments. When organizations have flawed processes or the lack thereof, policies and strategies provide little impact and only distract from the intended outcome. When processes are developed to enable decision making at the strategic level, they should incorporate lessons learned, constructive feedback and critical input so as to avoid cognitive errors and counterfactual reasoning, and follow a logic-oriented approach to derive a plan impacting an intended outcome. Thus, planning and decision making need to be enabled by amendable and agile processes that incorporate lessons learned gathering and the implementation thereof.

Analysis of literature suggests it is largely a lack of processes that leads to cognitive errors and failure to adopt lessons learned in strategic decisions. Political scientist Graham Allison made some assumptions about high-level decision making that are useful in explaining some of the systemic strategic failures in the Afghanistan paradigm. He theorized in his book Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis that poor decision making can be explained through the use three theoretical models: 1) Model I, described “states as unitary and purposive, making consistent, value-maximizing choices within specified constraints;” 2) Model II supposes that bureaucratic decisions are derived from “organizational processes,” and 3) Model III describes decisions are derived from “governmental (or bureaucratic) politics” (Welch 1992, 114). However political scientist David Welch argued that each of the models is too simplistic. He suggested decision makers’ disregard for fundamentals such as improper operating processes, poor coordination of a large number of people, irrational actors, lack of standard operating procedures, unproductive interpersonal behavior, and political gamesmanship contribute to negative influences on decision making (Welch 1992, 117). Welch further said, Allison’s Model I supposes that poor decision making is derived from poor coordination and varying standards throughout many organizations when they have to work together to solve a single problem (Welch 1992, 117). Welch suggests Model II provides the best explanation of poor strategic decision-making, claiming “governmental behavior is constrained by the routines of the organization of which the government is composed” (Welch 1992, 117). Thus, this model postulates that the failure of internal processes and even personal or group cognitive errors inhibit good decision making. Finally, Model III suggests that poor decision making is systemic because senior leaders are internally combative and part of a “competitive game” where the “net effect of those games… deflects” unitary rational decision making or behavior (Welch 1992, 118). Model II, being the best descriptor, articulates that decisions may be hindered due to: 1) “Existing organizational routines” which may limit available options; 2) These routines are resistant to change; 3) Concurrent and legacy routines may predetermine an implementation plan (e.g., avoidance of critical approaches or dependence on counterfactual reasoning and failure to examine lessons learned), and 4) Routines and legacy processes “systematically induce instrumental irrationalities in state behavior” (Welch 1992, 120). Ergo, a more process oriented explanation inhibits organizational decision making and utilization of lessons learned as part of the decision making process. The improper employment of or lack of processes may actually allow certain cognitive errors into decision making as well as neglect the use of lessons learned. Finally, to introduce lessons learned into strategic policy it can be assumed only a process which incorporates tenants of critical thinking may improve policy adoption and form cohesive strategic goals.

Proposed Solutions

As already noted above, a process oriented solution must exist to incorporate historical paradigms and lessons learned into strategic decisions. This solution must be formed around an agile implementation plan, and incorporate critical thinking aspects to avoid cognitive errors and counterfactual reasoning. The fundamental tenants to adopting a process must include three principals: 1) It must be championed by senior leadership; 2) be cascaded through all command echelons, and 3) hold people accountable. No single process may be comprehensive enough to be adaptable in any given environment, but the above rudiments must be incorporated throughout a process oriented approach to ensure paradigms are adopted in a logical and methodological approach.

One of the general processes that can be used to articulate this notion was mentioned by Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey. Their fundamentals noted in Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector draws on many parallels seen in various performance management approaches used in the private sector. For example, Clemens Rettich, author of 5 Steps to Build an Effective Performance Management System, gives advice to developing a performance management process within an organization that can coincide with various public sector and military fundamentals: Initially, strategic commands must “lay [a] foundation” (Rettich 2012) and communicate to subordinate units expectations of how they will be part of the process. A process to adapt and adopt lessons learned affecting policy must start with the aspects of: forward thinking, identifying needed technical expertise, laying-out initiatives, critically and thoroughly reviewing an execution plan, and systematically orienting proponents to produce results (Rettich 2012). Second, high level commands must synchronize a process for evaluation throughout the approach (Rettich 2012). Units must be able to measure how well a plan has impacted a desired outcome as well as hold those aligned with the effort accountable for implementing. Third, champions and owners of the plan (e.g., commanders and action officers that have been identified as part of the process) should be appraised on their contributions and abilities to put into execution the fundamentals of the action plan (Rettich 2012). This allows for peers and subordinates to take personal ownership in the process. The last essential for the implementation of a process (leading to a plan to resolve some operational issue) is evaluating the process itself (Rettich 2012). Each command, or even military service, operates in varying and dissimilar environments.

Figure 1: Lessons Learned Flowchart

A blanket process may not be the answer for every unit or command. Evaluation of the process itself “will increase the internal and external validity of your methods, which will in turn increase your…performance” (Rettich 2012). Results are thus achieved by “developing comprehensive plans and implementing control systems that report upon actual performance against plans” (T 2009).   

The approaches identified by Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey when combined with a performance management philosophy can increase the effectiveness of a process oriented  approach for adopting lessons learned into strategy or policy. Leaders must thus ensure there is a need (i.e., an issue that can be addressed or potentially mitigated) and vigorously develop partnerships cascaded throughout command echelons. As leaders begin to develop a plan, a thorough study of lessons learned must be conducted to find like or similar historical circumstances. Once a similar paradigm, observation, insight, or lesson has been identified an action plan can be created. Leaders must also “build internal support…and overcome resistance” (e.g., build internal and external support, identify stakeholders, garner commitment, etc.) (Fernandez 2006, 170) in the process of implementing the plan. Once a plan is developed, task organized, and presented to responsible units, champions must measure the implementation through personnel evaluations and gauging the outcome/impact on the operational environment. Finally, the action plan must be resourced throughout execution with applicable information, data, financial support, and any criteria required to affect the operational environment.

The intent of a process implementation approach is to enable an agile implementation that will incorporate unbiased and logical criteria into policy or strategy. A systematic and responsive process is likely to prevent such errors from negatively impacting outcomes, even if individual members hold biased or faulty reasoning. Processes will thus enable decision makers to make informed and rational decisions when non-rational constructs may exist. Lessons learned provide little value if there is not a process that recognizes them and brings to light their applicability in the current operational environment.  

Summary and Conclusions

Literature reviewed highlighted the complexities military commanders face when addressing an issue (i.e., specifically Afghanistan). Lessons learned provide a unique way to examine observations, insights, or lessons where people or organizations have previously encountered like circumstances. Lessons learned can help provide mitigation procedures and best practices for overcoming operational environment or issue related obstacles through the review historical context. Strategy can consequently be adjusted though the use of similar historical paradigms. However, few strategic commands (i.e., versus tactical or operational commands) have adjusted or implemented policy or strategy through the use of lessons learned.

Two common themes have emerged that effect the adoption of lessons learned: one is a cognitive or logic problem and the other is a process oriented dilemma. Generally, strategic leaders fail to adopt lessons learned due to preconceived notions and logic errors such as faulty generalizations and the belief in the uniqueness of the situation. In addition, the establishment of concrete, codified processes must be used to implement lessons learned, such as the processes detailed in the article Managing Successful Organizational Change in the Public Sector by Sergio Fernandez and Hal G. Rainey. Overall, strategic policy is less affected by lessons learned than tactical policy. Leaders and decision makers are inhibited by human nature and our need to draw conclusions to make sense of our environment leading to faulty reasoning and unsound use of heuristics. Ergo, top-driven policy needs to coincide with the implementation of lessons learned when addressing pertinent issues impacting an operational environment.

Findings also suggest that the prevalence of logic errors, counterfactual reasoning, as well as the failure to adopt lessons learned addressing current dilemmas that may be systemic in the lack of processes. Strategic commands when addressing an issue must detail a process that not only incorporates lessons learned but allows for critical discussion and decision making. As a result, the research question, Why have military lessons learned programs largely failed to drive positive strategy or policy changes in the current state of affairs in Afghanistan?, revealed that lessons learned are less affected by cognitive errors and more by lack of cohesive processes. Addressing a process oriented explanation, lessons learned must be championed by senior leadership and implemented through a methodical approach. Such approaches must have buy in from stakeholders, use feedback loops, and be cascaded throughout respective commands. As a consequence, when certain processes are adhered to, originating from strategic commands, addressing the operational environment and using lessons learned as a catalyst for change becomes a feasible tactic.


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About the Author(s)

Joel Lawton <> ( is a former member of the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). His work with HTS included working in the U.S. and two tours to Afghanistan, where he conducted socio-cultural research management, collection, and support; as well as open-source intelligence analysis and qualitative data collection and analysis. Joel served in the USMC, deploying to southern Helmand Province in 2009 in support of combat operations. Further, Joel is an advocate of qualitative analysis and its use in military intelligence collection efforts. He currently works as an intelligence analyst for the Army, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).



Wed, 11/05/2014 - 12:44pm

COL Allen,

Arguing perceived déjà vu is different than implementing lessons learned. Yes, there are a lot of mistakes in OEF that run concurrent and are reminiscent of past failures. However, this was not the intent of the article. In order for the military and all the associated planning that coincides with any strategy, leaders must examine lessons learned (from past and the current conflicts) and do some sort of analysis. No situation is entirely exceptional from any previous event. I agree with your paper, that blueprinting strategy from one OE to another can lead to failure:

“We attempted to force the same template on Afghanistan. However, the context is different in that country’s conception of society, its history of governance, our identification of enemies, and the existence of safe havens that do not mirror our experience in Iraq.”

This is not the adoption of lessons learned- a copy and paste of something that worked in a dissimilar OE and applying it to another. Lessons learned should be used for drawing insights, conducting “what-if” analysis, using pairwise comparison techniques, and playing devil’s advocate. I really like your statement, “Once again, we are trying to fight the last war (following the assumed success of the surge in Iraq) through replication of those conditions and circumstances.” This further codifies my point, that examining lessons learned may help bring clarity to a situation and enable the planning process. The negative events tend to happen when we try to draw dissimilar conclusions and make unsubstantiated inferences.

Furthermore, confirmation bias is a hindrance when trying to formulate a cohesive strategy. I think more that a faulty use of heuristics can lead leaders to make big jumps in operational planning without examining the contextual detail between (i.e., we tend to focus on just a couple of independent variables and skip those that do not fit a particular schema). I may differ; I believe that faulty heuristics affect strategic planners. It is those entrusted with these leadership positions that make policy/strategy and they delegate to lower command to implement and execute. Human nature does incline us “to grasp the most recent thing that solved a problem and then try to apply that to the next similar situation.” Leaders must use methods to avoid these biases, such as red teams, Delphi techniques, normative group processes; etc.

Thank you for your input.




Wed, 11/05/2014 - 12:52pm

In reply to by jcustis

The article is not a discussion on national policy; rather it is a discussion on how policy is failing within the military. The military drives policy from the four star-level to lower echelons with entire staffs dedicated to the development, implementation and assessment of policy.

The discussion is about the military’s ability to implement lessons learned to effect its internal policy development and assessment. While my article is focused on the military, these discussions could apply to national-level policy decisions which suffer from similar misuse of logic.

Thank you for your input.


Wed, 11/05/2014 - 12:08pm

The author's entire tack with this article is wrong. The military does not drive policy, and US military lessons learned programs do not collect in that sphere. That's basic War College level knowledge.

The only thing he got right was the assertion that strategic policy is less affected by LL than tactical policy. There is a reason for that.

If he wants to have a discussion about the inability to absorb historical lessons learned and poke at a lack of mechanisms to capture them, he should be looking at the Department of State and the National Security Staff first, then delve into the processes used at those levels to formulate national policy and strategic goals.

In summary, he asked a flawed research question.


Wed, 11/05/2014 - 8:55am


From my essay in Dec 2009:

"Once again, we are trying to fight the last war (following the assumed success of the surge in Iraq) through replication of those conditions and circumstances. As Richard Neustadt and Ernest May authored in “Thinking in Time,” the context and the players are different, so how can we expect the same results? This is not strategic thinking. This phenomenon is simply reflective of human nature. Decades of research show that we are inclined to grasp the most recent thing that solved a problem and then try to apply that to the next similar situation. The thing we take hold of tends to be the most recent or most vivid memory that quickly comes to mind."

The other aspect is the prevlence of confirmation bias, where we pay attention to and select information that confirms what we seek to prove--hence, the "imited use of lessons learned." Knowledge of heuristics and biases are essential for critical thinking, especially for operational and strategic issues.