What my time working with the Afghan military taught me

The news over this past week from Afghanistan has everyone surprised. How did 20 years of work vanish in one week? I watch this news unfold recalling my own time in Afghanistan.

In 2012 I deployed at the US/NATO joint headquarters in Kabul, at the very airport where today U.S. civilians struggle to return home. I worked every day with officers from our allied nations on the military side of the airport, and every night returned to my bunk room on the other side of a runway separated by a concrete barrier. Our task was to decommission our infrastructure and transfer to Afghan military and civil authorities, and work alongside them to train on how to run these facilities. Some of our installations became schools which now I can only hope remain that way. We traveled to several installations to work side by side with Afghan authorities.

I even once bumped into — literally bumped into — President Hamid Karzai in a stairwell as I was trying to avoid his entourage and inadvertently walked right into it.

Seeing what is happening now, I know there are hundreds of experts in the media discussing how this happened. Much of it revolves around planning errors on our part or tactical errors on the part of Afghan military leadership. I don’t pretend to know how to prioritize any number of factors. One insightful article touched on the culture in Afghanistan that is more provincial and tribal, instead of national. This reminded me of a conversation I had with an insightful U.S. intelligence officer while I was deployed: our idea of a national identity is sacred; this isn’t so in some other parts of the world, such as Afghanistan.

I recall what was essentially a marketing campaign to encourage Afghan military personnel to view themselves as serving a nation, not their village or province. Senior military officers are regularly shuffled throughout different parts of the country to encourage a broader view and create distance from their provinces with which they identify more strongly.

This all seemed natural to us. No matter what state we call home, we call ourselves American. Author Yuval Noah Harari in ‘Sapiens’ articulates it well: every culture is bound by collective myth. Not a myth in the negative sense, but as in a conceptual narrative about who we are. It takes generations to develop a national mythology, and therefore bind us to a national identity. We tried to do this in Afghanistan through catchy phrases and posters.

A soldier abandoning their duty to country is abhorrent to us. But it may seem more like an everyday choice to somebody whose identity is not national, but local or regional. Joining with your brothers in arms may make more sense if you identify more with what village they’re from than what country you’re in.

The fallout from what has happened over the last several days in Afghanistan may take years to become apparent, and perspective will help us understand how 20 years of work can vanish in a week. But perhaps the conversation should include adopting a perspective that has never occurred to us.

Managing Partner for Cortado Ventures and Young Global Leader in the World Economic Forum. Investor and advisor for tech startups, building a better future.