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We can't rewind the clock in Afghanistan... we should learn from the 20 years, not try to forget it and wash it away, or sweep it under the rug.

– John Sopko, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction

About the report

The Vanguard Occasional Paper Series: Preparing for the Future

With the conclusion of the Afghanistan War in 2021, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is now in a position to reflect on what the campaign may teach us that will help prepare it for the future. As the lead of the Preparing for the Future: Key Organisational Lessons from the Afghanistan Campaign research project, Major General Andrew Hocking has identified 21 key lessons and proposes 50 recommendations across five focus area – strategy making, campaign design, command and control, ADF culture and ADF learning, adaption and risk management. This study is not a history of the campaign, rather it is a reflection of the ADF's commitment to continuous learning and preparing itself and its people for the future. As such, it provides an opportunity for objective reflection and debate on how the ADF may further evolve and contribute to whole-of-government actions to achieve national strategic objectives.

Read the full paper

Download publication as a PDF [3.53 MB]. The report is 59 pages plus Annexes, endnotes, and bibliography. We recommend reading the lessons and observations then diving deeper into those that interest you.

Listen to The Cove Podcast's exclusive episode

CAPT Samuel Cox from The Cove sat down with the report's author, MAJGEN Andrew Hocking, prior to the report's release and had a 1hr conversation about the report's contents. A must-listen. Click the link below to listen to the podcast. Please note this is not available on the DPN but can be found on the www, our Cove App, or The Cove's Spotify account.

Watch the Talk

Watch MAJGEN Hocking's talk about the paper at the Chief of Army Seminar on 'Leading in a Learning Organisation' held in Canberra on 4 May 2022.

Executive Summary

While the ADF's strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures, contributions and lapses were on occasion magnified or exacerbated by the conflict environment in Afghanistan, none of them were created there. As for generations of military forces going back to antiquity, we fought essentially as we trained. Reflecting thoughtfully on our Afghanistan experience provides a lens through which to strengthen our training and preparation for the challenges of the future.

– General Angus J Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force, September 2021

This study finds that the collapse of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in August 2021 represented a failure to achieve the primary objective of the NATO strategy: "to enable the Afghan government to provide effective security across the country and develop new Afghan security forces to ensure Afghanistan would never again become a safe haven for terrorists."

Nonetheless, this study finds that the contribution made by the ADF and other whole-of-government partners to the war in Afghanistan denied terrorists safe havens, enhanced Australia’s alliance with the US (and relationship with NATO) and provided the Afghan people with an opportunity to pursue a better way of life.

This study finds that the Afghanistan Campaign contributed significantly to the development of the ADF’s combat capability. However, the evolving character of war and the potential for future conflict to be existential and less discretionary than the Afghanistan Campaign will demand an increased and accelerated development of combat capability. This will need to be complemented by refinements in broader aspects of national security and the military art, ranging from strategy making through to culture. While some of the demands on Australia’s whole-of-government security apparatus will be new, many are likely to be continuities of those experienced in past wars, including in Afghanistan.

One of these continuities is likely to be the complexity of making strategy in a coalition environment, where individual nations seek to calibrate their commitment to align with sovereign national interests, public/political will and capacity constraints associated with other competing demands. Despite this complexity, this study highlights the importance of developing (and influencing as a junior partner) an overarching coalition strategy that has a clear-eyed, long-term view of the operating environment and the nature of the problem it seeks to solve. It also highlights the importance of troop contributing nations developing their own national strategies and clearly defining and communicating associated national strategic objectives.

This study finds that beyond the military commitment to Afghanistan, Australia’s broader whole-of-government contribution had an important impact, but it was relatively modest given the significance of governance and development to achieving enduring strategic outcomes. While the whole-of-government contribution increased in size and importance over time, it was not central to Australia’s strategic design. In an increasingly complex and dynamic strategic environment, this study identifies opportunities to further evolve Australia’s whole-of-government strategy-making process in ways that might enhance problem understanding and optimise the application of coordinated whole-of-government action to achieve national strategic objectives.

This study identifies opportunities for the ADF to further evolve and enhance its contribution to broader whole-of-government efforts. Specific opportunities are identified in areas of military campaign design and assessment, including more robust consideration of force options and associated risks. It also identifies ways the ADF might learn from its Afghanistan experience and further codify command and control options, risks and opportunities in coalition contexts. This evolution might enhance Australian influence, increase national oversight and assurance, and ensure optimal alignment of tactical action to the achievement of strategic ends.

Beyond the mechanisms of strategy making, campaign design, and command and control (C2), this study highlights the equally important human factors that translate strategy into practical action: through people, teams and culture. It identifies significant strengths in ADF culture, but it also flags inherent vulnerabilities. It suggests ways of better acknowledging and mitigating these vulnerabilities to cultivate a more balanced ADF culture, which better leverages the talents of ADF personnel, mitigates moral risks associated with high-pressure military environments and increases the collective performance of the ADF in what is likely to be a more integrated and diverse whole-of-government and multinational future operating environment.

Finally, this study identifies opportunities for the ADF to improve organisational-level risk/opportunity scanning and better enable objective reflection that enhances strategy making and accelerates learning at all levels. It concludes that accelerating the pace of learning and adaption (including learning from the Afghanistan Campaign) will be critical to ensuring future success (or at least avoiding early failure) in a rapidly changing and increasingly competitive world. It is hoped that this study contributes to the necessary speed of adaption and by doing so ensures the ADF (and the broader national security community) is well prepared for any challenges ahead.

Organised into five focus areas, this study identifies 21 key organisational-level lessons and provides 50 associated recommendations aimed at preparing the ADF for the future. It also identifies a further 20 general observations.