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Nobody “wins” Afghanistan

August 16, 2021

I once heard an interesting talk with Simon Sinek using the fall of Saigon as an illustration of an infinite game.

Basically, a finite game has fixed rules that are understood and mutually accepted by both sides and after a prescribed period of time, the game ends, the score is tallied, a winner declared, and the players decide if they want to play again.

Unlike the finite game, in an infinite game some rules may be fixed but some rules continuously change, the situations morph, the targets and “goalposts” move, and the game only ends with one side giving up the will to continue playing. There is no winner and loser. Play just stops.

(In the west we love to have the order of clear winners and losers and we passionately root for our favorite team.) Unfortunately, reality and business rarely works this way. Life is a long game filled with unexpected decisions that need to be made.

In the west we romanticize and erroneously assume that if we could just plant “democracy”, countries would naturally embrace it. We idolize freedom and independance. And we somehow believe, with little regard for other respective cultures and backgrounds, that they’ll understand democracy or have the same hunger for personal freedom as we do in the west (enough so to fight and sacrifice their own flesh and blood to earn and protect it).  That doesn’t appear to be the case.

In July of 1776 (just 245 years ago) The United States became the first country in history to be created from written and printed documents with laws, rules, linear sequential processes and declarations. Our constitution and bill of rights dictated how we would move forward – everyone agreed. And there was an over-arching consensus. Our very form of government was grounded in the rule of law. (Healthy functioning democratic societies around the globe are almost exclusively written cultures that quickly embraced the printing press in the late 1500s.)

Most eastern and ancient cultures, however, were born and evolved out of oral traditions (many hundreds of years before the invention of the printing press) and their values, processes, communities, and governments act and change accordingly. Oral cultures don’t appear to be as systematic, literate, and linear as written cultures and therefore don’t rationalize, prioritize, and think in the same logical ways as written ones. Oral cultures are historically and by nature more tribal, passionately reactive, impulsive, and often seem unpredictable and irrational.

Saigon in April 1975, like Afghanistan, fell because the US didn’t have the will and/or resources to continue playing an infinite game in another country – the ongoing sacrifice of thousands of US lives and dollars. Today, for whatever reasons, the aimless effort in Afghanistan stopped.

There is no winner or loser in an infinite game. The Taliban opponent, just like the North Vietnamese, simply had the will and drive to persevere as long as it took for their circumstance to change.

President Biden was correct. This mission, however it related to 9/11, was completed over a decade ago.

This begs the question of why we were in either country, fighting for so long?  For what and at what costs?

One Comment
  1. Dan Higgins permalink

    Gary, thanks for sharing. I resonate with your thoughts 100%.

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