This post is part of a wider ongoing project on risk management, crises and decision-making under uncertainty in the NGO security risk management community, through the lens of the Afghanistan Crisis.
When the Taliban ramped up their offensive in May 2021, there were few indicators that it would lead to an immediate collapse of the Western-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the multi-trillion-dollar project of the last twenty years. Unlike past years of fighting, more than one provincial capital was attacked; offensives were concurrent, multiple, and bloody, backed by shrewd strategic intent that targeted international borders and transit routes throughout the country. By August, the resistance all but ceased, and not a shot was fired as Taliban forces entered Kabul City, ending twenty years of US-led warfare.
The rapidity of developments, which saw the cascading collapse of government forces, the unchallenged takeover of the capital, and a complex international evacuation in the span of weeks, caught the world by surprise. But was it an example of a Black Swan – a highly improbable, consequential event, that is deemed so predictable in hindsight? The debate about whether Afghanistan constitutes a Black Swan might seem somewhat theoretical at first sight. However, the arguments involved shed a light on the ways in which we design and apply risk management measures, and understanding them better can contribute to creating ever more robust security planning. Let’s take a look.
Black Swan events have extreme, even catastrophic impacts. Few can argue against this in the case of the Afghanistan Crisis. The full extent of the impact of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is no doubt yet to emerge. Still, a collapse of the regime, the evaporation of 20 years and trillions of dollars in investment, and the biggest airlift of personnel in history are no doubt significant. It was a lesson in the value of patience, perseverance, and astute understanding of people over wealth, firepower, and western political and social ideals. There is even analysis projecting the impact of the victory in bolstering insurgent morale worldwide. However, for large swathes of the Afghan countryside, these events were a drama playing out dimly in the background, and this new era will be one of comparative peace and safety. This touches on another important aspect of Black Swans: such a consequential event to one individual or group of people may not be experienced as such for others.
Against all odds
By nature, Black Swans are of low probability. However, such a concept doesn’t really help since we don’t have the opportunity to repeat the Afghan War again and again to assess whether a Taliban victory comes up five throws out of ten or one in one hundred. The Taliban takeover of Kabul in August 2021 would have been described as unlikely, if not impossible, by many observers even up to the event itself: it defied the reasoning of the day. Surely something was going to happen? Surely there would be a last stand, a negotiated ceasefire, a mediated transition of power with Kabul as a last garrison of the Islamic Republic? Indeed, an interesting element of this crisis is the gulf between the things many of us told ourselves about what was happening and the events taking place: was there ever really any evidence that a transitional government or last stand was at hand? Some argue that this crisis was, in fact, not the outlier outcome but the inevitable one, harkening back to historical insurgent victories and failures of interventionism, especially given the final withdrawal of NATO troops and air support. This leads us to the third, and most contentious, element of a Black Swan.
Predictability in hindsight
In hindsight, it might be easy to proclaim how obvious it was. One might question how the ANSF was supposed to mount a defence in earnest when the foundation of their military capability (i.e. US air support) had been so callously removed. Or conclude that the whole thing was doomed to fail; all the markers were there for those who cared to look. However, events run forwards, not backwards, and such assurances fail to account for the near impossibility of recreating prior states of knowledge; hindsight is 20/20. Research also shows us that this can be indicative of a confirmation bias, where particular elements of a series of events become more salient as they contribute to a model, while those that contradict it fade into obscurity. If it was so predictable, why was everyone so surprised? Why did chaos ensue?
So what: what does it mean for us?
The discussion will continue as to whether or not what took place in Afghanistan in 2021 counts as a Black Swan. What is certain is that high impact events, such as COVID-19 and the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, will continue to dominate the operating environment. As a result, organisations must learn to not only survive but thrive in conditions of radical uncertainty. We often suffer from a problem of induction, where, to once again quote Taleb, ‘we think that our tomorrows are likely to be pretty much like our yesterdays’, and rely on outlooks, forecasts, and ‘most likely scenarios’ that represent only a tiny slither of an infinite wheel of possible futures. Scenario planning, analysis of competing hypotheses and focusing on preparedness over prediction are possible means by which we can adapt. To borrow from John Kay and Mervyn King: ‘the attempt to construct probabilities is a distraction from the more useful task of trying to produce a robust and resilient defence capability to deal with many contingencies.’
The authors of this post are delving deeper into this subject with their ongoing project looking at the lessons from the Afghanistan crisis on risk management and decision-making under uncertainty. They have been interviewing a range of NGO staff and subject matter experts to identify lessons and gain insights that can equip NGOs against the Black Swans of the future. If you were an NGO staff member with security, risk, or management responsibilities during the Afghanistan Crisis and response of August 2021 and you would like to contribute, please complete this survey or contact the authors using the details below.
About the Authors
Araba Cole (email@example.com) and Panagiotis Olympiou (firstname.lastname@example.org) are security risk management professionals who have spent their careers primarily in the humanitarian sector, though both with military and private sector experience. They come to this project having themselves worked in Afghanistan (for organisations such as INSO, NRC, and IFRC between them), experience which was some of the most formative for them in their approach to security. They are independently conducting a research project regarding risk management and decision-making under uncertainty, focusing on the NGO response in Afghanistan during the summer of 2021, with support from GISF and Humanitarian Outcomes.
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