Lessons from Afghanistan

After 20 years, 241 000 deaths (71 000 being civilians), and more than 2 trillion dollars, America and its allies have given up on winning the war in Afghanistan. Within weeks the Taliban is back in control. Why could the West not solve this problem?

This week I read a famous article about ‘wicked’ problems. Wicked in the sense that they are cancer like: they evolve, they are aggressive, they attack, and they take over and distort existing cells. Wicked as opposed to tame problems. Wicked problems are persistently untameable.

Tame problems are like maths, or chemistry, or engineering, they have the following features, the problems are definable and can be solved. Everyone agrees that a solution has been achieved. The solution is either right, or wrong. If you get the solution wrong, you just go back to the start and try again.

For the past 250 odd years, Western societies have made great progress in solving tame problems. We have worked out how to mass-produce goods efficiently. We have invented machines that can replace manual labour. We can educate the masses and make medical treatment available to most people. In each case, a problem has been defined, an agreed solution achieved, and the public good advanced.

We imagine all problems are tame. But they are not! What exactly was the problem in Afghanistan? That it harboured terrorists? That it abused human rights? That it was the source of opium? That it was a militant form of Islam?

If we cannot nail the exact problem, we cannot set a clear goal as to its solution. Then comes debate about the outcomes. Would more people have died if we did not intervene? Would terrorism have been greater or less? Thousands of Afghan girls now have education and hold down professions. Was that worth it? Is the average Afghani better off under allied occupation or Taliban rule? How would they know? How would we know? Commentators will announce different levels of success, given their relative interests and perspective. We cannot agree if the war was good or bad.

Now we hit another feature of wicked problems. They are not like maths problems where you can just start again. Afghanistan is now different. Can we just leave? And have we left it better, or worse? In many ways, you cannot know. But that will not hold people from holding strong opinions. A mother who lost her American son in the war will have a different opinion to a mother whose daughter will now be forced to marry a Taliban soldier.

Now we have left Afghanistan. But what was the ‘deeper cause’ we were fighting against? Was it terrorism? Militant Islam? Drugs? Human rights abuses? And if these were valid causes to fight against – how do we continue the good fight? And where?

We expect our leaders to know the answers and to solve these problems. Is Biden doing the right thing by leaving? Was Bush wrong to intervene? Leaders will be voted in or out by how they frame, attempt to solve, or walk away from wicked problems. Is that fair?

As I find myself overwhelmed and swamped by my own questions to the point of almost giving up, I realise many other problems are probably better understood to be wicked problems, rather than tame ones. Can you tame a COVID virus? What will the new ‘normal’ look like? How do you tackle addiction? Abuse? Racism?

And as a Christian and a minister, I ask what does it mean to follow Jesus and lead a Church in the Post Christian locked-down world? To be honest, I don’t know all the answers, let alone all the questions. Is it a wicked problem? Or a tame one? Or parts of both?

But I do know this. God knows. He is loving and powerful, and his Spirit is in me and us. Today I need to follow Jesus. That will do.

Rev David Rietveld

Senior Minister


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