Is the chaotic departure of Americans from Afghanistan partly the result of a failure of imagination by military and political leaders?
New York Times opinion writer, Tom Friedman, back on May 19, 2002, wrote: “The failure to prevent September 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination. It was a failure of imagination.”
Friedman pointed out that there had been so many signs of growing terrorism—in Beirut, East Africa, the truck bomb at the World Trade Center. And yet no one could possibly imagine planes slamming into the Twin Towers or the Pentagon.
And today one has to wonder if the drowning of Afghanistan, its people and institutions, by a tsunami of Taliban fighters was caused, in the final analysis, by a failure to imagine what might happen, and how fast it would happen, when U.S. armed forces were withdrawn from that country.
How could leaders in Washington have not imagined what might occur after President Donald Trump announced that all United States troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021 and when President Joe Biden signaled his concurrence but extended the date to September 11, 2021, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Couple those Trump-Biden withdrawal announcements with the fact that for many years before those commitments, the Taliban knew that so called “peace” negotiations were not aimed at military victory in Afghanistan but a political settlement. Those on again—off again talks dragged on for years. Did no one imagine that the Taliban had no interest in peace but, instead, wanted time to plan for the day when they could rule Afghanistan? Apparently not. And, as a result, the Taliban gained time—precious time–to strengthen their military capabilities and strategies.
Was it not possible to imagine what the Taliban were up to?
Are we at a place where our leaders and workaday problem solvers are failing to apply their creative imaginations to uncover solutions to complex issues?
The American Psychological Association has a definition for creative imagination. It is “the faculty by which new, uncommon ideas emerge, especially when emergence does not seem explicable by the mere combination of existing ideas.”
Over the years some well-known figures have commented on the value of using one’s imagination.
Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important that knowledge.”
Winston Churchill, during World War II, sought to surround himself with people of great imagination– “corkscrew thinkers,” he called them.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower urged the federal government to employ people who possessed “outstanding leadership abilities, creative imagination and sound judgment.”
And Mark Twain once said “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
Sad to say, it appears that in Afghanistan we saw a lot with our eyes but lacked the necessary imagination to focus on what was coming.
Ross Jones is a former vice president and secretary emeritus of The Johns Hopkins University. He joined the University in 1961 as assistant to President Milton S. Eisenhower. A 1953 Johns Hopkins graduate, he later earned a Master’s Degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.