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How the lessons learned from Afghanistan were soon forgotten

The mission in Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2010 was a formative experience for Dutch soldiers in which many lessons were learned. But most of those lessons have already been forgotten, according to research by PhD student Martijn van der Vorm.

Martijn van der Vorm
Martijn van der Vorm

For his dissertation, Van der Vorm conducted research on the learning processes of Dutch and British armed forces during their deployment in southern Afghanistan, and looked at the extent to which the lessons learned were subsequently implemented in these organisations.

These lessons were multifaceted and diverse, according to Van der Vorm. ‘For example, we learned a lot about civil-military relations where, as a member of the military, you try to influence the region through peaceful contact. But we also learned to fight differently because the Taliban began to avoid regular combat and to use roadside bombs instead. In response, we had to develop new techniques to detect and defuse those roadside bombs.’

Follow up on evaluations

Yet few of the lessons learned were consolidated, says Van der Vorm, partly because many processes were not documented in a formal procedure and the army had no separate intelligence unit during the Uruzgan mission. ‘We always evaluate as military personnel and after every operation discuss in a small group what did and didn’t work. But there was no proper formal process to ensure that the organisation acted on these evaluation points.’

Inexperienced and in an unfamiliar unit

Van der Vorm himself experienced how impractical this was when as a recently qualified artillery officer he was sent in 2008 to Uruzgan where he had to carry out intelligence tasks. ‘Shortly before being deployed, I was assigned to an infantry unit where I didn’t know anyone and for which I didn’t have the proper training. For example, I didn’t know how to prepare military plans and advice for my commander. You learn that as you go along, but I and many others came up against the fact that we were not properly prepared for this kind of intelligence task.’

Lack of funding for specialist areas

One of the reasons why intelligence was not a permanent part of the army is a lack of funding. ‘In the years of the Afghanistan mission, even less money was being spent on defence, partly due to the financial crisis. Since no one wanted to make cuts to weapons or services, there was no opportunity to establish a new field. In addition, soldiers were generally considered to be generalists who could quickly master new knowledge. As a result, building up intelligence knowledge was not prioritised.’

The future

Despite the armed forces’ inability to implement the lessons learned from Afghanistan, Van der Vorm has high hopes for the future. He can see that these lessons have not been completely forgotten and still reverberate through defence policy.

‘When the war in Ukraine started in 2014, the realisation struck that more investment was needed in the armed forces. With the new budgets, it became possible to establish specialist areas like intelligence and civil-military relations. These are a direct result of the lessons learned from Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it is worth emphasising that these lessons are not a panacea. The war in Ukraine also shows that. Each war has its own character and consequently its own lessons.’

Martijn van der Vorm will receive his PhD on 19 April for his dissertation: ‘The Crucible of War: Dutch and British military learning processes in and beyond southern Afghanistan.’ Follow the livestream.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp
Photos: Martijn van der Vorm

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