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Taking it Online: Remembering the Right Lessons 20 Years after September 11

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

September 7, 2021 ~

Looking back to April, I considered the question of When to Pivot U.S. Foreign Policymaking. In the context of what transpired in the weeks and days leading up to the full withdrawal of American troops on August 31, it became eminently clear that pivoting foreign policymaking to a more proactive stance, rather than a reactive stance was necessary. Timing is an important tool of foreign policymaking. When to pivot needs to be backed by evidence, by data and by knowledge of the history and cultural context. Questions I posed then as President Biden and the Intelligence Community considered as the looming May 1 deadline to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan drew closer as well as available evidence:

· Does U.S. foreign policymaking and American diplomacy stand to benefit from continued troops levels? Yes, some reduced level of troops.

· To what extent do the tools of U.S. foreign policymaking and diplomacy come as a benefit or cost to American taxpayers? Possibly, but more evidence and evaluation are all needed.

· In what ways might a full troop withdrawal result in unintended consequences or civilian harm that exacerbates gender-imbalance and inequities that spill over to other countries in the region? See the media frenzy and press releases from early August on, along with mis- and disinformation.

· What are the criteria for enduring change towards peaceful and resilient societies in these countries? Not a part of the original mission, but became part of new missions and approaches in execution.

· Under what conditions of diplomacy, development and defense, might a timeline with interim milestones and monitoring be feasible to achieve some elements of change? Not clear there was full consideration as to when to pivot diplomacy, when to pivot defense and when to pivot development.

During the fall of Kabul and gaining momentum since, there have been calls for an investigation into the Biden Administration’s actions and missteps. Secretary Blinken is scheduled to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on September 14 in what looks to be the beginning of these investigations. An investigation, though important and needed to ensure accountability, however, may not offer the desired outcome or result that an evaluation could potentially provide. The recently issued August 16 Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report on “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction” explicitly points to the need for USG agencies to conduct Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) to understand impact of efforts, already identified in the previous month’s quarterly report to Congress. According to this report, M&E is “the process of determining what works, what does not, and what needs to change as a result.” In my view, monitoring is fairly straightforward to understand. Evaluation, however, is less so, as it has the important and complex function of revealing insights and contributions of these different and important contextual factors for greater transparency and accountability and also for learning and improvement. Are these the right or relevant lessons and are we learning from them?

That said, the powerful influence of ideologies, culture and tradition (Nutley, 2013) in decision-making should also be acknowledged. The policymaking stage is in reality quite crowded with many actors advocating for attention and influence, both external and internal actors in public policy- and decision-making processes. Building relationships (and ground rules) with these actors and policymakers is important, but takes time and effort and should not be seen as transactional, but relational to understand and to develop better and long term relationships.

The literature on the topic of evaluation and public policy- and decision-making suggests that different audiences that make up the policymaking process look to different sources for data and evidence and that many types of evaluative evidence are used at different stages along the process. Additionally, the literature suggests the strategic use of different types of evidence depending on the audience or legislative stage that should be reinforced by a more collaborative approach or a participatory framework that places emphasis on the important role in building on local knowledge to shape and guide decision-making (Oliver & Cairney, 2019; Mayne et al, 2018; and Mosley & Gibson, 2017). Singh et al (2018) asserts that those that have direct economic utility for end users are found to have local resonance and increased uptake. According to Hinrichs-Krapels et al (2020), trust, translation and timing are key enablers to getting evidence closer to policymakers.

As we approach and remember September 11, we owe it to each other as Americans and as world citizens to learn from these hard lessons as we look to create and sustain a better life for us and generations after us, and to appropriately question and evaluate existing and past U.S. foreign policies by using available evidence and information. One way is to visit the newly launched website by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at As the home for federal program evaluation, it has potential to be a helpful resource for evaluation efforts at the subnational level as well as offer insights for other sectors looking to improve programs and policies. We must honor those who lost their lives on September 11 and since by remembering the right lessons learned and then by taking action to correct and to do better.

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