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Welcome back to the NEGOTIATEx podcast. Aram and Nolan are processing the tragic humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, a place where they both spent a good deal of time. They lost dear friends there. They also made new friends—who are now in harm’s way and face a grim future.
We’ll return to business next week. For today, however, the NEGOTIATEx team is setting aside our usual format to have a frank discussion of this ongoing tragedy.
We should probably warn you: Aram and Nolan keep things professional, but this podcast is emotional. The nature of the situation makes it unavoidable.
Our hearts are burdened for those Afghans (and others) who suddenly find themselves in the Taliban’s shadow.
Senior leaders, of both major US political parties, told Afghans for 20 years, “We’re going to leave you.” Imagine hearing that, regularly, from a counterpart in any context.
Doubt around a strategic commitment on the part of the US loomed. A well-founded perception existed that our country had abandoned our Afghan allies before when the political tides changed. History repeats.
The “they-didn’t-want-us-there” narrative is false. Some factions didn’t, but others – and the vast majority – toiled faithfully side-by-side with American service members.
Our Afghan partners demonstrated an eagerness to work together daily, to the point of self-sacrifice. These courageous Afghans didn’t allow heavy losses to deter them.
A long-term, strategic approach was needed, like the US had demonstrated elsewhere over the past 80-years in places like South Korea. Service members at the tactical level, practiced patient, relationship-building with their Afghan partners. US service members in Afghanistan knew that a quick fix wasn’t possible.
However, the “we’re-going-to-leave-you” messages from senior US leaders became the common narrative. 6, 9, and 12-month assessment goals and short-term metrics missed the forest for the trees, making gains like trust-building and the establishment of societal institutions harder to establish.
We drove a premature focus on Afghanistan’s global standing, rather than assisting them in having needed internal discussions first. Our western mindset and timeline for progress was set to superdrive from the very beginning.
US negotiations with the Taliban, a terrorist organization, underminded the legitimate Afghan government, putting our partners in an impossible situation. Furthermore, there were never any consequences for the Taliban failing to follow through on their commitments.
The humanitarian situation before us is one of our own making.
What can we do now? We must demonstrate empathy and compassion for our Afghan brothers and sisters. They need our love, thoughts, prayers, and support now more than ever.
Please consider seeking ways to support Afghan refugees coming to your community.
Likewise, reach out to military veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Ask them to share a memory of their Afghan and Iraqi allies; soldiers, interpreters, and civil society leaders. Every veteran has a story about those relationships.
What Nolan, Aram, and other service members learned is that we, as people, are far more alike than we are different. And maybe that’s the best lesson.
Your time’s important to us. Thank you for listening.
Nolan Martin : Well, Aram, this is definitely going to be a different episode than we have obviously been planning. It's been a pretty difficult week, I think for a lot of people and specifically a lot of veterans and current service members who have served in Afghanistan with everything that we see that's going on. And, um, I know that we weren't planning on doing a podcast episode about this. However, we both kind of agreed how it's been a big part of our lives, and I think that something that we wanted to talk to today. We definitely wanted to keep it partisan neutral, not getting into the politics aspect of this, but trying to definitely frame everything around the negotiations context. So, first my sincerest is kind of condolences to what the Afghans are going through, our partners, who we have worked with and built relationships with over the 20 years, and then to all the sacrifices that both us and our NATO partners and our allies have all experienced in Afghanistan with losses.
I mean, many of y'all don't know this, but Aram and I have a dear friend by the name of Drew Ross. Drew served with special forces in Afghanistan and Aram taught, both me and Drew in the same class. And we lost Drew in 2018 to an IED in Afghanistan. So, the sacrifices from, from all of our service men and women have definitely, it's just been difficult to watch I think for everybody. To see the progress we've made and to how fast it kind of seemed to go away. So, again, and keeping us in negotiations context, I'll turn it over to Aram to kind of weigh in on some of this.
Aram Donigian : Nolan, thanks. There are people that have been talking now for, you know, a couple of weeks when this finally comes out who are probably more articulate than both of us. And I would say too, that you and I both have multiple deployments to Afghanistan, and so our hearts in a, in a huge part of us are there. And Drew and others who, who gave their lives there, you know, are always with us. I would start my comments the same way that you did, which is I have tremendous grief for our Afghan partners and friends who have risked so much who invited us into their homes and their offices who trusted us and many are now in great harm's way. And, and I've been in contact with some who I know feel, and I think rightly so betrayed by what's happened over the last couple of weeks by inaction and, and really it's more than last, last couple of weeks, but I just… when I was there on my second deployment, in 2010, I wore a patch and on there, on that patch, it said Shona Ba Shona, which meant shoulder to shoulder.
And we were meant to be serving side-by-side with our Afghan partners. We have not followed through on that. So in the end, there are some, as we look through this, there's going to be some, probably some negotiation things we can observe. So tremendous pain and sorrow for the Afghans. And we were, we were working, uh, there's a lot of work being done. And I will say that one of the things that's made me proudest about our community of veterans is the actions I've seen taken by the American veterans who have been on, uh, who are doing everything they can working with different agencies and organizations to get colleagues and friends who are in danger out of that country, out of Afghanistan right now, as the Taliban takes over. The spirit of “we don't leave anyone behind” is strong within this veteran community. I'm grateful for that. Despite the fact that our politicians and many American people may not be living up to the commitments that we made, I love to see that, that our veterans are. So, yeah. So that's, that's kind of a, just an initial piece of, I've talked to a number of folks how they're doing, you know, you were there Nolan four times. What can you tell me about the relationships that you built with Afghan partners?
NM : Yeah, so it takes me back kind of to my first deployment to Southern Afghanistan. I was just a second Lieutenant, lil’ platoon leader, you know, brand new green end of the army. And, actually the first time I started leading soldiers, like there was no training before it, I was thrown right into the mix when we were in Southern Afghanistan. So basically I remember us living in a platoon outpost, which just means like a small isolated, just 30, you know, 30 to 40 of my soldiers. And there was about 15 Afghanistan national army with us. And then probably about 10 Afghanistan National Police, all living in this small, basically fortified courtyard. And everyone just kind of threw up a shade and we just slept in the open cots, out in the middle of the desert. And so when you're sitting there and, you're just focused on securing and, and going out and talking to the village elders, there's also a lot of time that you have to kill.
And so a lot of time we spent, you know, directly with our partners, there are linguists and just building those relationships. I mean, it goes back to the, the saying of, of breaking bread with your counterpart, especially in Afghanistan. And so, I mean, we'd literally, they'd invite, you know, myself and a few other leaders over on the occasion to have some chicken or some goat, which was just, um, at the time, just phenomenal to sit there. And I mean, everyone digs in, pulls off their food. I mean, it's just, it's definitely a different experience than we're used to, but being in that culture, spending that time with them and really getting to know and build those relationships has just been, definitely changed the way that I've viewed the world outside of the United States.
AD : Yeah, I think it's so important when we wrote the article back in 2010 based on my deployment that year. And we talked about some of the observations, one, this idea of, of, of really living with people that we are engaged in problem solving with and getting into their world and what you described there is such a beautiful example. I believe that it has corporate translations of, of meeting people in their offices and their place, and really understanding them and building that relationship. And the power of breaking bread and eating a meal together and, and how tremendously impactful that is. And it's the importance of the casual conversation as well. And understanding people's people's motivations. I will say that the Afghan people and my friends who so graciously hosted me with their generosity was beyond... I've been better treated by some Afghans than I've been treated by members of my own family.
AD : I remember when, uh, I was there when I was there for my deployment in 2011 to 12, my third deployment on April 15th, 2012, there was a simultaneous attack, on both the, uh, Afghan parliament and on the green zone. And we were out meeting with some Afghans in Kabul at the time. And so we had to break off our meeting. We started to head back towards the green zone to ICF headquarters. Couldn't get back because everything got locked up. So we had to take cover, at a hotel and wait for things to calm down. And the first folks to reach out were my Afghan friends that we had just left and said, do you need to come back to our office? We'll take care of you. We'll protect you, make sure you're fine and safe.
And I knew that was true. It wasn't what we ended up doing, but I knew that I would be entirely safe and that they would, they would die if need be for me. And for two other officers I was with at the time. And that's to me that that willingness to really sacrifice went both ways. And I think that's part of the narrative that's been missing over the last couple of weeks, too, as I've heard different leaders go on and talk about how we were fighting their war, or we're the ones making the sacrifice. It is such a false narrative. And it's such a misunderstanding of what we, who lived and served there saw on a daily basis.
NM : Yeah and I think, um, and extends beyond just the Afghanistan National Army Afghanistan National Police, you know, our direct partners, but also to the Afghan village elders and community. I remember, you know, being able to take my platoon into, and that's probably, again, that's like a group of 30 to 40 soldiers. We're usually walking around on foot at the time and in Southern Afghanistan, and we'd walk into a village and we'd just be able to say like, ‘Hey, I'd love to talk to the village elder’. My interpreter would then talk to one of the males in the village. And then in no less than 30 minutes, there would be a group of 30 to like every single male in that village would take the time from what they were doing. They'd stop working their fields, they'd stop, whatever they were doing to come have a meeting. We would just really just talk and see how everything was doing. It was nothing of a… I didn't have a specific agenda, any, and, um, but for them to just do that, just shows the amount of, I mean, literally the…
AD : The care, the concern, the engagement. I mean, there's a narrative out there which we have talked ourselves into now, you know, over the course of two decades, which is the Afghans didn't want us there. Again that's not consistent with what you're describing Nolan with, where there were these meetings and gatherings and discussions, and there were, and then taking those in, in actually taking action. I mean, there was, you know, there was genuine relationship and trust building, despite the fact that, throughout the 20 years we had senior leaders, you know, of both political parties and of different backgrounds, constantly talking about how next year we're going to leave you. And you think about what that creates in terms of the dynamic for a relationship. If I were working with a supplier or a client and say, ‘all right, I'll stick with you one more year, but next year, we're breaking this off next year, we're breaking this off’, and you do that for 20 years and you, you truly affect the psyche. This was always in Afghanistan, right? This was a long-term problem. And I think sometimes when we get into negotiation or influence situations, anywhere we're trying to problem solve, it is really easy to not test our assumptions and to take a short-sighted view of the problem. And, I think that's always a danger and that was going to be a danger here in Afghanistan, in the work that you're describing was with a long-term focus, and I think service members service understood that. This was never going to be a quick fix.
NM : Yeah. And I think we always kind of, whenever you talk about our strategy in Afghanistan, you know, it wasn't one, 20 year war. It was 20, one year wars.
AD : I was at West Point. I will not mention the General's name, but I heard a general say, ‘we have fought the war one year at a time for -at that time, it was 11 years’ over- right? So everyone was thinking right, at a strategic level, we're going to win this on our watch or we're going to end this. And there was no long-term perspective. There was no patience, which I find ironic given what I've seen us do in other parts of the world where we have committed. I mean, in South Korea, the Korean war ended in 1953, but there was not a democratically elected government until 1987. We were patient. We remained patient there today with tens of thousands of soldiers deployed to South Korea. How much money have we invested there? Again, it goes back to the perceptions that we have fostered versus challenged. It goes also back to what our strategy was there, the conversations we were constantly looking for the 6 month, 9 month, 12 month measures of success versus, looking at longer measures of success. And that affected the way we engaged with at a strategic level and helped our Afghan partners resolve issues that go back, you know, decades.
NM : Yeah. I mean, still, it's tough to talk about man. It's uh…
AD : And this is probably the least emotional I have been over the last two weeks and I, right. And have had, such a hard time, um, because again, my heart is there as it is with so many veterans. You know, I'll give some other things. I think we forced the wrong conversations. I think there's a learning point there in our negotiations, are we having the right conversation? In Afghanistan, we tried to force them to have conversations about where Afghanistan fit into the global picture before we had them engaging more effectively with each other. The internal, uh, within the different tribes, the different parties. Then regionally, how they fit within the unique place, which by the way, I think from an American perspective where Afghanistan sits in the world, there was all the need in the world to establish, and then reinforce the strategic partnership with the country of Afghanistan, because where it falls in and who its neighbors are. But we didn't, we never encouraged that regional conversation.
AD : And then eventually decades later, get to where you fit into the global picture. There is this perception that this was somehow an Afghan civil war, that we were simply helping them fight versus seeing this as we were helping. And they were bearing the brunt of this as tens of thousands of Afghans have died, in fighting this war over the last 20 years. We were fighting a very sick, uh, group of folks, the Taliban who's tied in with Al Qaeda, and we were fighting them on the border lands of civilization rather than fighting them on our own doorsteps. And that was, that should have been taken into account. That's, again, that hasn't been, we keep talking about how we're simply trying to help them fight their war, and that narrative has been pushed out and reinforced. The power of what we tell ourselves in negotiation, I think is a critical takeaway here.
NM : Yeah. I think I wanna get your opinion too, on, I may be wrong with where I'm going with this, but on rewarding, bad behavior, because I feel like we've been in discussions, negotiations with the Taliban for some time now, there's no hiding that. But I feel like they didn't, you know, uphold their end of the negotiation.
AD : That's putting it pretty mildly my friend.
NM : Yeah, nothing happened. So how does the context of rewarding bad behavior here? You know, how can we, how can we dive into that?
AD : Well, so first of all, the agreement in 2019 - 2020 was a complete compromise and capitulation, and it undermined the legitimate government of Afghanistan, and it put them in an incredible disadvantage. It reinforced, by the way, an Afghan narrative, which is ‘the US has deserted us six times over the last hundred years’. It reinforced that. And the sixth time, I believe I'm counting is what's just happened now, here in 2021. But absolutely absolutely true. We've reinforced bad behavior, and we are pretty naive if we think that is just going to be understood by the Taliban in Afghanistan. It will be seen by extremist jihadists worldwide that America will cave and capitulate. That negotiation talked about resolving issues within the Afghan government, which president Ghani and his team tried to do, but would try to do in a way that was going to lead, you know, continue on the path of development that Afghanistan had.
The Taliban broke that. There were counter-terrorism assurances, there withdrawal assurances. The truth is that all those things were based on the Taliban keeping their commitment, which they never did. It was a complete breach in contract. Anywhere else in the world. For, for anyone else, who's doing a corporate negotiation, if there was a breaching contract, you would not continue to live up to your side of the agreement. It's broken! So why would we? Other than a complete lack of will to address it. So, absolutely what you're saying is correct. We have reinforced, the story we've told before I know about, about Nixon's dogs, when we have taught the dog to chew the carpet, and we have reinforced that. And, we can't be surprised when that happens again. The other thing too, is that - in terms of underestimating - we have not taken into account all the stakeholders in place.
AD : We talk a lot about stakeholder mapping, understanding influencers. We didn't take into account the picture that was going to be created for all the people. All right. The ANA, the ANP, you know, after the national army, the national police. The political leaders, when they looked over their shoulder and we said, ‘sorry, we're out of here. We're, we're taking our own, and we're going home.’ Versus Taliban who is surrounded behind. And we won't get into the details there, but surrounded and supported by so many other different stakeholders. So we, certainly didn't take that into account either.
NM : Ahh! [sigh] All I can say is that I'm hoping that it gets better. I'm hoping that we're able to get our partners, just get them to safety, that they definitely need in this time. Is there anything that you want to kind of cover here?
AD : I could probably say it may give you… make a joke about hoping in one hand and doing something else in the other, and seeing what you have more of. I hate strategies that are built on hope, and Nolan at the same time I know what you're saying. We have love, you and I, I know have love for the folks that we have worked so closely with. We know them to be just incredible, courageous people. I think that we have talked ourselves into a false choice. I still think the choice is false. I still think there is a reason to reconsider what we're doing between withdrawal and surge. I don't think, I think whenever we put ourselves into this or this, and we stop thinking about other things we can do, all right, we have limited ourselves unnecessarily. We talk about this all the time. The tension people feel between the substance of an agreement, and the relationship with the other party, right.
AD : That we have to choose between the two. We don't believe that, right? That there's, that there's some tension between being assertive and being collaborative. Well, we think we can there are ways we can do both. And we talk about those tensions all the time. And we have talked ourselves as in terms of a country into this very dichotomous sort of solution. I think, the last thing that I will just leave out there is compromise, capitulation, complacency have no place at the negotiation table. And in the hands of the leader who is negotiating for us, those are not the hallmarks of an effective leader. We've talked about the hallmarks of an effective leader and effective negotiator in the past, right? Someone who builds genuine relationships, who doesn't do things that are just politically convenient, but who speaks with integrity, whose word can be trusted. Somebody who manages perceptions incredibly well and understands interests can get created around options, who does things that are fair and reasonable around these standards of legitimacy and makes commitments that they will then follow through on. All right. And those are the hallmarks of effective negotiators. And those are hallmarks of effective leaders. And I, it brings me great sorrow that we're not seeing that right now.
NM : I think that's kind of the perfect end to this podcast. So again, best of luck to everyone currently in Afghanistan with what you're facing and, we sincerely hope for, for the best. So with that, we will see you in the next episode.
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