< Distinguished speaker series

Col. Christopher Kolenda (ret.)

Adjunct Senior Fellow, the Center for a New American Security; Founder of the Strategic Leaders Academy, Retired Army Colonel

Debacle In Afghanistan: An Insider’s View on What Went Wrong

DATE: January 10, 2023 6:00 pm

LOCATION: World Trade Center, Baltimore

Event information

The American withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 was unscripted, chaotic and a profound embarrassment for the United States. The Afghan government fled Kabul, and the same Taliban extremists U.S. forces had toppled 20 years earlier returned to power. They’re the ones who’d given Osama bin Laden a base for organizing the 9/11 attacks.

U.S. taxpayers spent $2.3 trillion dollars in those 20 years fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban.  A quarter million people died, mostly Afghans, among them some 7,400 western troops or contractors including 2,324 US military personnel. Afghanistan is now sunk in poverty, its population abandoned, and its women headed back to second class status.

What went wrong? What can we learn from the debacle?

Our next distinguished speaker, retired Army col. Chris Kolenda, has a lot to say about the lessons learned. He served four tours in Afghanistan and commanded 800 paratroopers in the east between 2007-2008. He became a top advisor to three US commanders there and special advisor to the Undersecretary of Defense from 2009-2014.  He’s a West Point graduate who later became a West Point instructor; he has Ph.D. from Kings’ College, London.

He’s distilled the lessons into a book (which we’ll have available for sale) called: Zero Sum Victory. What We’re Getting Wrong About War.

Here a few nuggets:

  • the United States deploys for war like a bureaucracy, in which government agencies operate independently in “silos” without coordination — and without a single ground commander who’s accountable for achieving U.S. war aims.
  • The American obsession with decisive victory gets in the way of developing a strategy to achieve a lasting result. It substitutes destruction for negotiation and violence for politics.
  • The detachment of American forces from the ground alienates the population. It encourages them to seek an end the unwanted military occupation and to support a national insurrection.

But this is just a sampling of his insights.


Overview on Christopher Kolenda:

“Christopher Kolenda is a graduate of West Point, former West Point instructor, retired Army officer, and founder of Strategic Leader’s Academy. He served four tours of duty in Afghanistan and was a senior advisor to three 4-star commanders and two undersecretaries of defense. He was awarded the department of defense’s highest civilian award and earned his PhD at King’s College in London. He lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”


Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security

Information on the Strategic Leaders Academy:


Published books:

Leadership: The Warrior’s Art


The Counterinsurgency Challenge


Newsletters, blogs, and more:


An article published by Kolenda on Afghanistan and business.


Kolenda bikes 1,700 miles to honor the six paratroopers who died under his command. 


In light of the Russian-Ukrainian war, Kolenda comments on true leadership.


Kolenda discusses how leaders can apply change to strengthen their successes.


Kolenda shares insight on how diversity—physical, cognitiva, and experiential—benefit the workplace.


Kolenda discusses how leaders can work best with their employees. 


Kolenda shares the 5 best ways for leaders to earn respect.


Kolenda shares lessons learned from a personal story.