One year from the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US and NATO have moved on. Their support for Ukraine, even if by proxy, has to some extent cleansed the memory of their failures in Afghanistan. But a reluctance to look back at what went wrong risks leading to the same mistakes being repeated in Ukraine, argues Hew Strachan.
For the US, NATO and the ‘west’, the differences between today’s war in Ukraine and yesterday’s war in Afghanistan seem so vast as to make comparisons redundant. One was a counter-insurgency campaign; the other is a major war for national defence. One was fought in Asia, the other in Europe. But for all the apparent differences, the similarities are sufficient to give us pause for thought.
NATO has marched on from one conflict to the other, allowing Afghanistan to fade into oblivion as it shifts to Ukraine. Once upon a time Afghanistan was, at least in comparison with Iraq, the ‘good war’; today’s good war is Ukraine. Both wars were and are shaped by the desire to defend values which we regard as central to democracies, but that commonality should be a powerful reminder of our own fickleness, given our readiness to accept the defeat of August 2021 without so much as a backward glance. Its anniversary must prompt us to reflect on the lessons Afghanistan should have taught us, as some of the same errors are in danger of being repeated in Ukraine.
It's a cop-out to say that nobody wins in modern war.
Beyond the rhetoric of shared values, in neither war has NATO’s conduct been characterised by a set of clear objectives. The internal tension within the strategy for Afghanistan - whether the war was about state-building or counter-terrorism - was not resolved until the peace negotiations unpicked America’s determination to stay in the fight. Today, NATO’s overwhelming priority is to enable Ukraine to defend itself. That relieves its members of any immediate pressure to decide what ultimate success might look like. Some, at least privately, would be happy to negotiate on the basis of the current front lines; others insist on the restoration of the frontier as it was on 24 February; and a few fantasise about Ukraine’s recovery of Crimea. For several leaders, the war in Ukraine is also a means to other ends, the fall of Putin and a stronger and revivified NATO.
For the moment, these aims can co-exist, just as counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism did for almost twenty years in Afghanistan. It was the peace deal with the Talban which exposed the tension. At some point the parties to the war in Ukraine will also have to choose. That moment will come whether NATO has to escalate its support to prevent an imminent Ukrainian collapse, or whether Ukraine attacks and takes the war into what Russia now sees as its own territory. In Afghanistan, NATO abandoned any clear idea of victory and lost in consequence. The Taliban did not - and they won. It's a cop-out to say that nobody wins in modern war.
Putin is not wrong to see Ukraine as a proxy war for NATO, despite the alliance’s own rebuttals.
Not unreasonably, NATO leaders say that it is for Ukraine to decide what victory looks like: after all, it is a its war for its survival. That at least appears to be one lesson learnt from Afghanistan. The United States prevented Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, from bringing the Taliban into government in 2001 but then opted to negotiate over the heads of both his successor, Ashraf Ghani, and its NATO allies. However, that apparent difference between the two conflicts overlooks a key similarity. For NATO the war in Afghanistan became a proxy war, its burden increasingly borne by the Afghan National Security Forces and by the tribal militias on whom the Afghan government came to depend. They collapsed when the US withdrew the support which the ANSF had been trained to expect, especially from the air, and on which they had come to rely.
Putin is not wrong to see Ukraine as a proxy war for NATO, despite the alliance’s own rebuttals. Rather than put the lives of their own troops at risk, NATO states are supplying munitions and money to keep Ukraine in the fight. They are creating a dependent Ukraine while at the same time failing to address the consequences for the capabilities of their own armed forces or for the long-term mobilisation of war production. If NATO’s support dries up, Ukraine will lose. If the US pulls out, as it did in Afghanistan, not least because of the tensions with China, will its European partners prove more willing to carry on than they did in 2021? And even if the whole of NATO remains solid in its commitments, is it ready that it forfeits freedom of action to those who are doing the actual fighting?
Far too many Afghans have suffered because they built their expectations around promises which we made but ultimately did not honour.
It is customary to attribute the rapid collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 to the corruption which oiled its economy. Too often that charge fails to acknowledge the profligacy which fuelled it in the first place. Foreign aid, spent through multiple sources and without full accounting, made Afghanistan dependent on the war’s continuation while simultaneously undermining an already weak state. The situations are not the same. Ukraine is not as poor a country as Afghanistan, but as a result it is suffering far more from the direct destruction of its national infrastructure than was possible in a backward, rural economy. Before 2022 both corruption and organised crime gave the European Union pause when Ukraine sought accession and were factors in inhibiting inward investment. The loosening of financial controls which war requires can only be offset by tighter governmental structures, a challenging task for a state which is simultaneously fighting for its life. In Ukraine, the question of who is doing the counting is as opaque as it was in Afghanistan. It would be wrong for NATO to be complicit in eroding the Ukrainian state from within – to kill it by kindness.
Self-criticism in a war to which a nation is party makes it hard to criticise its conduct without seeming in some sense unpatriotic. That proved a recurrent problem in Afghanistan. The narrative of operational success was an essential corollary of direct involvement. The west is clear about whose side it’s on, just as it was after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. But with commitment comes a responsibility to be self-aware and to address the second- and third-order consequences of decisions taken under pressure. Far too many Afghans have suffered because they built their expectations around promises which we made but ultimately did not honour. As political divisions, cost-of-living crises and climate-change concerns dominate domestic debates across Europe and the US, Ukraine seems to be slipping down both governmental and public agendas – and is doing so faster than was the case with Afghanistan. On 24 February 2022 NATO states and the collective ‘West’ woke up far too late to the reality of Russian ambition in Ukraine, but since then they have done more that is right than wrong. Afghanistan should remind them not to go to sleep at the wheel: it would be wise to glance in the rear-view mirror.