It was Afghanistan’s irresistible desire for independence from foreign occupation that bled and weakened the Soviet Union substantially during its nine-year occupation and led to its subsequent disintegration. Thus, Ukraine emerged as an independent sovereign state from Afghanistan’s unremitting desire for independence.
Now that Ukraine is fighting for its own independence, it is worthwhile to make a comparison between the two states in terms of the relative contexts, features and consequences of their struggle for independence against foreign occupation.
Proxy War Guided by Self-Interests of External Powers Sets the Rules of the Game
Although dissimilar in their own ways, the war scenario in Ukraine and its humanitarian impacts more or less resemble the Afghan scenario. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 was representative of a competition/proxy war between the two superpowers of the Cold War era of which Kabul became a victim. The US funded and armed the insurgents to fight a prolonged war of insurgency in a bid to weaken and force the Soviets out of Afghanistan. That time it was a bipolar world and the two superpowers were competing for global influence.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a complex international order emerged which was neither completely unipolar nor multipolar. Even while some speculated an emergence of a unipolar world order revolving around the lone superpower the US, regional and non-conventional challenges to the US supremacy were numerous defying American hegemony. In 2001, the US launched the War on Terror on the Afghan soil to remove such a threat to its hegemony. Nevertheless, the non-conventional threats such as terrorism that emerged as one of the significant threats to American primacy were the Cold War siblings of the US strategies.
During the Global War against Terrorism, Afghanistan turned into a sight of proxy war between the US on the one hand and the many regional powers such as Russia, Iran and China on the other where each side tried to manipulate Afghan situation by maintaining secret alliances with terrorist outfits. Washington realizing the continuing challenges to its geopolitical objectives in Afghanistan moved to another theatre of competition- Ukraine where Russia was redefining its regional objectives and emerged as the primary challenge to the US hegemony since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and through a hasty and botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, it handed over the country to the group against which along with al Qaeda it waged the war in 2001, of course, the war was successful in obliterating the primary threat to the American mainland i.e., al Qaeda and its mastermind. Thus, much in a similar fashion, Ukraine emerged as theatre of competition between the regional ambitions of Russia and the global influence of the US.
Craving for power, search for resources and dissemination of ideology are the primary motivating factors for external powers’ intervention in Afghanistan as well as in Ukraine. Needless to say that all these factors complement each other. Afghanistan was a geopolitical hotspot where the Soviet Union and later the US attempted to establish their power through naval and continental strategies, spread their respective ideologies and facilitate their access to natural resources.
For instance, the Soviet Union desired to reach the Indian Ocean and the US formulated policies towards diversification of pipelines to transfer resources from the Caspian Sea region to the world market. In case of Ukraine, the Russian predominance in terms of naval presence and perceived domination over trade routes following annexation of Crimea in 2014 in the Black Sea was instrumental in inviting robust American and European response to the Russian invasion.
Even while the Ukrainians are imbued with the idea and feelings that they are fighting their enemy without being dictated by any external power, the consistent role of the US since Orange Revolution in 2004 through the dislodging of Yanukovych in 2014 from power to the evolving circumstances points to another dimension of reality that the Ukrainians were led to believe what the US fed it into their beliefs. In contrast to the American role in strengthening democratic forces in Ukraine, Russia since annexation of Crimea, has been maintaining a network of collaborators to establish its control over the occupied territories, get information about military targets, help crush dissent and spread propaganda in occupied areas, and sabotage Ukrainian democracy from within.
Since 1979, Afghan civilians have been paying the highest price for the continuing domination of external powers and civil wars as millions of civilians have been killed and millions more have been displaced by now. Much like the Afghans, the Ukrainians have a greater chance of going through a prolonged phase of war, devastations and deaths. Led by the US and NATO forces, many Afghans including minority ethnic groups and women were hoping for a qualitatively better and democratic future by taking on the Taliban insurgency. Not by ending the Taliban insurgency but at least by moderating its radical perspectives.
But these benign hopes have been dashed by the hasty withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the Afghan disaster, Secretary of State Antony Blinken remarked that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 made it easier to aid Ukraine which implies that it is the shifting priorities and interests of external powers that count more than bearing accountability for destruction of civilian lives and institutions of a particular country.
In contrast to the war on the Ukrainian territory which is categorised as an inter-state war between Russia and Ukraine, the Afghan war situations were far more complex characterized by occupation and prolonged insurgency to uproot it in the instance of Soviet intervention since 1979 and then in 2001, it was a war against terrorism through a US-propped up government. In both cases, external powers dominated the Afghan space and there were incessant civil war like situations.
However, unlike Ukraine where Russia has failed to occupy it, the then Soviet Union and later the US had enough control over Afghanistan and fought against only insurgency and terrorism respectively which defeats a definition of inter-state war. However, a study undertaken by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, based on the data covering the time period from 1946 to 2021, points to both optimistic and glim statistics that 26 percent of interstate wars end in less than a month and another 25 percent within a year but “when interstate wars last longer than a year, they extend to over a decade on average.” Thus, the war on the Ukrainian territory which has crossed the redline of one year is likely to be a prolonged one.
External powers breached Afghan and Ukrainian neutrality apart from violating international laws
While the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 violated Afghanistan’s Non-Alignment stance during the Cold War and its age-old preferred policy course of neutrality, the US in the name of War against Terrorism failed to distinguish between individuals who masterminded the attack on its mainland and the Afghan state and launched a war against the Afghan state itself in 2001. Similarly, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 where the external powers such as Russia, Britain, and the US provided Ukraine with security assurances in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear arsenal.
However, the US and Russia – the guarantors of security have continued to meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine either to promote their own ideological positions with the ultimate objective of installing a pliable regime or by bringing it into their security loops through the threat of extension of NATO which the Western powers did or through making periodical incursions as Russia did.
Some positive signs from the war on the Ukrainian territory compared with the Afghan war scenario
The world witnessed the massive outpouring of solidarity and support extended to the Ukrainians especially from the Western European countries that the Afghans or other non-European victims of war never received. The migrating Ukrainians are fortunate of getting a larger space on account of their state’s geographic proximity to Western Europe and cultural and racial commonalities with their people. While the Ukrainians were clearly preferred over the Afghans, this issue received serious attention from the social activists and academics as well.
The marked divergences in the experiences of people forced to migrate from non-European countries including Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Syria and from European countries including Ukraine brought forth the issues of racism and civilized versus uncivilized into academic debate. Many social activists deplored that the Afghans seeking to come to the US were largely unheard and the Afghans were forced to pay nearly $600 per person to apply for humanitarian parole whereas the Ukrainians did not have to pay anything.
The Ukrainian security forces fared much better compared to their Afghan counterpart in putting up a strong challenge against the enemy. The primary reason for this was that the Afghan Army and police were largely dependent on external aid, arms and ammunition and were built entirely on a new foundation and model. On the other hand, security sector reform in Ukraine was evolutionary in nature maturing from small scale assistance when the country joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace in 1994 to gradually taking pace from 2014 to the current circumstances.
Ukraine’s government is democratically elected whereas during the time of the Soviet intervention in 1979, Afghanistan already had a Soviet-backed communist regime and when the US started the war in Afghanistan in 2001, the country was under the Taliban regime whose support base was dwindling due to authoritarian rule and religious fundamentalism among minority communities, religious moderates and women.
Ironically, the Afghan regime installed by the US following liquidation of the Taliban from power could not enjoy mass support as the Taliban was not an external power rather was drawn from the largest ethnic community of Afghanistan- Pashtuns from which the group continued derive sympathy for its proclaimed struggle for independence against the US occupation. Ukraine is less ethnically divided compared to Afghanistan. Thus, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for putting up a united fight against the Soviet invasion was successful.
Negative side of the Ukrainian war compared to the Afghan wars
Much like Afghanistan, Ukraine has turned into a theatre of great power rivalry to which the powers introduce as well as operationalize and test their updated arms and weapons and demonstrate their latest technological advancements in the military field.
However, unlike Afghanistan where the external powers invaded to save their respective allies within the country and destroy the enemies, Ukraine has been subject to greater amount of violence as Russia did not have to distinguish between friends and foes and between civilian and military sites and it is perpetrating indiscriminate violence. Ukraine is also using its full might to recover its territory occupied by Russia. When one takes a cursory look at the level of deaths, destruction and casualties, one would easily agree with this deplorable character of the Ukrainian war theatre. Some experts observed how it took nine years to wear the Soviet Union down in Afghanistan whereas it was happening much quicker in the case of Ukraine. In Afghanistan, selective groups were targets of external powers. They were protecting their props while targeted their enemies.
The war in Ukraine is being viewed more as an opportunity by the US to weaken Russia only by supplying aid, arms and ammunition without putting the lives of its own soldiers at risk. Just as it could successfully weaken the Soviet Union in the aftermath of 1979 occupation without loss of lives of its own soldiers. The post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan turned into a disaster for the US primarily due to its direct involvement. Thus, the US is likely to lend utmost support to wear Russia down and to keep it engaged in prolonged quagmire.
Further, the danger is compounded by the fact that any spill over of the conflict or Russian misfire can trigger a larger conflict as Ukraine is surrounded by NATO member-states such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary. Any attacks on any of these members would invite the collective reprisal from the alliance. Besides, Russian President Vladimir Putin would like to intensify the war not to lose the game at any costs as he considered the Soviet Union’s collapse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”, he would even threaten to cross the nuclear threshold to deter the US and the Western European countries from lending unremitting support to Ukraine. During the Cold War, the power struggle between the two superpowers was spread worldwide which could reduce the intensity of the proxy wars from turning into a nuclear war. However, the localized war scenario of Ukraine could be more intense and devastating where a small war theatre can prompt the external powers to go to any extent in a bid to turn the tide of the war in their favor.
The connection between the Afghan and Ukrainian war theatres is established by the fact that the continuing Afghan mess opened up possibilities that it could be exploited by the external powers. Apart from the credible reports that Russia is recruiting many of the former Afghan soldiers to fight its war on the Ukrainian territory, there are reports that Russia is seeking weapons from Afghanistan, including those left behind by the US in 2021. While Ukrainian and Western officials assert that Russia is facing a shortage of arms, Russia has refuted the claims. As the US troops withdrew from Afghanistan amid the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, 70 per cent of American weapons as well as $48 million worth of ammunition provided to the Afghan forces were left in the war-torn country. It is not surprising that the Afghans in the need of employment and the Afghan government in the hope of recognition and financial benefits in the post-US withdrawal context could be vulnerable to external pressures.
Obsession with self-interest prohibits the external powers from arriving at diplomatic end to wars
The deal for the hasty withdrawal that President Donald Trump struck with the Taliban in February 2020 and the Biden administration following suit indicated that Washington whose support was crucial to the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban for the last 20 years could be suddenly terminated without any consideration for the consequences and it could desert the Afghan government at any moment before any effective long-term political agreement towards ending the war.
In the context of Afghanistan, it has been admitted by the US officials working in the war-torn country that ‘there had never been a 20-year plan for the country; instead, there had been 20 one-year plans’. Thus, depending on the circumstances perceived to be unfavorable to the US and based on its shifting focus of interest, Washington could distance itself from long-term commitment to Afghans anytime. In Ukraine, the US and Western European powers are providing updated arms, ammunition and training to turn the tide of war in favour of Kyiv and to ensure that it gets back the territory occupied by Russia. However, except for the US President Biden’s remark that the war would end on the negotiation table, no serious thoughts and efforts have been mooted by these powers in the direction of diplomatic resolution of the war or at least towards opening a diplomatic channel between the two warring parties. The Korean war during the heydays of the Cold War suggests that wars and diplomatic efforts can continue at the same time. A functioning diplomatic channel can provide an outlet for the losing side to step in if and when it wants to.