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In Ukraine, US is repeating its Afghanistan mistakes

Source: Deccan Herald

In Ukraine, US is repeating its Afghanistan mistakes
Ukrainian service members and US army instructors take part in drills at the International Peacekeeping Security Centre near Yavoriv in the Lviv region, Ukraine. Credit: Reuters Photo


Twenty years is a long time to learn lessons. Five months is a short period in which to forget them. Yet as Europe stands on the brink of a potential military conflict over Ukraine, the United States risks repeating one of its major mistakes in Afghanistan, from where it withdrew chaotically last August. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has in recent days criticised the West and, in particular, the Joe Biden administration for their apocalyptic warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. Ukraine's foreign minister has added his voice to calls asking Washington to tamp down its public statements suggesting an invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces as a given. 

With more than 100,000 Russian troops amassed on its borders, Kyiv could be excused for feeling jittery. So why is it vocally dissenting with the assertions of the US and its allies — countries that are opposing Moscow? 

Ukraine will want to avoid any panic that could spark exits from investors and a crash of the stock market. The last thing the country needs is an economic collapse even before a shot is fired. 

But Zelensky's government has also made clear that it harbours deeper angst over the way the Biden administration has at times ignored Kyiv's interests while negotiating directly with Putin. In January, after the US, Britain, and Australia withdrew some of their embassy officials citing the threat of war, Zelensky told reporters: "I can't be like other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the United States." 

And after Biden began direct talks with Russia — over the fate of a third country, Ukraine — late last year, Kyiv decided it couldn't wait for Washington to give it a seat at the table. Instead, the Zelensky government began its own negotiations with Putin's team. 

All of this has stunning parallels in the relationship between the US and the elected governments of Afghanistan, especially in recent years. There too, the US accepted the Taliban's insistence on talking directly with Washington, without Kabul's government in the room. Ultimately, the US struck a deal with the Taliban — overriding Kabul's protests — to withdraw its troops in a time-bound manner. That lack of trust between Kabul and Washington manifested itself frequently in bitter, public comments, with each blaming the other for Afghanistan's struggles. 

To be sure, Afghanistan's governments under presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were beset by corruption. In Ukraine, Zelensky's administration faces criticism for doing little more than lip service when it comes to tackling institutional graft. 

And with the world's second-most powerful military, Russia is far from a guerilla outfit like the Taliban. Moscow, to be fair, has repeatedly insisted that it has no plans to invade Ukraine and that all it is seeking is a series of security assurances from NATO. 

The US clearly doesn't believe Moscow's claims, but Washington's actions are only strengthening Russia's hands in the long run. At a time when there is little public appetite in America for fresh wars or overseas military adventures, the Biden administration's best bet in countering Russia lies in strengthening the elected government of Ukraine — not just militarily, but in terms of its credibility. 

Yet by agreeing to keep it out of talks with Russia and thereby effectively claiming to speak for Ukraine, America is only lending credence to the Putin administration's argument that the government in Kyiv is actually just a puppet of the West. 

It's the exact same error that the US made in Afghanistan, where in recent years, it undermined the legitimacy of elected governments by allowing the Taliban to cut them out of the most important talks on the future of the country. Washington ended up spending more of its strategic and diplomatic capital on convincing the Taliban to agree to a face-saving deal than on bolstering elected administrations that it claimed represented Afghanistan's people. 

The end result: a weak, discredited Afghan government that collapsed even before the US had pulled all of its troops out, handing Kabul over to the Taliban. 

What about Ukraine? The withdrawal of diplomats from Kyiv by the US and its allies signals a lack of faith in the former Soviet nation's ability to defend itself militarily. The sidelining of Kyiv in talks with Moscow shows a lack of trust in Ukraine's ability to argue for itself diplomatically. All of this weakens the standing of Zelensky and his government in the eyes of ordinary Ukrainians and Putin's team. Even if diplomacy pulls the world back from the edge of war this time, Ukraine's dependence on America in the face of any future Russian aggression will only increase. 

The US just got out of a forever war that bled thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Unless it's careful, it risks getting sucked into a fresh one. 

(Charu Sudan Kasturi is a journalist.)

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