What makes one people fight to the end, while another falls apart and is swept away? What makes one country cohere, and another collapse? Culture, and people, and history—a combination of all those things. I deployed twice as an infantry officer to Afghanistan and lived in Ukraine for two years, and the question was, for me, a deeply personal one. Watching Afghanistan totter and fall in July of 2021, and watching Ukraine hold back a determined if haphazard Russian invasion in the winter and spring of 2022, the question took on a new urgency.
What is it about Ukraine?
Perhaps the first question that needs to be answered is: What wasn’t it about Afghanistan? It wasn’t cowardice on the part of Afghan soldiers—they fought hard and often under circumstances difficult for even Ukrainians to imagine. Yes, Afghans were fighting the Taliban, not the Russian Army; but what the Taliban lacked in artillery firepower, they made up for in craft, skill, and the ability to blend in with the local populace. Whereas Russia invaded Ukraine with arrogance and ignorance, the Taliban were prepared. They were clever foes, not to be underestimated. Afghanistan collapsed in just two weeks.
In purely military terms, the Taliban had been effective but not exceptional. Afghan’s military fought capably and bravely, too. Did it require the U.S. military for support? By 2021, perhaps it did. The ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces, their military and various police organizations) had grown accustomed to fighting the way the U.S. military fights; it had grown used to having air power. On the ground, its soldiers and officers were cousins and brothers of Taliban insurgents. The military will to resist had been tested in Afghanistan for years, and not found wanting.
But Afghanistan’s political leadership failed twice. First, it failed to see the true threat the Taliban posed: while Afghanistan’s government demonstrated a long-term inability or unwillingness to deliver services or representation to distant rural areas, the Taliban stepped into the breach. They were effective at cultivating loyalty, through both fear and partnerships. Second, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, did not see his own government as credible or tenable: he prematurely left a defensible Kabul and helped doom his country to destruction. He was not able to lead Afghanistan into a post-American prosperity. He now claims to have forestalled a far bloodier civil war than the one that had already taken place. Be that as it may, in the summer of 2021, the possibility of a peaceful and stable Afghanistan run along Western lines came to an abrupt end. Many Afghans fled the country, and it is unlikely they will ever see their homes again.
The summer of 2015 was hot in Mariupol. I had traveled there while writing about Ukraine’s experience of its war with Russia, then in its second year. Mariupol wasn’t a place I’d heard or read much about. But there was a unit that had recently been wrapped into the Ministry of Interior, the Azov Regiment, and I had access there through a couple of friends. Mariupol—or rather a suburb east of Mariupol—was the last stop on a train line running south from the border with Russia. It was a good place to see if one wanted to understand the war.