How Lessons from Afghanistan are playing out in Ukraine

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Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

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OPINION — How much has the United States learned from past history about undertaking major, large-scale military assistance efforts such as the one now underway in Ukraine and another looming in Taiwan?

I raise that question after reading a report entitled, “Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise,” that was published May 12 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko.

In a short appendix to the report called, “Historical Comparisons of the U.S. Approach in Korea with that of Vietnam and Afghanistan,” Sopko’s team notes, “The U.S. military has mounted four large-scale security sector assistance (SSA) efforts in the last 72 years [Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan] and three of the four have been catastrophic failures.”

Focusing on two of the failures, the report says, “In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the United States spent years and billions of dollars training and equipping national armies, only to see them quickly collapse in the face of far less-equipped insurgencies once U.S. logistical, equipment enabler, and air support were withdrawn. The exception is South Korea—but the SSA effort there has taken seven decades at a cost of roughly $3 billion a year.”

I would note that Iraq has been costly in human, diplomatic and financial terms with the final outcome still in some doubt.

The report also put a light on risks that may loom ahead when it comes to Ukraine.  With fighting now entering its fourth month and no end in sight, the Sopko report illustrates that a few lessons have been learned while some past mistakes have so far been avoided.

For example, Sopko’s report describes one basic reason why past U.S. military assistance failed was because “superpower ways of waging war [cannot] be transplanted to smaller, poorer countries without factoring in the political or cultural context in which those armies operate, or adapting our methods to the means at hand.”

However, Ukraine and its military could hardly be compared to Afghanistan and Vietnam armies. With the latter, the American military found it difficult, “working with unstable and corrupt governments, and with the clock ticking on self-imposed deadlines for U.S. withdrawal. In both places, however, the result was the creation of national armies that had a crippling dependence on U.S. methods, combat enablers, and equipment. That, combined with corruption and failures of leadership in their own ranks, eroded the will to fight and allowed a smaller and less-equipped enemy to prevail.”

Instead, training for the Ukrainians, which began in 2015, “included anti-tank weapons systems, doctrine, operations and, importantly, the development of a competent noncommissioned officer corps,” according to a description provided to Pentagon reporters during a May 4 press conference. The training “also integrated all aspects of war fighting to include maneuver, fires and air defense…[and] focused on increasing their capacity and capability for self-defense while building readiness and NATO interoperability…[That included] opportunities for the Armed Forces of Ukraine to participate in other U.S. exercises really across the [European] theater.”

But today, Ukraine is totally dependent on arms, ammunition, and financing being supplied by the U.S., NATO and other coalition partners.

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Then and now, Washington’s staying power, along with these other nations remain another factor.

“In Vietnam and Afghanistan, the final goal was either unclear, unattainable, constantly shifting, or some combination of all three,” according to the Sopko report. “And in both places, the United States made it clear from the outset that its plan was to eventually leave the fight in the hands of a local fighting force—a strategy that placated an American public unhappy with sending its soldiers to fight, but also told the enemy that sooner or later, U.S. troops would

In Afghanistan, according to Sopko’s report, after then-President Obama’s original buildup, the military situation had already begun to deteriorate by 2015, when the U.S. and its coalition partners moved from active local combat operation to a lesser support and training mission. For example, there were no advisors to the Afghan police below the regional zone level, according to the report.

The incoming Trump administration in 2017, initially rebuilt military operations and even dropped the GBU-43, informally known as the ‘Mother of All Bombs’, in Nangarhar Province, targeting the Islamic State. In 2018, the U.S. Army’s 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade to partner with Afghan Army units below the corps level. In 2019, the United States conducted 7,423 airstrikes, the most since at least 2009.

However, that buildup set the stage for negotiations with the Taliban, without the Afghans, that would eventually lead to a bilateral agreement stipulating U.S. withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel and contractors from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. In return, the Taliban promised not to attack the United States or allow attacks from Afghanistan on the United States or its allies.

The Sopko report called that agreement “the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s [Afghan National Security Forces’] collapse.” The U.S. signed the agreement despite “the fact that the ANDSF was still dependent on the U.S. military for support,” the report said.

The Sopko report said there were “secret written and verbal agreements between U.S. and Taliban envoys…[that] detailed U.S. and Taliban restrictions on fighting” which “we were not able to obtain…despite official requests to DoD [Defense Department] and State [Department].”.

Nonetheless, within months of the agreement’s signing, the Taliban initiated offensive actions against Afghan territory. “The highest number of Taliban-initiated attacks against the ANDSF since the agreement occurred from September to November 2020,” according to the report.

In all of 2020, the U.S. conducted only 1,631 airstrikes, with almost half occurring in the two months prior to the U.S.-Taliban agreement. At the same time, the U.S. reduced its troop level from 13,000 to slightly more than 2,500.

The information war was stepped up. “The Taliban’s fight was a holy jihad and its members were liberators fighting a corrupt, abusive government propped up by a foreign military. This narrative proved powerful, despite the Taliban’s own foreign dependencies,” the report said, adding, “The Afghan government failed to counter Taliban messaging, and never disseminated a compelling counter-narrative of its own.”

While the new Biden administration was determining its Afghan policy in March 2021, the Taliban threatened to renew attacks on American and coalition forces if the U.S. did not live up to the Trump-agreed departure of all forces by May 1, 2021. Biden pushed the departure date back to September 11, 2021. Meanwhile, the Taliban kept their advances, seizing some provinces and negotiating for others, with the Sopko report saying the decision to announce a certain departure date, sealed the fate of the Afghan government.

What is the goal in the Ukraine War for President Volodymyr Zelensky? He has most often said the Russians should go back at least to the pre-invasion borders but implies the 2014 borders, which would mean return of Donbass territory and even Crimea. For President Biden and the coalition, the ending is not clear. Perhaps more important, where does Russian President Vladimir Putin want to end up?

Keep in mind Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’ May 10 statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We assess President Putin is preparing for prolonged conflict in Ukraine, during which he still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbass.”

Putin’s forces have re-grouped and are grinding on despite the early setbacks and heavy losses.

Last week, 99-year-old Henry Kissinger suggested that the time has come for compromise that perhaps includes giving up Ukrainian territory to Putin’s invaders.

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“In my view, movement towards negotiations and negotiations on peace need to begin in the next two months,” the former Secretary of State said speaking to an audience in Davos, “before it [the current fighting] could create upheaval and tensions that will be ever-harder to overcome.”

He added, “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante…[But] pursuing the war beyond that point would not be about the freedom of Ukraine, which has been undertaken with great cohesion by NATO, but into against Russia itself.”

Kissinger did not say it directly, but it’s clear he was worried about the U.S. and NATO getting directly into Ukraine’s war with Putin’s Russia.

In his proposed negotiations, Kissinger said he hoped the Ukraine side matched “the heroism that they have shown in the war with wisdom, for the balance in Europe and in the world at large.”

He also said that, “one has to look both at the relationship of Europe to Russia over a longer period and in a manner that is separated from the existing leadership [Putin] whose status, however, will be affected internally over a period of time by its performance in this period.”

Zelensky quickly responded to Kissinger’s remarks, comparing them to “appeasement” as in 1938, when Hitler was gobbling up European territories before World War II.

Meanwhile, there was another lesson learned in the U.S. It’s doubtful that Biden would, as Trump did in 2020 with the Taliban, and without the Afghans, get involved in negotiations with Putin to end the war without Zelensky’s participation. Biden’s administration has made clear that the Ukrainian President would lead any ceasefire or peace negotiations.

Still, all of that seems premature since at the present time, serious Kyiv-Moscow negotiations appear nowhere in sight.

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