Posted on May 11, 2022
On May 11, for our in-person meeting at the Lincoln Center, John Roberts, member and ex-president of our Club and a retired Foreign Service Officer, summarized for us the background and current state of events in Afghanistan and Ukraine, including their similarities and differences.  John pointed out that, although most of his information comes from current news coverage, some of his evaluations and opinions are based on his working experience in both Afghanistan and Ukraine.  Both countries are similar in size to Texas, have similar size populations, and are surrounded by and commonly overrun by bigger and more aggressive powers.  Afghanistan has Iran to its west and Pakistan to its east and south; Ukraine has Russia to its north and east. 
Afghanistan, with a population of some 39million and 59 languages across 34 provinces, is landlocked.  The country has a narrow corridor extending to its NE in the Hindu Kush mountain range separating Tajikistan from Pakistan, created as a buffer in the days when Britain controlled India (now Pakistan and India) and Russia controlled Tajikistan and other countries north of Afghanistan. The country is very tribal and is dominantly Muslim with significant conflict between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim populations.  There have also been smaller populations of Buddhists and Zoroastrians.  There have been numerous attempts over the centuries to conquer or control the country (e.g., Persians, Greeks, Mongols, British, Soviets/Russians, US), all unsuccessful. 
Focusing on the last half century, John started with a slide showing the liberal nature of the Afghan society in the 1970s.  With the communist takeover and the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Taliban became the face of the resistance against the Soviet military, killing large numbers of Soviet troops and eventually driving them out in 1995/96.  With the Taliban takeover, the society quickly became a reflection of their very conservative view of appropriate Islamic life, including requiring all women to be escorted by a responsible male and to wear the head-to-toe burka.  After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, with the Taliban protecting Osama Bin Laden, the United States invaded.  In 20 years in the country, with the loss of some 2465 American troops, commonly to roadside bombs and suicide bombers (compare that with some 52,000 Americans lost in Vietnam), and the expenditure of some $2.2 trillion (much lost in graft and corruption), the US finally left in a chaotic fashion (comparing the last hours in Saigon with the last hours in Kabul) following the dictates of the peace deal worked out between the Taliban and the Trump administration.  The Taliban are now in control again but have been unable to establish stability: the government is all male but there are no holdover technocrats from prior administrations; female education has been eliminated.  It is unclear what the future holds there. 
Who are the winners and losers in the recent developments in Afghanistan?  The losers have been the US (diminished credibility as a stable partner), India (losing a counterbalance against Pakistan), NATO & EU (losing credibility in confrontations), and the Afghan people.  The winners have been Russia, China, Iran, and the IMF (since they have frozen some $9.2 Billion in aid). 
Ukraine, at the center of Eastern Europe, has been relatively peaceful until February 24 of this year.  Out of a population of some 40 million, some 5.5 million have fled the conflict with Russia, although some have started returning to the Kyiv region.  Historically, Ukraine has had populations of Neandertals and Greeks.   In the 9th century, Viking invaders established Kievan Russ, the predecessor of the present Ukrainian nation.  The Mongols (the Golden Horde) invaded in the 13th century, leaving a population of Cossacks primarily in Crimea.  The Polish and Lithuanian empires controlled the area for extended periods of time.  After a period of independence, Ukraine was conquered by the Tsars and subsequently incorporated into the Soviet Union.   Under the Tsars and then the USSR, the country was significantly expanded to its current size.  In 1923, Stalin starved Ukraine resulting in millions of deaths, a fact that won’t be forgotten by Ukrainians today.  In 1939, Germany invaded with some Ukrainians supporting Germany against Stalin, more supporting Stalin against Germany.  In 1949, Ukraine briefly joined the United Nations as a separate country.  They regained their independence with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, leaving a large population of Russian speakers in the eastern half of the country, Ukrainian speakers in the west.  With the fall of the USSR, Ukraine suffered a severe recession but by 1998 the country was booming, even though it had a Soviet-style government.  In 2004, the Orange Revolution pushed out the Soviet-style government in favor of a more democratic administration, although corruption continued unabated. 
The country is largely rural but with significant industrial capacity, especially in the east.  The people, very European in their attitudes, are largely adherents of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The most recent conflict started in 2014 with the Russian invasion/takeover of Crimea and the Donbas area in the east.  Then, on Feb 24, 2022, Putin, having seen no significant reaction to those aggressions, started his “special military operation” to take over the rest of the country.  He obviously miscalculated: the Ukrainians reacted violently to the aggression; the West reacted decisively with support to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia; and the Russian military was much less effective than expected.  The initial effort to take Kyiv has been abandoned.  The current Russian effort is to take Odessa, along with Ukraine’s other Black-Sea ports, to make the country land-locked.  The Russian effort has been characterized by war crimes resulting in major civilian deaths (some 9200), mass graves in several city areas, destruction of industrial and civilian structures, and destruction of rural areas.  Of particular note has been the attack on the Azovstal steel plant, a Soviet era plant that was constructed with miles of catacombs to protect against the Nazi invasion, the catacombs now being used by Ukrainian defenders to protect from the Russians.  The entire operation has been a disaster for the Russians, loosing some 19,000 men killed, and some 2200 armored vehicles, along with numerous aircraft and their Black-Sea flagship, destroyed.  Some 13,500 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed.  The cost has been enormous.  The US government has supplied some $29B in aid so far and some $40B in additional aid has been approved by Congress.  In Russia, at the annual Victory Day Celebration, Putin, although expecting to announce great gains in the conflict, merely espoused the necessity of this conflict.
With Russia bogged down in the conflict, we should be concerned that they might escalate to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.  The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a comedian turned politician, has been excellent in leading his country’s resistance to the invasion.  In the days leading up to the invasion, our intelligence saying that the invasion was imminent, freely shared with all concerned, was not believed. 
Good things that have come out of this invasion.  The alliances between the US and Europe, including NATO, have been strengthened (the exact opposite of what Putin hoped to accomplish).  China may be re-assessing its options with respect to incorporating Taiwan back into the Chinese nation.  The sanctions that have been imposed on the Russian élite may be expected to have a long-term positive effect.