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From Afghanistan to Ukraine, lessons not learned...

It is almost universally recognised that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the decade long war that followed was a disaster; certainly for the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, but also for others who seem less willing to consider the consequences.


Those who opposed the Soviets, largely comprising religious fundamentalists who would later form the Taliban which now controls Afghanistan (again), were supported politically, financially and militarily by the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan (amongst others). They were, eventually, successful in forcing the Soviet Union to abandon its mission. Much in the same was as the United States was forced to abandon its operation in Vietnam.


What resulted in Afghanistan, though, was hardly a win for the Afghan people. And the very same forces which the West so enthusiastically supported turned against them. The events of September 11th, 2001 are permanently etched into US national consciousness. Perhaps surprisingly less memorable though is the twenty year war in Afghanistan which ensued, and which ultimately resulted in US/NATO failure and defeat in 2021. That the US and its allies were forced to fight the very people they had armed and supported against the USSR should have been a tough lesson well learned.


Events in Ukraine today, however, seem to suggest that it might not have been learned at all...


Once again, Russia has launched an invasion into a neighbouring country (Afghanistan neighboured the USSR, albeit not Russia itself) and is finding itself in a quagmire (both militarily and politically). The landscape of Ukraine is immensely different from that of Afghanistan, so it is important to consider that the outcomes might well be different.


What is the same, however, and indeed explicit in this case (efforts were made to make Western support for Afghan mujahideen forces clandestine), is the political, financial and military support being given to Ukraine. Superficially, this may appear very different to supporting religious extremist, non-state actors in Afghanistan in the 80s. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and we find that there are extremist non-state actors in Ukraine who are in receipt of support, including sophisticated weaponry.


From the infamous neo-Nazi Azov regiment, which greased its bullets with pig fat to send Muslims to hell and tortured and murdered Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country, to Svoboda (which may not have seats in the country's parliament, but has local officials, some of which have been filmed by US news agencies thanking the US for guns), many unwelcome forces are benefitting from Western support.


At the same time, Western media (which has been openly critical of these forces in Ukraine prior to the current conflict) is lamenting the rise of the Far Right across Europe and North America.


This peculiar behaviour didn't actually start with Afghanistan. The West was happy to support fascists in the 30s when they were considered a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The results of that decision are universally known...


Of course Russia isn't innocent in this catastrophe. As well as the obvious military action it has taken, Putin's Russia has supported Far Right movements, parties and candidates. Whether it is for ideological reasons or not is difficult to say, but it has certainly been to destabilise and divide Russia's enemies.


Many have touted the new-found unity amongst the West (including in NATO and Europe) in the face of the war in Ukraine. Of course this hasn't lasted, with Viktor Orban winning again in Hungary and Marine Le Pen running Emmanuel Macron to the wire in France.


Supporting extremists can never end well, and history has borne this out on numerous occasions (some are referred to above). But something insidious is happening in this particular instance, with people who were formally identified and criticised as extremists being given a free pass and openly racist and xenophobic tropes and comments being aired without censure or second thought. From "these are not the refugees we're used to" to "blond haired, blue eyed Europeans" and "they're just like us", the proverbial mask has slipped on more than one occasion.


The long-term consequences of all of this remain to be seen. Looking at what has happened in the past, however, suggests that what we are seeing (yet again) does not bode well...


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