As I reflect on the changes that have taken place in the world since I joined the Indian Foreign Service forty-seven years ago, my mind turns, more and more, to the unintended consequences of the decisions and actions. This applies to the lives of individuals and families as also to those of groups and countries. Of course, groups and countries are impacted by the vision and choices of leaders while the actions of individuals effect themselves and their families.
The unintended consequences of leaders’ decisions are often not confined to their individual countries but extend to regions and sometimes the world itself. Indeed, occasionally they lead to inflexion and turning points in history. It is, of course axiomatic that a prediction of the nature of unintended consequences and their scope and depth is impossible when decisions are taken and actions follow.
There is little doubt that one of the recent reasons which has led my mind to focus on unintended or unforeseen consequences is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Clearly, Putin’s war is not going as he would have planned it despite all Russian statements to the contrary. The recent steps of partial mobilisation of reserve soldiery, the anticipation that referendums will be held in the Donbas region under Russian control to ascertain the wishes of its people on merger with Russia and Putin’s reiteration of going to any limits as a nuclear weapons state to defend his country against existential threats is an attempt at drawing new redlines. All this will only add to the complexity of the current situation and is most likely a response to Ukrainian advances that have taken place in Russian held territory in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. It is unlikely that the international community will accept the result of the referendums which are almost certain to urge that the Donbas area be merged with Russia. Nevertheless the main and dangerous question will now be on the manner Russia will invoke its strategic doctrines. Till now the US and NATO has been careful to ensure that Ukraine does not take the war into internationally accepted Russian territory and also Crimea which is not accepted as a part of Russia. But if Donbas is accepted by Russia as its own territory what will the US do? The Ukraine conflict is therefore now entering a further period of imponderables; it is not possible to really assess how matters will unfold. The seeming ‘balance’ that had been seen over the past few months has been overtaken by Ukrainian advances.
Two major, if not epochal, developments which occurred during my diplomatic career which fully illustrate unintended consequences relate to Afghanistan. They are the Soviet invasion of the country in December 1979 and the October 2001 US led action in response to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on the US mainland. No one accurately predicted how these actions would unfold. Certainly, the political and military leaders who began them or the diplomats and experts in international affairs who may have been consulted did not warn that they would both end in ignominious failure for the two superpowers.
Today, in hindsight a host of reasons can and are being adduced by scholars and officials of the reasons which led to why events panned out the way they did. However, the consequences of the decisions and the actions both at the beginning of and during the decade long Soviet invasion and the two-decade long US presence in Afghanistan were never detailed by any analyst with certainty or accuracy.
One reason of analytical failure is because the perception of overwhelming power obscures other factors which have a bearing on the unfolding of events. At times great and powerful armies fail because they overlook simple factors which impede their progress. At other times they do not to take into account the willingness of peoples to suffer and sacrifice but continue the struggle for ideological and theological reasons or simply because they want to ensure their human dignity. These factors came into play in Afghanistan against the Soviets as well as the US and NATO. In the latter case the ineptitude of the two Presidents—Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani--- who led the Afghan Republic also contributed to the US strategic defeat.
Great leaders acknowledge if their initial plans are not working and change them. Sometimes the objectives of undertakings are abandoned and ‘defeats’ accepted despite the heavy costs involved. Both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as well as the US actions of last year in that country fully demonstrate these assertions. It had become clear by 1985 that the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was not meeting any of its planned objectives. However, it required a leader with the courage of Gorbachev to acknowledge that it had become a ‘bleeding ulcer’ and the entire enterprise had to be terminated. Many believe that the Afghanistan misadventure contributed to the demise of the Soviet Union but it is doubtful it did so in any great measure. The Soviet Union was technologically falling far behind the West in the digital revolution. Gorbachev’s attempts at reform unleashed forces that led to its dissolution.
In the case of the US involvement in Afghanistan it required Trump and later Biden to end the ‘forever war’. They had to accept that the Taliban with Pakistan’s help were incapable of being defeated unless the theatre of war was expanded into Pakistan. That they were unwilling to do. Hence, they accepted the loss of about 2500 US lives and around US 1 trillion in wasted expenditure and ended the war. They wanted a power sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Republic but the ‘law’ of unintended consequences intervened as the US withdrawal from Afghanistan ended in shambles in August 2021.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.