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After enduring war in Afghanistan, I think it’s a mistake to arm Ukraine

Prolonging a conflict has long-term consequences we can’t always imagine.

Mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan, 1984.Christopher Gunness/Associated Press

I believe President Biden is making a mistake sending more weapons to Ukraine. What is the end game? I worry that continuing to arm Ukraine is going to prolong the war and repeat the history of Afghanistan, where I was born and lived for 30 years.

Let me elaborate. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s, the United States armed the Afghan mujahedeen (”freedom fighters,” President Reagan used to call them) with Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which had a decisive military impact, hastening the Soviet withdrawal and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism. But the Red Army did not just pack up and leave. They destroyed as much of Afghanistan as they could and killed up to 2 million Afghans. When they finally went home in 1989, they left a lot of their ammunition behind because they knew the seven mujahedeen factions would use them against one another to fight over control of Afghanistan. And that was precisely what happened. We had five years of brutal civil war. The Taliban — the children of the mujahedeen, who grew up in refugee camps in Pakistan — eventually emerged from the south, hosted Osama Bin Laden, who engineered 9/11, and the rest is known to everyone.

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Now the United States and its allies are providing Ukraine with weapons to fight Russia, but as we all know, Russia doesn’t lack ammunition and Putin doesn’t lack ruthlessness. Look what he did in Syria. Now he is turning Ukraine into the Syria of Europe. The more weapons the West provides Ukraine, the more of Ukraine will be destroyed, and the more lives on either side will be wasted.

Nothing comes of war except destruction and chaos. Let me put it this way: It takes months, even years, to build a house, but it takes seconds to turn it into rubble with weapons. Similarly with human lives — it takes parents years of sleepless nights to raise a child. It takes less than a second to take that life, but for what? War is madness.

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In Afghanistan during the civil war of the ’90s, I survived bombings and shelling. I witnessed executions and mutilations of hands and legs. I saw our neighborhood destroyed by warring factions. I saw bodies lying on the streets where I used to play soccer. I saw our neighbors’ bodies consumed by stray dogs, body parts scattered everywhere, blood smeared on the walls and trees. I have had guns pointed at me, I have been forced by a warring faction to dig a tunnel, I have been tortured, I have been forced to watch a woman give birth and women get raped. My family lost everything to war: our house, our rug business with 6,000 rugs — and, most important, I lost my innocent childhood years to war. When I tell you there is no greater evil than war and it should be avoided at all costs, you’d better believe me, because I speak from experience.

I know what goes through the hearts and minds of innocent Ukrainians as their country is being ravaged, their people slaughtered, and the survivors forced either to emigrate or to stay behind and face a bleak future.

The saddest fact is that some people believe that Ukrainians are fighting the Russians not only for their country and their freedom but to save Europe. Similarly in the 1980s, Afghans were certain that they were fighting the Soviets not only for their freedom but for the world, trying to rescue humanity from the claws of the Soviet Union and communism. Indeed, when the Soviet Union dissolved, everyone forgot Afghanistan until 9/11 happened. Now I have no doubt another tragic scenario will unfold in Ukraine if this war continues and the weapons we’ve sent will be used to cause further bloodshed we can’t envision now.

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It is not too late to end this madness. There is always a diplomatic route, especially when one party in a position of power is involved — as the United States and its allies are now. The leaders of the free world, including President Biden, Emmanuel Macron, and Boris Johnson, must use this opportunity before, God forbid, the war advances beyond the point of no return. While the West continues to support the Ukrainians, we should also seek constructive dialogue with the Kremlin to hasten a peaceful agreement. The alternative is too grim.

In the 1980s, the Afghans were armed to the throat and left alone to fight the Soviet Union. The United States and its allies should not repeat that mistake now.

Qais Akbar Omar is the author of “A Fort of Nine Towers,” a memoir of his years in Afghanistan. He moved to the United States in 2012 and now lives in San Francisco.