‘Ukraine is like Afghanistan and the Russians are like the Taliban’: The NYT’s apophany

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 16, 2022

Afghanistan. Photo by nasim dadfar on Unsplash

According to The New York Times (NYT), Ukraine’s current situation – with the Russian bear breathing down its neck – is like Afghanistan when the Taliban was poised to take over that country.

You can hear this rather remarkable leap of logic yourself. Just go to the February 15 edition of NYT’s The Daily podcast. About six minutes towards the end, the host asks correspondent Michael Schwirtz if Ukraine isn’t entirely comparable with Afghanistan in August when the Taliban took control. At the time, she reasoned, the Afghan people were exhausted by war, their government suddenly fled the country, the army had given up and “a whole other power just occupied the place without a fight”. She said that something similar could happen to Ukrainians for all their fighting talk in the face of the Russian military threat.

The NYT podcast host’s imputation, of course, is that the Taliban are, to Afghanistan, what the Russians are to Ukraine: a foreign power; “a whole other power” that occupies another’s territory. There’s only one problem with that analysis – it’s wrong.

The Taliban themselves are Afghan and they have been fighting for a long time to regain control of the country they once ruled. They are, in no way, akin to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, as it attempts to psychologically bludgeon Ukraine into submission by parking its army on the border.

The NYT podcast’s misstatement is troubling. It says something pretty dismal about the way we contextualise current events. There’s a word for this tendency to conflate everything in the mistaken belief that everything is connected: apophany.

Apparently, the word apophanie  was coined by a German scientist Klaus Conrad in the 1950s. Swiss psychologist Peter Brugger spelt it apophany in a chapter he wrote in English for a 2001 book on poltergeists. Mr Brugger described this tendency of false realisation of the connectedness of unrelated matters as follows: the “pervasive tendency…to see order in random configurations”.

In terms of the NYT’s Ukraine-Afghan misstatement, however, it could be a much simple matter: trying to be too clever by half without really knowing that of which you speak.