Clashes with entrenched Russian troops continued Sept. 24 in the...

Clashes with entrenched Russian troops continued Sept. 24 in the city of Kupiansk, which was recaptured by Ukraine forces.  Credit: AFP via Getty Images/YASUYOSHI CHIBA

When it became clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would attack Ukraine, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told lawmakers that Kyiv, the nation’s capital, could fall within 72 hours of an attack. 

Milley wasn’t alone. The practically unanimous consensus was that Russia would devour Ukraine like teen boys attacking a bag of Taco Bell.

Russia began its assault on Feb. 25. 

It withdrew the last of its forces from the area on April 2.

And seven months after the Ukrainians' seemingly hopeless defense of their homeland began, the Russians are on the run. 

In the satellite age, experts can count any nation’s tanks and planes and troops.

But no experts can say what people will do, because they don’t know how people will feel, what they will sacrifice, or how quickly fear for one’s family or pride in one's heritage might turn to anger, and action.

Humans can be so much more than we’d guess, and so much less. 

The United States’ last major military operation, in Afghanistan, ended with a similar surprise. Experts said the Afghan government could hold on for months against the Taliban. The reality: moments. 

The strength of the Taliban was hugely underestimated, it turned out, because they’d stood down for years while American forces were a threat. The Taliban hadn't softened, they were resting. And the forces American leaders hoped would slow the Taliban never made a stand.

In 1991, in the run-up to the First Gulf War, military experts warned of the power of the 1 million-soldier-strong Iraqi Army, then the fourth-largest in the world. The particular prowess of the Republican Guard, which had seized 380 square miles of territory from Iran in 1988 and was armed with Russian T-72 tanks, foretold a long, bruising campaign, the Wise Ones said.

But in the end, the biggest danger Iraqi troops posed to the coalition come to free Kuwait was stampeding surrender. Ground operations lasted six weeks, and just 147 American and allied forces were killed by Iraqi forces.

The troops weren’t willing to die for Saddam Hussein in defense of Kuwait. And a decade later, when the Republican Guard was again touted as troops who'd fight for the homeland, they again melted away like Fudgie the Whale at an August picnic.

The troop counts and weapons assessments were right, but the measure of the Iraqi soldiers’ hearts was off. 

So, too, was our estimation of what came next. In March 2003, then-Vice President Dick Cheney said, “I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” John McCain made similar statements.

But we weren’t, and the miscalculation left us with years of insurgency, thousands of American troop deaths, and our own shameful killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Protesters are in the streets in Iran, but the last promised Arab Spring brought no harvest of freedom or peace. Will this one?

No one can say, which won't stop them saying.

Someday we will learn this lesson. Someday we will understand that human courage and cowardice, love and hate, despotism and devotion, sacrifice and stubbornness, are beyond our planning and estimation. Someday we will come to understand how much cannot be guessed about our own species’ behavior.

Or perhaps that’s just another brash prediction.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.

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