US military aid to Ukraine has been remarkably effective, especially when compared to the long and unfortunate US military intervention in Afghanistan. A recent statement from General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helps explain why. “Ukrainians don’t ask anyone to fight for them,” Milley said. “They don’t want American, British, German or French soldiers or anyone else fighting for them. They will fight for themselves. Ukrainians only want the means to defend themselves against Russian invaders, he said, adding that the United States would provide support “as long as it takes”. By providing advanced weapons and reliable intelligence, the United States and its allies enabled Ukraine to inflict heavy casualties on Russian armed forces and roll back previous Russian territorial gains.
The American failure in Afghanistan, on the other hand, seemed so complete in 2021 that it may have encouraged Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch his full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The US response to this year’s crisis – providing a high level of military support without deploying US forces – is not only the best way to help Ukraine secure its independence and thwart Putin. It also offers a model for how the United States should define its international military involvement.
Although the decline of American power has been greatly exaggerated in some quarters, America’s economic decline relative to the rest of the world is real. Economic strength and technological strength have become more dispersed around the world, and over time military strength will likely follow the same pattern. This is one of the reasons why avoiding on-the-ground interventions will become increasingly imperative. The presumption that the United States must deploy ground forces in combat capability if it is to achieve meaningful results from interventions has been evident time and time again since the 1980s. Yet the reality has often been the opposite. The more the United States takes over and inserts its own forces into a conflict, the more costly and, in most cases, counterproductive the intervention becomes. Such conflicts are also more polarizing for American society, as demonstrated by US involvement in Vietnam, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Afghanistan. Meanwhile, avoiding land wars but relying on financial aid, advanced technology, intelligence, and even diplomatic coordination and outreach is something the United States can actually do effectively.
The chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Kabul – after two decades of effort, billions of dollars, and numerous civilian and military deaths – ended one of the most counterproductive and unnecessary interventions that the United States- States have ever held. The Americans had lavished resources on the official Afghan army, but it offered only weak resistance to the Taliban advance before melting. Some Afghan soldiers have even changed sides. Within days of the United States’ departure, the Taliban, which the Americans had deposed in 2001, returned to power, which left the United States demoralized and undecided, among other observers, in the Russian government. When combined with an ongoing US strategic pivot to emerging conflicts in East Asia, the outcome in Afghanistan appeared to preclude a strong US intervention on behalf of Ukraine. Indeed, many commentators have argued that aiding Ukraine would be pointless, as an American engagement would not make a material difference in stopping the Russian onslaught.
But in fact, the United States helped the Ukrainians not only resist the initial assault, but also push back the Russian forces. Washington has provided Ukraine’s armed forces with a range of equipment, including both supplies for individual soldiers, such as body armor and small arms, and large, sophisticated weaponry, including artillery rocket systems. with high mobility. Ukrainian forces also receive accelerated training and regular support — from outside Ukraine’s borders, in particular — on how to maintain and repair US-made military equipment. Extensive real-time intelligence cooperation between Washington and Kyiv has given the Ukrainian military the ability to strike vital Russian installations quickly and effectively.
Impressively and somewhat surprisingly, the kind of intervention the United States has overseen in Ukraine has helped reinvigorate NATO. The alliance, which seemed almost moribund a year ago, has renewed meaning and will soon gain two strategically important members: Finland and Sweden. Being a member of NATO now appears to be a major strategic asset, as evidenced by Ukraine’s desire to join. Western aid to Ukraine has been so effective that some voices now argue that Ukraine must be held back by the United States and forced to negotiate, lest the war become too embarrassing for Putin.
The differences between America’s roles in Ukraine and Afghanistan suggest a rule for the future: the United States should avoid direct combat overseas whenever possible and should only intervene in wars to support peoples and nations who want to fight for themselves. Ukrainians fought for their country tenaciously and skillfully, mastered complex weapon systems on their own initiative and maintained high morale. The United States helps them, but it is the Ukrainians – ordinary soldiers, high-ranking generals, civilians under bombardment, senior government officials and diplomats mustering international support – who ultimately determine their own destiny. .
Although the 2001 US intervention in Afghanistan received early support from several Afghan factions, US forces bore the burden of exercising military control over time. The failed attempt to create a new Afghan army produced a force seemingly devoid of independence of thought and action. The same seems to have been the case for the US-backed Afghan government, which was unable to win the loyalty of enough Afghans to hold power without US military support.
Unfortunately, the United States often forgets the lessons of history. In Vietnam, the United States ended up sabotaging its own efforts by gradually sidelining the South Vietnamese military and steadily undermining the legitimacy of the South Vietnamese government. By replacing local forces, U.S. military leaders felt that greater U.S. involvement would achieve key objectives, not realizing how deploying more U.S. personnel reshaped and complicated the conflict. .
Many of America’s greatest Cold War successes stemmed from aiding one side in a conflict rather than sending American troops into battle. In the 1980s, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, American aid to the local mujahideen was extremely effective in helping them fend off a much more technologically advanced military power. Elsewhere, aid to splinter groups opposed to communism in Eastern Europe has borne fruit. Grassroots support ultimately helped make the struggle for political rights in Eastern Europe unmanageable for a declining Soviet Union.
As the downsides of direct US troop deployment have become clearer, the benefits of exercising restraint and stepping up US intervention to help others fight for themselves have grown. Lessons from Afghanistan and Ukraine should inform US planning on, for example, how best to help Taiwan defend against a future invasion from mainland China. As the Ukrainians have shown, American equipment is often several generations superior to that of other powers. Decades of massive investment in satellites and other intelligence-gathering devices have enabled the United States to provide support in a variety of ways. The war in Ukraine proves that the United States can provide more effective strategic aid than any other country in the world, without necessarily having to rely on sending its own troops.