Why the United States is succeeding in Ukraine after failing in Iraq and Afghanistan

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The United States is set to send $40 billion in aid to Ukraine after the House approved the aid package on Tuesday. Although the funds are temporarily stalled in the Senate due to an objection from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky, the measure is expected to pass in the coming week, along with nearly $15 billion in military aid. This will bring total US support for Ukraine since the start of the war to more than $53 billion.

These numbers may seem staggering, but they pale in comparison to the sums spent by Washington on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Vietnam for that matter. However, the result was much more effective.

Washington wisely arranged for Ukraine to receive Soviet-style weapons that its military knew how to operate and maintain rather than reflexively favoring US-made equipment.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent rebuilding armies from scratch in Iraq and Afghanistan, these sadly melted away in 2021 before the United States could complete its withdrawal from the country. Meanwhile, Iraq’s military nearly collapsed after the emergence of the Islamic State militant group in 2013, requiring massive injections of foreign airpower, advisers and financial aid to oust ISIS. of Iraqi territory. And after more than a decade of American military support, South Vietnam fell victim to a North Vietnamese invasion in 1975, two years after the United States withdrew.

In contrast, Ukraine was a huge success. Why is that?

Well, to begin with, Ukrainian society as a whole was ready to fight in defense of its country. The government did not count on the American army to support it and to appease reluctant recruits to defend it. And despite political divisions, over time the Ukrainian people have grown to foster closer relations with Western Europe and the United States. In contrast, the arms, money, and blood of thousands of American soldiers could not instill popular support for the Western-oriented governments in South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

Ukraine’s spirit of national resistance also means that most US weapons transferred to local forces have been used for their intended purpose. In contrast, corruption and disloyalty (and incompetence) have seen huge amounts of US military aid to Afghanistan, Iraq and South Vietnam disappear and even end up with enemy forces.

In Ukraine, the United States and NATO are helping the country build on its existing forces instead of reinventing the military from the ground up – as the United States had to do in Iraq when it foolishly disbanded the entire army after overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In Ukraine, from 2014 when war in the east broke out, Washington instead allowed kyiv to better utilize its huge inventory of Soviet artillery and armored vehicles through modernized training and tactics.

It also focused on providing mostly non-lethal systems that allowed Ukrainian troops to more effectively use the firepower they already had, such as counter-battery radars that helped Ukrainian forces detect attacks. artillery, night-vision goggles that allow Ukrainian units to operate at times Russian units cannot, and secure communications systems that protect their troop locations.

When it became clear that Ukraine was at high risk of being fully invaded by Russia earlier this year, US and UK defense officials correctly turned to supplying the kinds of lethal weapons that could be rapidly delivered in large quantities and rapidly deployed for maximum impact. In particular, thousands of advanced Javelin and Stinger man-portable missiles which have light logistical and training requirements and have been ideal for ambushing Russian armored columns or shooting down low-flying helicopters and aircraft.

This is a smart change from sending Abrams tanks to Iraq and Blackhawk helicopters to Afghanistan which native personnel struggled to maintain without abundant support from American contractors.

It was also crucial for the White House to help the Ukrainians bog down Russia’s strongest military without deploy US combat troops or aircraft to the combat area. This has undoubtedly helped US domestic support for Ukraine to remain high, while giving kyiv more agency to manage the war as it sees fit and reducing the risk of Ukrainian forces becoming dependent on direct support. the United States.

Part of what has helped the United States avoid putting its troops at risk is that it has turned to training Ukrainian soldiers in European countries since Putin began escalating hostilities.

Some critics argue that President Joe Biden should have armed Ukraine more before or at the start of the war with fighter jets or Patriot missiles. But Biden had to consider the possibility of Ukraine collapsing days before a Russian attack, as some intelligence analysts had predicted, allowing weapons to fall into Russian hands before the Ukrainians could even use them. .

Moreover, Biden had to avoid arming Ukraine in a way that Moscow could have seized on to justify launching an invasion. Putin ended up having to attack without this justification, putting him in a weaker position.

The Biden administration, however, has been nimble enough to change course when circumstances allowed. When it became clear that Ukraine would not succumb to a knockout blow, Biden and other NATO allies transferred heavier and more advanced weaponry.

In Ukraine, the United States and NATO are helping the country build on its existing forces instead of reinventing the military from the ground up – as the United States had to do in Iraq when it foolishly dissolved the whole army.

When it did, Washington wisely arranged for Ukraine to receive Soviet-style weapons that its military knew how to use and maintain rather than reflexively favoring US-made equipment. Although the United States did not have many Soviet weapons on hand, it did have NATO allies like Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic that did. So the Biden administration convinced those countries to move older Soviet tanks, artillery, aircraft parts and ammunition to Ukraine while promising to fill their inventory with more modern American systems. This bolstered the military capacity of NATO allies while freeing up weapons that Ukraine could use immediately in its fight for survival.

That said, Washington has provided simpler US-built systems that Ukraine could adopt relatively easily, such as armored Humvees, howitzers and Switchblade kamikaze drones. In a remarkably short time, the Pentagon has also developed and delivered a custom attack drone specifically for Ukraine to use against armored targets, and mysterious “coastal defense” drones that the US Navy has not officially started. use.

In the months and years to come, US assistance will likely shift to more advanced capabilities that will take longer to integrate, including perhaps fighter jets, long-endurance combat drones, and anti-aircraft missiles. -ships. But that is only possible now because resolute and tactically competent Ukrainian troops, aided by the Javelins, stopped Russia early in the war.

While no one should take a victory lap in congratulations in this terrible, unfinished war, the Biden administration deserves credit for carefully calibrating its military support better than the United States in other conflicts. These are hard-learned but important lessons that will hopefully serve the country well the next time it considers intervention.

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