Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a reminder of America’s past ventures
24 Mar 2022|

The widespread view in the West is that Russia is applying the same scorched-earth approach to Ukraine as it did in Syria and Chechnya, destroying cities, killing, terrorising and dislocating populations, and creating a massive humanitarian crisis. This is indisputable, but it is also important to recognise that President Vladimir Putin has deftly observed and exploited the past misdeeds and current limitations of the United States in taking this approach.

The Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan fiascos are a powerful reminder of the moral lapses and human tragedies that the US and some of its allies were responsible for in those countries.

The massive and at times indiscriminate bombing of Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh Trail—a military supply route running from North Vietnam, through Laos and Cambodia, to South Vietnam—inflicted an unspeakable amount of human and property losses. The scale of American air bombing from 1965 to 1979 was double the number of bombs dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. The use of Agent Orange poisoned so many people and crop fields that the Vietnamese have still not fully recovered. The substance has also had long-term effects on American and Australian troops. Many international human rights agencies condemned the US for violating human rights and humanitarian and international law.

The US constantly justified its actions on the grounds of democracy versus communism and good versus evil. It fabricated disinformation, as revealed in the Pentagon Papers (officially, the Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defence Vietnam Task Force). I recall a long conversation with former US defence secretary Robert McNamara, in Helsinki in 1999, during which he profusely expressed his regrets about his role in the Vietnam War. When asked why he didn’t do anything about it then, he responded that when you’re in the thick of war, all you want is to win.

Russia’s brutal approach and operations in Ukraine mirror some of those of the US in Vietnam. If Putin has any regret about his Ukraine aggression, which has been stalled by the heroic Ukrainian resistance with Western backing, he is now in the thick of it and doesn’t know where to stop.

The same applies in many ways to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. While Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship deserved to be overthrown, the way the George W. Bush administration sought to do it was very taxing on the Iraqi people and society. The US started its operations with a ‘shock and awe’ strike that lit up the Baghdad sky as multiple balls of fire hit the city. Most Iraqis were pleased to see the end of Saddam’s regime, but in the process of getting rid of it, the US destroyed the Iraqi state at massive Iraqi human and material costs.

Over the next eight years, hundreds and thousands of Iraqis were killed and injured, and many cities were seriously damaged, as the US had to deal with a bloody insurgency for which it had no viable strategy. The humiliation and torture of Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison diminished the moral standing of the US, and its failure to deliver stability, security and democracy to Iraq tarnished its world-power status.

Washington acted on the false premise that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and connections with al-Qaeda. America was supported by only two allies, Britain and Australia, in what was dubbed the ‘coalition of the willing’, with no United Nations legitimation or international law backing. Putin has inflicted his war of choice on Ukraine in a similar way.

The US-led Afghanistan adventure provides a similar narrative. In this case, while supported by NATO and non-NATO allies and securing UN backing, the US began its intervention as a matter of necessity in retaliation for al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001. It also intended to transform Afghanistan into a viable state that would never become a hub for international terrorism. But in the face of a determined armed opposition, the erstwhile terrorist enemy—the Pakistan-backed and al-Qaeda-allied Taliban—the American and some allied forces, including those of the Afghan government, engaged in many unsavoury and damning acts. Their culturally insensitive night operations, house searches, heavy-handed methods of interrogation and failure to go for the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan rather than bomb Afghan villages and towns could only play into the hands of the opposition.

In the process, thousands of Afghan lives were lost, homes and businesses destroyed, and customary honours violated. These outcomes have been widely documented and berated by human rights organisations. At least in the case of Australia, its soldiers’ actions are being investigated. After two decades of involvement, all the US and its allies could do was abandon Afghanistan and let the country return to the brutal theocratic rule of the Taliban and face the worst crisis of its existence in generations.

Putin has been cognisant of US ventures and taken the view that he can do whatever he wants with Ukraine. The fact that the US and its NATO allies have repeatedly made it clear that they will not directly confront the Russian invasion has also provided solace to Putin. However, the most tragic aspect of America’s wars has been that the US did not walk away with a sense of victory. Putin should consider this—and the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.