Editor’s Note: As the United States orients its strategy around great power competition, questions have arisen as to whether the U.S. military is up to the task. In particular, as Raphael Cohen and Gian Gentile of the RAND Corporation point out, the Ukraine war has raised questions about just how well the U.S. military would fare in a conventional war after 20 years focused on counterinsurgency. The answer, they believe, is mixed: The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq taught the United States many valuable lessons, but a Ukraine-type war could still offer many unpleasant surprises.
There is little debate that the Russian military has underperformed in the war in Ukraine. Many analysts thought the conflict would be over in a matter of days, with minimal Russian military casualties, yet five months later it continues to grind on and has decimated significant portions of Russia’s ground combat power. There are a slew of explanations about why the Russian army has performed so poorly—from deliberate Russian force structure choices to an underestimation of the Ukrainian will to fight—but it is clear that the Russian military has not lived up to expectations.
A contentious question revolves around a hypothetical: Would the U.S. military have done any better? For some observers, the answer is no. For those in this camp, the argument is that the United States and other Western militaries suffer from some of the same maladies as the Russians. These claims echo a broader narrative that the past 20 years has been a “period of strategic atrophy” and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have left the United States ill prepared for largely conventional fights like the war in Ukraine.
Bracketing the long-standing debates over which side has the better kit, more agile force structure, or stronger will to fight, what the “we couldn’t do it better” school misses is historical context. As dissimilar as the Iraq and Afghanistan wars may be to the war in Ukraine, those conflicts taught the United States a few important lessons, often the hard way. As a result, the U.S. military probably would have avoided the problems that beset the Russians in Ukraine—not in spite of the global war on terrorism, but because of it.
Repeating Past Mistakes
For all the differences between the Ukraine war and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there are striking similarities between the Russian military’s failures in Ukraine and the U.S. military’s struggles in the early days of the global war on terrorism.
One commonly cited cause for Russia’s mishaps in Ukraine is that, during the early days of the war, Russia’s military lacked a unity of command. It’s possible that, because Russia thought the war was going to be a relatively short conflict, it did not place a commander in charge of its “special military operation” until April, when Vladimir Putin named Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov to the post. The net result was that Russia’s operation—especially during those crucial early weeks—seemed confused and ill coordinated.
The United States made a version of the same mistake before. While the early phases of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were led by a single person, Gen. Tommy Franks, he was also responsible for all of Central Command, which spanned most of the Middle East. Once the “major combat operations” ended, Franks went home. As we now know, the initial combat phases of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were only just beginning. Without a strong centralized command and control to plan what came next, attempts at progress in both conflicts stalled. It, arguably, took the United States and its allies months to build out structures like the Coalition Provisional Authority, Multi-National Force-Iraq, and International Security Assistance Force to provide that sort of direction.
A second notable shortfall of Russian forces in Ukraine has been in the realm of logistics. Russian tanks have run out of gas only a few dozen miles from the border, forces invaded Ukraine with expired food rations, and soldiers suffered from frostbite because they lacked adequate cold weather gear. While some of these sustainment challenges can be chalked up to the Ukrainian military successfully targeting Russian supply lines, they also reveal more systemic Russian weaknesses.
By contrast, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars highlighted and honed the U.S. military’s logistical backbone. After a couple notable exceptions particularly early on in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—like the Third Infantry Division’s operational pause on its push to Baghdad—U.S. logistics kept service members fed, fueled, and fighting for decades, even in remote bases in hostile terrain. For all the lampooning of Starbucks and surf-and-turf dinners at superbases, the fact remains that the United States was able to not only project hundreds of thousands of troops halfway around the world but also sustain them.
Above all, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have similarly misjudged Ukraine in ways that eerily parallel the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq War. Some Russian commentators’ rosy prewar forecasts about the expected outcome mirrored the false bravado of the now infamous “cakewalk” prediction for the Iraq War. Russian intelligence services supposedly pointed to polling that showed Ukrainians—by and large—did not trust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government, nor most of their other government institutions. Perhaps Putin also genuinely believed that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” divided by a border. Either way, the Kremlin seemed to think its forces could quickly topple the Ukrainian regime while being welcomed as liberators. In this sense, there are striking similarities to how the United States believed Iraqis would greet U.S. forces prior to the Iraq War. As we now know, in both cases, these assumptions proved false.
And like the Bush administration, the Kremlin seemingly lacked a plan for what would come next if Putin’s fantasies of a short, sharp war failed to materialize. Like U.S. policymakers confronted with a floundering conflict, Putin has chosen to double down—but his strategy seems, at this point, unclear.
And this is not an exhaustive list. There are other parallels between Russia’s misfortunes in Ukraine and the United States’ misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. For example, like the United States during the troop surge in 2007, Russia is now learning that wars require lots of manpower, especially those fought in urban areas. The broader point remains, though: History may not be repeating itself in Ukraine, but it certainly does rhyme.
Learning Lessons the Hard Way
Mistakes do not always translate directly into lessons learned. At least the popular narrative suggests that the U.S. military chose to excise the Vietnam War from its collective memory rather than internalize the lessons of that defeat. As Russia is finding out in Ukraine, even if the military internalizes a particular lesson, that’s no guarantee that its political masters will not overrule them. And so, the argument goes, U.S. errors during the global war on terrorism are not necessarily a guarantee that the United States would avoid repeating those mistakes in the future.
On closer examination, though, neither objection stands up to scrutiny. We will not know how much the joint force internalized the lessons of the past several decades until it confronts a similar situation in the future. But we do know the joint force has invested considerable time and effort into documenting and interpreting the lessons of the past two decades, as evidenced by an ample library of Department of Defense-sponsored official, semi-official, and academic research.
Moreover, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still relatively fresh experiences. With few exceptions, most of the current senior leaders in the U.S. military have spent much of their careers operating in both conflicts. The same is true to lesser extents for many junior ranks as well. At least for the next decade or so, the joint force does not need to learn from history as much as it simply needs to recall personal experiences.
Additionally, some of the lessons from U.S. mistakes in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars—like the importance of unity of command or centrality of logistics—are not particularly controversial or politically sensitive. Indeed, the former is enshrined in doctrine and drilled into every service member from the start. And the U.S. military’s logistical backbone has long been one of its underappreciated strengths. While the United States could ignore these lessons in the future, the onus of proof should be on the skeptics: Why would it?
As for the more politically fraught lessons learned—like the wisdom of strategies of regime change, sure, a future American president could overrule whatever lessons the U.S. military has taken away from Iraq and Afghanistan. But in contrast to Russia and other authoritarian regimes, democratic civil-military relations allow for more frank, if unequal, dialogue between military and civilian counterparts. Future military leaders might not be able to talk a future president out of regime change, but they might at least be able to convince him or her that plans for speedy regime change often go haywire.
Finally, while the U.S. military has learned lessons from the past 20 years, so too have political elites and the American public. The United States may not have lost its appetite for advocating regime change, but it has learned not to expect it to be a quick and easy affair. When President Biden remarked that Putin “cannot remain in power,” aides quickly walked back the comment, saying it was a statement of “moral outrage” rather than one of policy. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are rightfully wary of regime change.
Would the U.S. Military Have Done Any Better?
The short, if unfulfilling, answer is perhaps. In any future operation, the U.S. military will almost certainly make mistakes, but not the same ones the Russians did in Ukraine—if only for the fact that it learned many of the same lessons, often painfully, over the past two decades of war.
The Iraq and Afghanistan wars did not prepare the U.S. military for all aspects of future conflicts. They did not train soldiers how to advance under relentless artillery barrages, like those we see in Ukraine today. They did not teach sailors how to face anti-ship missiles, or pilots how to deal with advanced air-defense threats. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars certainly did not teach the U.S. military how to sustain the sort of casualties the Russians continue to take in Ukraine.
Similarly, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, probably, taught the United States bad lessons as well. For example, U.S. analysts’ underestimation of the Ukrainian will to fight might have been influenced by policymakers overestimating Iraqi and Afghan government forces’ will to fight in 2014 and last year, when better equipped and U.S.-trained Afghan security forces melted away in the face of weaker opponents.
Still, Iraq and Afghanistan taught the U.S. military several lessons relevant to the conflict in Ukraine; it’s likely the U.S. military would have avoided some of the mishaps that have befallen the Russians in Ukraine. The U.S. military should embrace this fact, if only to ensure it internalizes the “right” lessons of the past two decades of war.