US, Russia stuck between war on terror and an era of errors

What Washington reaps out of Ukraine will become known in the months and years to come

By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 20 Apr 2022, 11:04 PM

Last updated: Wed 20 Apr 2022, 11:07 PM

“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” is a saying attributed to the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ in French). Many others, notably George Santayana, Edmund Burke, and Winston Churchill, paraphrased the observation into the more compact “History repeats itself.”

One is reminded of this as America rushes economic and military aid to Ukraine to fight Russia, in a repeat of what the United States did to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which in itself was a payback for what the Soviet Union did to the United States in Vietnam.

For sowing the wind in Afghanistan (among other things), America reaped a whirlwind in the form of 9/11. What Washington will reap out of Ukraine for 2022 will become known in the months and years to come. But for now it is misery for Moscow and Kyiv. Less well understood is the misery that is in store for Washington.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had this to say last week as he announced another tranche of $800 million in American aid to Ukraine, bringing the total US aid to Ukraine to over $3 billion in just the past few months: “Russia has failed in its initial objective of capturing Kyiv and failed to subjugate Ukraine, but we cannot become complacent. The United States and the international community will make Putin’s war of choice a long-term strategic failure for the Kremlin.”

It has echoes of what Zbigniew Brzezhinski, US National Security honcho in 1979, wrote to then US President Jimmy Carter when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan, “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.” For the next decade, Washington funneled billions into the Af-Pak region to help Pakistan and the Mujaheddin defeat Soviet troops.

And what had the USSR done in Vietnam for this payback? From 1968 onwards, Moscow provided its communist North Vietnam ally with military and economic aid worth billions (in today’s value), including food, petroleum, transport vehicles, iron, steel, fertilizer, arms, and ammunition, eventually driving the Americans out of Vietnam.

The United States got sucked into Vietnam to prevent what was feared could be a domino effect: If one country in the region (in this case South Vietnam) fell under the influence of Communism, the surrounding countries would inevitably follow. It was already worried about the spread of communism in Lat-Am, which it considered its backyard. The Russian raison d’etre for invading Ukraine? The spread of American/ Western-style democracy in what it considers its sphere of influence.

In a world conditioned to think of the globe in terms of the Mercator map, one often views the US and Russia as distant adversaries. But in reality, they are neighbours: they share a maritime border. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was once spoofed (on Saturday Night Live) as remarking, “I can see Russia from my house.” She later corrected the hyperbole to maintain Russia can be seen from Alaska.

Indeed, purely in terms of migration, the human species is said to have schlepped from north-eastern Russia across the Bering Strait into Alaska, populating the untenanted or unpopulated American continent. In that sense, the original inhabitants of the two countries are the same people! In fact, Alaska was part of Russia till 1867. That was when America bought Alaska from Russia -- for a bargain-basement price of $ 7.2 million.

Even stranger, it turns out that the US is the only maritime neighbour Russia has never had a direct war with. It has fought multiple wars with three other countries it shares maritime borders with — Japan, Sweden, and Turkey (across the Black Sea) and an assortment of other nations it has land borders with -- but not with the United States.

Instead, the two have settled on a proxy battle much to the detriment of the world -- because, to paraphrase another saying, whether elephants make love or war, the grass always suffers. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Ukraine are but pawns, copping enormous collateral damage, with the rest of the world suffering too.

How long will this go on? The Vietnam War lasted nearly 20 years. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan lasted about ten years. The US “war on terror” was another 20 years.

And Ukraine? It’s anybody’s guess. We may be in for the tormented twenties. Hindsight 2020 may come only in the 2030s.

And then there is the cost — both the human cost, which is almost incalculable, and the monetary cost, with the tab to be paid over generations.

According to a recent study by Brown University’s Cost of War Project, America’s ‘war on terror,’ including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, cost the country more than $ 8 trillion. By President Biden’s own calculations, which he used to rationalize the complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US burned up $ 300 million a day over a period of two decades in Afghanistan alone.

The cheques being cut for Ukraine right now are like a rounding error compared to the money the US burned in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The war on terror has just ended. The ‘war of error’ has just begun.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington

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