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Arming Ukrainian Militias is Afghanistan 2.0
A response to Noah Smith (and other pundits)
Recently, Noah Smith wrote about what he calls “Last War Brain.” To summarize, Noah thinks Americans overemphasize the disaster of Iraq, which frightens us from getting involved in Ukraine. This is essentially the 2022 version of “Vietnam Syndrome,” the baffling belief that Americans overlearned the lessons of the Vietnam War and were too reluctant of military endeavors in the last half of the 20th century.
I argue the opposite. Americans didn’t overlearn from Vietnam and Iraq. Rather, we made excuses and blamed peripheral factors that caused bad optics (Afghanistan withdrawal) instead of critiquing the core problem: military endeavors (including supplying weapons) bring unforeseeable blowback that is likely to outweigh any potential benefit. A case in point is the 183 people killed at Kabul airport by ISIS, a group literally born from American imperialism in Iraq.
Noah misses the mark on a few points. His main focus is on the Iraq War and full-scale U.S. military deployment to Ukraine, but that’s not what’s being considered. He (correctly) points out there’s little political appetite for U.S. troop deployment before advocating for the favored action of the foreign policy establishment: arming the Ukrainian militias.
“That doesn’t mean we should go to war to stop a Russian invasion — indeed, we should not, and nobody serious is suggesting we do. But things like threatening sanctions, and sending weapons to the Ukrainians, seem eminently reasonable as ways to deter Russian conquest.”
Looking at Ukraine, it’s preposterous to think either U.S. intervention or “sending weapons” will create a better, more peaceful outcome. Noah’s focus on Iraq is misguided given what he’s proposing for Ukraine isn’t akin to the Iraq War, but rather is identical to the source of the Afghanistan War.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve, 1979, the United States responded by connecting with Afghan rebels through Pakistani Intelligence. Along with stoking Islamist ideology to inspire anti-Soviet fervor, the CIA supplied the Mujahideen with arms and ammunition, most notably rifles and anti-aircraft Stinger Missiles.
But when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the fighting didn’t stop. Rife with weapons and violent ideology imported from foreign nations trying to win a Cold War proxy battle, Afghanistan devolved into civil war and an epidemic of gun violence.
The rest is history. Mere months after Osama Bin Laden made Afghanistan his home, the Taliban (which emerged as the victorious faction from the 1990s Mujahideen in-fighting) captured Kabul and imposed their harsh Islamist rule over the country. Following 9/11, the U.S. invasion and a misguided attempt at regime change killed thousands and collapsed the country even further.
To recap: In response to the Russian invasion of an independent country, the U.S. funneled arms to extremists, which worsened the violence and set off a domino effect of immiseration still lasting today. And we’re risking doing the same thing all over again.
Once again, the U.S. is considering flooding an unstable region of extremists with high-powered weaponry. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ve probably heard of “Ukrainian militias” preparing to fight against a potential Russian invasion. Most U.S. coverage has depicted these groups as “freedom-loving Ukrainians” ready and willing to defend democracy. But the reality is much more sinister.
The two main militias fighting Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region are the Azov Battalion and Right Sector.
To say these groups are “far-right” is an understatement. They routinely espouse Nazi symbolism and beliefs. They openly hate LGBT and Romani people and attack anti-fascist demonstrations. And Noah Smith (along with plenty of other pundits) wants to give them rocket launchers.
History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. Ukrainian Neo-Nazi militias don’t share the ideology of the 1980s Mujahideen, but they are on track to create the same outcome. Giving Stinger and Javelin missiles to Right Sector and Azov Battalion is a terrible idea that is sure to have impacts we can’t possibly predict. Even in the highly unlikely event they do use American weaponry to stop a Russian invasion, what happens next? What’s to say they don’t turn them on the Ukrainian state? Or maybe some particularly crazy members want revenge and shoot down a civilian flight coming from Russia. This potential for calamity is not only high, it has a strong precedent as it’s exactly what happened in Afghanistan.
To be clear, the fault for this fiasco lies with Vladimir Putin. He’s a right-wing, autocratic billionaire who’ll kill thousands with this invasion. But if the U.S. decides to toss guns and explosives to Nazis like firemen tossing candy to children along the parade route, there’s sure to be disastrous consequences. Not only is there no guarantee it’ll stop Russian forces, but there’s a high chance we’ll repeat the mistakes of Afghanistan and worsen Ukraine for generations to come.
Noah can say I have “Last War Brain” all he wants. In my mind, blatantly repeating the mistakes of Afghanistan rings “the definition of insanity” in my ear.
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