The United States is good at getting involved in wars and not as good at getting out of them.
A year on, the Russia-Ukraine war has no end in sight. The war is at a semi-stalemate, and both Russia and Ukraine are sticking to their demands. Ukraine has been able to defend itself against Russian aggression in large part due to the $29.8 billion worth of weapons and equipment that the US has sent so far. While the US has hit some limits, it is sending ever more advanced weaponry and provides Ukraine with intelligence to help it target Russia more effectively. Ukraine cannot continue the war without Western military and economic support.
All of which raises the question of whether the Russia-Ukraine conflict is entering forever war territory.
The US’s post-9/11 wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan turned into decades-long conflicts because the objectives kept shifting, because they were guided by ideological goals, and because they were enabled by legal authorizations that gave policymakers room to expand the wars. The situation in Ukraine is obviously different from US engagement in Iraq or Afghanistan — for one, the US does not have troops on the ground in Ukraine. But when I asked former high-ranking military officials and national security experts about the risk of protracted war in Ukraine, they told me that those other forever war factors are currently present in the US’s support for the Ukraine war.
The Biden administration does not view the war as endless. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in October, “certainly we don’t want to see a forever war,” and he blames Russian President Vladimir Putin for the war’s continuation. But there’s a lot of time between here and forever. And in statement after statement after statement, officials describe the US’s enduring commitment to Ukraine. (Neither the White House nor the Pentagon replied to interview requests.)
“This is going to be a generational conflict between the West and Russia,” says historian Michael Kimmage of Catholic University, who has researched Putin’s strategy in the war. “The further the West moves in, the more Putin is going to be motivated to keep on going,” he told me. “This is going to be the mother of all forever wars, because of the nature of the adversary.”
So what can the US learn from its interventions in its Middle East forever wars? In the first year of the Iraq War, a young Gen. David Petraeus said he would repeat the mantra to himself, “Tell me how this ends.”
These days, Petraeus is retired from active duty and shares on social media daily Ukraine war situation reports from the Institute for the Study of War, where he is a board member. “I think the most important question has to do with how one might see this war ending,” Petraeus wrote in an email. “Related to that is the critical question of what needs to be done to convince Vladimir Putin that the war in Ukraine is not sustainable for Russia on the battlefield in Ukraine and also on the home front in Russia.”
But there are other ways of posing the question. Thomas Pickering, a former career ambassador who served in Russia and rose to be undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, says the potential for a nuclear conflict means the US does have to think about “whether it would make sense to try to terminate the war on an advantageous but not perfect basis.”
“I don’t [think] Ukraine has to become a forever war or even a frozen conflict; in fact, we need to do everything that we and our allies and partners can to enable Ukraine and ensure that this does not become a forever war,” Petraeus, now a partner at the private equity firm KKR, added.
Talking about how and why Ukraine is becoming a forever war, then, is a fine place to start.
Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan
The global war on terrorism was a sprawling and ill-defined project.
After 9/11, the US was responding to an attack on its soil, but then the George W. Bush administration expanded its international campaign to target not just al-Qaeda but the concept of terrorism — one that somehow the US is still fighting today. Though President Joe Biden withdrew from Afghanistan, US troops are still in the Middle East, and many aspects of the counterterrorism wars endure.
The way that Bush’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan began made that possible. Congress approved a joint resolution against threats to the US homeland in 2001 that was so broad that it evolved as the threats did. That vote authorized the use of military force against “nations, organizations, or persons” connected to the 9/11 attacks, and in 2002, Congress passed another broad authorization on Iraq that two decades later is used to counter the Islamic State terrorist group.
The US’s goals in Iraq, for example, ran the gamut of eliminating the risk of purported weapons of mass destruction, regime change, nation-building, countering Iranian influence, and then debilitating ISIS. US troops remain there in 2023. And when there were opportunities to end the initial invasion of Afghanistan — like when hundreds of Taliban fighters surrendered to the US — the Bush administration rejected them. Even now, 18 months after the US withdrew its last troops from Afghanistan and more than a year after the US assassinated perhaps the last known planner of the 2001 attack, the initial authorization has yet to be repealed.
As Rep. Barbara Lee, the only lawmaker who voted against the authorization of military force in Afghanistan in 2001, warned just days after the 9/11 attacks: “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target.”
Some of the lessons of the Bush and Obama years seem to have been put into action. Strategists now recognize that a small footprint is better than a massive US presence of hundreds of thousands of troops, and that much can be accomplished by partnering with another country’s military (instead of having “boots on the ground”). From the first 20 years of the war on terrorism, the US learned well that corruption among recipients of aid is corrosive to US interests. That commanders on the ground offer overly rosy assessments of progress in a self-deceptive process that ends up extending the war is now a truism.
But perhaps what the US ought to have learned from the forever wars is the importance of practicing humility and not underestimating one’s enemies. A more difficult lesson to put into practice is the importance of incorporating dialogue and negotiations with adversaries into policy.
Mara Karlin, a top civilian strategist appointed by Biden to the Pentagon, wrote a 2021 book on what the US learned from the post-9/11 wars. In The Inheritance: America’s Military After Two Decades of War, she details how wars without clear ends affect the morale, preparedness, and even civilian control of the military. Karlin warns of the danger of “overreacting to threats and attacks, as the United States did in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks” and of “under-responding, as the United States has done in its persistent inability to recognize and act on the growing security threats posed by China and Russia to the U.S.-led global order over the last decade or so.”
Karlin didn’t respond to a request for comment. But that a key Pentagon leader in 2021 worried more about a US underreaction to Russia than the potential for another endless war shows how committed a leading strategist in the Biden administration may be toward a long-haul fight.
How Ukraine can become America’s next forever war
The striking parallel between the US’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the ongoing war in Ukraine is the rhetoric surrounding the conflict.
The US role in supporting Ukraine has been framed as ideological. Biden from the get-go described the conflict in terms of good versus evil, democracy against autocracy.
Does the US “stand for the defense of democracy?” Biden asked again in his recent State of the Union address. “For such a defense matters to us because it keeps the peace and prevents open season for would-be aggressors to threaten our security and prosperity.” And senior State Department official Victoria Nuland wrote in testimony to Congress last month that “Ukraine’s fight is about so much more than Ukraine; it is about the world our own children and grandchildren will inherit.”
The Biden administration may believe that. But rhetoric like that is also how wars continue in perpetuity. It’s how the objectives creep, the goalposts shift. Ideological struggles are not so easy to win.
By some metrics, the objectives that the US set out to achieve in Ukraine have already been achieved. Christopher Chivvis, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explained that the US in the past year has managed to avoid a direct war with Russia, made Russia suffer a strategic defeat, and kept the NATO alliance unified. Ukraine has also maintained its sovereign independence.
Continued unqualified support is “good in the sense that it puts pressure on the Russians to try to moderate their more extreme objectives,” Chivvis told me. “But it’s not likely to get the Ukrainians to think seriously about restraining their own war aims, because they see the whole set of Western nations backing them to the hilt.”
Though many experts told me that it’s time to begin plotting the contours of talks between Russia and Ukraine, neither side sees value in negotiating right now.
The types of military support the West is giving to Ukraine — including US and German tanks and British promises to train Ukrainian pilots on their fighter jets — acknowledge this reality and could help contribute to it, argues Chivvis. The most advanced and heavy weaponry, like the US’s Abrams tanks, likely won’t arrive till next spring. “The trend is toward more and more military support to the Ukrainians, and they have no real reason as of now to limit their own war objectives,” says Chivvis, who previously worked as a US intelligence officer in Europe. “So it’s hard to see how it ends at this point.”
And yet, the longer the war goes on, the more people will die in Ukraine and Russia, and the risks for the war to spiral out of control are real. As Pickering put it, the US risks stumbling into “an endless war punctuated by nuclear use.”
What happens when the war keeps going
The war to defend Ukraine may be more coherent than the war on terrorism, but it also appears ill-defined in terms of goals and strategies. Analysts who might not agree on much else do agree that there isn’t enough of a debate on what outcomes the US seeks.
The Biden administration, for its unprecedented mustering of allies through NATO, Europe, and elsewhere, has left some gaps unfilled. Deferring to Ukraine, as Biden’s national security leaders have consistently done in public interviews, is not a strategy.
Less attention has been paid to how this conflict might end in a way that serves US interests in Europe and the world, according to Samuel Charap, an analyst at the RAND Corporation. And those trying to have that conversation about how to end the war, he told me, are sometimes cast as Russian sympathizers. But there is an urgency to have these difficult conversations. “We know that, for example, conflicts that last more than a year are more than likely to continue to go on for 10 years,” Charap told me.
“I don’t think that we should tolerate a war that stretches on for years, because if we do, it means that we are tolerating greater risk that the war will spread,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama defense official who now directs the McCain Institute think tank. “If we knowingly accept a war that will go on for years, then I think we are taking on a moral hazard because Ukrainians are dying every month this war goes on.”
The toll on human life is unfathomable, and the long-term effects on the country will be many. Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to NATO now at the Atlantic Council think tank, is worried about how the wartime mentality has forever changed Ukrainian institutions. “We’re going to have to help Ukraine get back to normal,” he told me.
“You have the presidential administration basically running everything. You have one centralized media operation for news for the country, which is highly censored,” Volker said. “These are things that can’t go on in a normal society. So they’re going to have to decentralize. They’re going to have to open new media outlets, going to have to have political pluralism in terms of political parties and competition — all kinds of things that they are not currently grappling with.”
The rebuilding of Ukraine will require massive investments, too. The country’s energy infrastructure will need to be rebuilt, and just keeping its economy afloat in the meantime may require up to $5 billion a month, the International Monetary Fund has estimated. After the hot conflict ends, the US commitment will likely continue. But an end to the conflict seems increasingly hard to find.
A Defense Department leader, Celeste Wallander, was recently asked at a Washington think tank event whether the Pentagon is planning for a negotiated outcome or an outright Ukrainian victory on the battlefield. “It is difficult ahead of time to precisely predict how an armed conflict will end,” Wallander said, though she did emphasize that “it ends in Russia’s strategic failure, no question,” and that the US will support the choices made by Ukraine as to whether it would negotiate with Russia.
But Wallander and her colleagues in the Biden administration have left open the question of how the US would extricate itself from this conflict. Without having a clear answer of how this ends or how the US will get out, they presuppose that Washington will be in this war for the long haul.