Soviet Lessons on Afghanistan

APSoviet soldiers observing the highlands while fighting Islamic guerrillas in Afghanistan in the spring of 1988.
Twenty years after Red Army troops pulled out of Afghanistan, the last general to command them says the Soviets' devastating experience is a dismal omen for U.S. plans to build up troops there.

On Friday, the anniversary of the Soviet departure from the Afghan capital, the State Duma adopted a resolution honoring the soldiers who "were faithful to the warrior's duty, who displayed heroism, bravery and patriotism."

In retired General Boris Gromov's view, the valor was shown in an unwinnable battle.

"Afghanistan taught us an invaluable lesson. ... It has been and always will be impossible to solve political problems using force," said Gromov, the last soldier to leave Afghanistan two days after the Kabul pullout.

He told reporters that U.S. plans to send thousands of new troops to Afghanistan would make no difference against a resurgent Taliban, who came to power in 1996 in the chaos after the Soviet withdrawal.

"One can increase the forces or not -- it won't lead to anything but a negative result," Gromov said.

The Duma resolution credited the Red Army with the "repulsion of international terrorism and narcotics trade" and "averting a breeding ground for a new war" on Russia's border.

That appeared to blame Afghanistan's current fighting and soaring opium trade on the U.S.-led military operation launched in 2001 against the Taliban. Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has made the same suggestion recently, saying the alliance has repeated the Soviet Union's mistakes in Afghanistan and added its own.


AP
Gromov and his son leaving Afghanistan for Uzbekistan Feb. 15, 1988.
The Soviet Union lost some 15,000 soldiers in the war, which began when Moscow sent in troops to battle guerrillas who were fighting a Soviet-supported government. The invasion brought international opprobrium on the Soviet Union -- including a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow by countries including the United States, China and Japan.

It also shocked millions of Soviets who had been taught that their massive military was the world's most potent but saw their heavy equipment and powerful weaponry overwhelmed by ragged, Western-backed insurgents.

"It's like fighting sand. No force in the world can get the better of the Afghans," said Oleg Kubanov, a stocky 47-year-old former officer with the Order of the Red Star pinned to his chest at an anniversary concert in Moscow.

"It's their holy land, it doesn't matter to them if you're Russian, American. We're all soldiers to them."

Thousands of veterans, some in dress suits and some in combats, gathered Friday for a lavish concert organized by Moscow City Hall. As they embraced and posed for pictures before the show, many cited the United States' troubles as proof that their campaign in Afghanistan had been hopeless from the start.

Reports that U.S. President Barack Obama plans to boost U.S. forces there to 60,000 revived bitter memories for members of the Soviet deployment that steadily climbed to a peak of more than 100,000 troops as the insurgency deepened in the mid-1980s.

There are 36,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan today, split between the 55,000-strong NATO force and separate U.S. missions, both charged with protecting a transitional government from Taliban forces.

"Numbers don't solve anything," said Shamil Tyukteyev, 59, who led a regiment in Afghanistan from 1986-88. "You can't put a soldier outside every house or a base on every mountain. We saw it ourselves; the more troops, the more resistance."

After a decade of pouring in more and more troops and money, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered a withdrawal in 1989.

"They'll send more in, and they'll lose more," Andrei Bandarenko, 42, a former special forces officer, said of the U.S. plans. "What does Obama know about the situation on the ground? We had our own fool, Gorbachev, who knew even less."

(AP, Reuters)