The U.S. is widely perceived to be preparing for some form of military assault against Afghanistan, where the suspected mastermind behind the 11 September terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden, is believed to be hiding. Veterans of the Soviet Union's 10-year-long war in Afghanistan say they understand the seriousness of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the American people's desire to retaliate. But speaking from experience, they say any military action in Afghanistan will be extremely dangerous for U.S. soldiers.
Moscow, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Historically, Afghanistan has been notable for its fierce resistance to foreign rule or occupation.
The British Empire, for example, fought three times in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1920 but was unable to impose control over the country. On the contrary, Afghan tribesmen, in a noteworthy victory in 1842, wiped out an entire British army -- some 16,000 men.
Most recently, in 1979, Afghanistan was invaded by Soviet troops. The anti-communist mujahedin forces -- supplied and trained by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other countries -- successfully engaged Soviet forces in the mountains and valleys and forced Moscow to withdraw. In 10 years of war in Afghanistan, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives.
Yuri Shamanov is a former Soviet lieutenant-colonel who fought in Afghanistan for two years. He is now the head of an association that helps Russian veterans of the Afghan war and their families.
Shamanov says American soldiers will find fighting in Afghanistan worse than in Vietnam, where the U.S. military was infamously frustrated in the 1960s and early 1970s by the Viet Cong's guerrilla tactics and knowledge of the jungle. Almost 60,000 U.S. servicemen lost their lives in Vietnam.
Shamanov says Afghanistan's mountainous terrain makes air strikes virtually useless and that, in the end, it may be necessary for the U.S. to send ground forces in. If that happens, Shamanov advises good planning and a quick exit strategy:
"The Americans will face the same [problems] -- if not worse -- [than] the Soviet army faced. If [the U.S.] starts a ground operation -- since air strikes, any air strikes, will bring very small results in that particularly [mountainous] landscape -- [the U.S.] should plan the operation very well and carry it out in a very short time and quickly leave Afghan territory."
Aleksandr Golts is a Moscow-based journalist and defense analyst. Golts says Afghanistan's mountainous terrain seems to have been specially created to deter outside armies:
"The Lord [seems] to have thought of Afghanistan to destroy all the advantages that present armies have toward poorly armed fighters. [The country's landscape] seems to be intentionally thought [out] for defense. You have very difficult mountainous terrain and roads that seem [purposefully] planned to prepare ambushes."
Along with its mountains, Afghanistan is full of caves and deep ravines, in which bin Laden and other extremists are thought by many to be hiding. Soviet veterans of the Afghan war say this type of topography is virtually impregnable to U.S. air strikes. And in any type of ground operation, tanks and other vehicles will find it difficult to maneuver through narrow mountain passes.
Shamanov explains how the country's geographic structure complicated the Soviet operation against the mujahedin:
"You have such caves [in Afghanistan], such ravines. We tried to get [the mujahedin] out with all the means we had, but we couldn't catch them. We threw echelons of ammunition [at them], and the result was very bad."
Moscow regional governor and former Soviet Colonel General Boris Gromov fought in Afghanistan for five years. He told Russian television that the U.S. must think carefully before sending ground forces into Afghanistan. He pointed out that in addition to the mountains, the Afghans' fighting spirit should not be discounted.
Shamanov also remembers the shocking poverty of the country but says the Afghans didn't appear to care. "They had religion," Shamanov says, and this was the most important thing. After that, he says, he understood they were not ready to accept any kind of socialism or communism.
"They could only live under their strong Muslim principles," Shamanov says.
Shamanov says the Afghans were ready to die in the name of their religion, a concept foreign to the Soviet soldiers and their commanders:
"[An Afghan] goes to death in the name of an idea. If he kills an infidel, he [believes] he and his children are going to live in heaven, and they are going to live well. They believe in it. They believe [in it] so much that they are ready to die for it, but you don't understand why. We don't fight in such a way."
Shamanov says he believes the Afghans are not only mentally prepared to fight against the U.S., but that they are professional soldiers who will frustrate U.S. troops:
"[Afghan] people really love freedom. They are really well-trained [soldiers]. They [are capable of making] a high-level partisan war. Americans are not ready [for] it."
Shamanov also said the Afghans know how to operate and survive in harsh conditions. He says they are used to living under such unsanitary conditions that they seem to have developed strong immune systems. He says Soviet soldiers often caught infections and diseases, while the Afghans were seemingly unaffected.
Shamanov says the availability of clean drinking water was one of the biggest challenges. He says Soviet soldiers were often forced to drink spring water while in the mountains. Though the water was disinfected, he says Soviet soldiers still got sick, while the Afghans drank the same water and nothing happened to them.
Today, Shamanov's center tries to help veterans of the Afghan war deal with psychological problems caused by the conflict. He says many of them are shell-shocked and are unable to forget their brutal experiences.
"They saw the hell," Shamanov says. "And after that, it is very difficult to go back into normal life."