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Decades After Soviet Exit, Another Superpower Is Tied Down In Afghan Conflict

  • Abubakar Siddique

A man at Kabul's graveyard for Afghan "martyrs" in the fight against Soviet troops in September 2006

A man at Kabul's graveyard for Afghan "martyrs" in the fight against Soviet troops in September 2006

For 35-year-old Abdul Bashir, the physical scars he bears serve as a daily reminder of the morning his childhood home outside the Afghan capital was bombed.

What was to be a day of celebration resulted in the loss of family members and some 70 fellow residents of the village of Ali Mardan, near Kabul.

"I was nine years old. It was early in the morning during my sister's wedding when four helicopters or jets bombed my home," Bashir says. "You can see I lost one of my eyes, and teeth. My brother was wounded. My sister, father, and my aunt were martyred in this incident. This happened 26 years ago, and I can never forget this painful incident."

It has been two decades since the failure of the Soviet Union's 10-year campaign in Afghanistan was made official. February 15 marks 20 years since the last soldier crossed the so-called Friendship Bridge to Soviet Uzbekistan.

With the presence of a new invading force that is increasingly perceived as one of occupation, sentiments like Bashir's are once again echoing in villages across the Afghan countryside.

Perceived Differences

Some 2,000 Afghans have died or sustained serious injuries in U.S. and NATO air strikes in the past year. Recent polls suggest that support for Western forces among the Afghan people has reached an all-time low of 37 percent.

The memories of Soviet occupation remain fresh in the minds of Afghans old enough to have lived through it. But while there are similarities, stark differences separate the Soviet and U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan.

Ali Ahmad Jalali -- a former Afghan military colonel who went on to become a top military planner in the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan and served as interior minister during the U.S.-led campaign from 2003 to 2005 -- tells RFE/RL that the two military efforts can both be considered primarily "counterinsurgency" campaigns. But he says a key difference lies in the "purpose, policies, strategies, and the level of forces used."

Today a distinguished professor at the Near East South Asia Center of Washington's National Defense University, Jalali maintains that the Soviet effort was aimed at "controlling" the Afghans, while Western military efforts are centered on winning "hearts and minds."

"During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there was already a resistance fighting an unpopular regime that was supported by the Soviet Union -- so therefore the Soviet forces entered Afghanistan to prop up an unpopular [communist] regime," Jalali says. "On the contrary, in 2001, international forces entered Afghanistan to remove an unpopular [Taliban] regime."

He adds another important distinction: "During the Soviet invasion, millions of Afghans were forced to leave the country and become refugees in neighboring countries. After the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan, millions of [refugees] came back."

'Lighter Footprint'

Pakistani author and regional expert Ahmed Rashid was there in late December 1979 when Red Army tanks first rolled into the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

Rashid, who has met recently with U.S. officials mapping out a possible new Afghan strategy, was one of a small number of international correspondents who managed to cover the ensuing war from both sides: He established friendships both with Afghan communist officials and the mujahedin guerrillas fighting them from bases in neighboring Pakistan.

"The Soviet [campaign] was an invasion; it was an occupation. It was an attempt to install an alien ideology on the country with very little support inside the country for that ideology -- in other words, communism," Rashid says. "Today what we are seeing [after the U.S.-led campaign began in October 2001] is something quite different; it's a light footprint, at least until the Taliban reasserted themselves in 2006. The failure today has not been about ideology or repression, it has been the failure to rebuild the country."

Alarmed by the bitter internal rivalries among communist factions, the Red Army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979, in an internationally derided effort to prop up an unpopular regime.

Over the next 10 years, Soviet forces fought a variety of conservative Islamist groups bankrolled by the West, Arab countries, and Pakistan.

Although the Afghan mujahedin hardly inflicted a major military defeat on the heavily armed Soviet Army or its Afghan communist allies, their simple hit-and-run tactics -- strengthened in later years by access to sophisticated U.S. weapons -- contributed to the Soviet withdrawal. After the Geneva Accords provided them with a face-saving exit strategy, the Soviet retreat began on May 15, 1988 and was completed on February 15, 1989.

Invaders Vs. Liberators?

One million Afghans died and more than 1 million others were injured in the course of the war, whose end signaled the onset of the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

But while Washington welcomed the Soviet withdrawal as an ideological victory, the United States and its allies lost interest in Afghanistan and did little to help rebuild the war-ravaged country.

The resulting power vacuum helped usher in civil war and the rise of rapacious warlords, bringing further misery to the Afghan people. The warlords were in turn unseated by the Taliban, who emerged in mid-1990s as ragtag group of former mujahedin fighters and madrasah students but -- under the leadership of Mullah Mohammad Omar -- developed a puritanical Islamist political agenda and controlled much of Afghanistan within three years.

The Taliban regime had deep links to official establishments in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, who along with the United Arab Emirates were the only states to recognize that government's legitimacy. In 1996, after Taliban fighters captured the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, they began to forge close ties with Osama bin Laden, who quickly became even more than an honored guest. The Taliban "emirate" housed and trained militants from around the world, and by 2001 was deeply enmeshed in bin Ladin's global jihadist network. Al-Qaeda is thought to have orchestrated the September 11, 2001, attacks from its bases in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 attacks once again focused Washington's attention on Afghanistan, resulting in the U.S.-led invasion just a month later when its forces began bombing the Taliban on October 7.

More Than Conflict

Unlike the Soviet invasion, many Afghans eager to see the demise of the hard-line Taliban regime welcomed the U.S. troops as liberators.

But seven years later, with promises of security, good governance, and basic services still unmet, former mujahedin and communist leaders alike agree that the enemy cannot be defeated by military means alone.

Those skeptics include Burhanuddin Rabbani, who led one of the seven major anti-Soviet Afghan mujahedin factions in the 1980s and was a major political leader of the anti-Taliban groups allied under the United Front (aka Northern Alliance) banner in the 1990s. Once a Kabul university theology professor and a former civil-war-era president, Rabanni expresses reservations at the Obama administration's focus on a troop surge to quell unrest in Afghanistan.

"I tell you this for sure, that if NATO and America put all their attention on fighting, and investing only in the military -- there have already been some mistakes during military operations and the mistakes are continually being repeated -- indeed this is a mistake that the Soviets made in the past," Rabbani says.

Former communist Interior Minister Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi, a onetime Rabbani enemy, is now his ally in the Afghan parliament. He wants U.S. and NATO forces to focus on proving to the Afghan people that they are there to help.

"NATO and the Americans must change their tactics operationally and militarily if they want to win this war. They need to change their behavior towards the people," Gulabzoi says. "It would be better if they developed the Afghan army and the Afghan police. There is no need for the increase in NATO troops, British troops, and American troops. We should improve our own army and police so we can stand on our own feet."

Democratic Hopes

Journalist Rashid is optimistic that ahead of a NATO summit scheduled for early April, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama will have a new Pakistan-Afghanistan policy in place. He says that along with additional troops, the administration's new strategy is likely to focus on reconstruction and "remaking the Afghan army and the police."

Rashid says such a strategy could boost Afghan hopes for a democratic future and stave off any perception that the United States is just another occupying power.

He says "most people in the Muslim world aspire to some kind of democratic governance" but see too few examples because "there are too many autocrats and dictators in the Muslim world."

"I think Afghanistan is just the same. Yes, it may not be exactly a Western-style democracy, but they do want to the opportunity to chose their own leaders," Rashid says. "Right now there is a lot of disillusionment with President [Hamid] Karzai. If he does decide to stand in the elections, he may well lose; and I think that will be a new benchmark for Afghanistan -- a peaceful transfer of power, a new leadership with which the people and the international community can engage."

In Washington, Jalali says he thinks the challenge in Afghanistan is to build a state that can protect its citizens and deliver services. But he thinks making that possible will require more resources and course correction on the part of the U.S. led coalition.

"Afghanistan's problems is not short-term, it's long-term," Jalali says. "It is expensive; it's not cheap. It is regional; it's not local. It needs coordinated effort, not a fragmented effort by 41 countries."

The new U.S. administration has dispatched a special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke, to the region on a fact-finding mission that has already taken him to Islamabad and Kabul, where he met with political leaders and President Hamid Karzai, and will conclude in India.

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