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Twenty Years After Pullout, Soviet-Afghan Conflict Still Haunts

A scene from the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan through the Uzbek town of Termez
A scene from the Red Army's withdrawal from Afghanistan through the Uzbek town of Termez
Twenty years ago, the Soviet army completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 10-year battle with Western-backed mujahedin and other Afghans that was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War.

The conflict is now widely seen as having hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union and -- due to its devastating impact on Afghanistan -- and helped sow seeds of international terror.

Two decades after the last departing Soviet soldiers crossed the border into Uzbekistan near the town of Termez on February 15, 1989, the Soviet-Afghan war is still a haunting memory for the people of the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan.

In many towns across the former USSR, there are war monuments remembering local men who went south with the Soviet Army and never returned.

War Of Attrition

In Afghanistan, there are more reminders of the 10-year Soviet presence. In Kabul, they include two Moscow-built districts of apartment buildings -- known locally as Raiun 1 and 2 -- which faithfully replicate the Soviet world.

Those now-aging souvenirs recall one of the epic struggles of the Cold War.

Soviet forces, backing the Marxist government in Kabul, entered Afghanistan in 1979 to quell groups challenging its power. At the outset, it appeared an easy task for the Red Army.

But as the fighting widened, and the West and allied states in the Middle East steadily stepped up funding and arms to Islamic resistance fighters, the conflict turned into a grinding war of attrition.

The number of Afghans killed has never been reliably determined. Estimates range between 1 million and 1.5 million, including mujahedin fighters.

Another 5 million Afghans, a full one-third of Afghanistan's prewar population, fled as refugees to neighboring Iran or Pakistan.

During the decade-long conflict, Moscow sent a total of 620,000 soldiers into Afghanistan. Some 80,000-104,000 troops were serving there at any given time.

After the war ended, the Soviet Union published figures of dead Soviet soldiers: the total was 13,836 men, on average, and 1,537 men a year. Many Western estimates run higher: around 15,000 dead.

'A Terrible Sin'

Historians often refer to the Afghan war as the Soviet Union's Vietnam.

In both Afghanistan and Vietnam, a superpower's army was foiled by a smaller force amply supplied by the other in a kind of proxy war.

In both cases, too, the wars put huge financial and social strains on the power that deployed its troops directly. And the wars grew hugely unpopular at home.

For Moscow, the burdens ultimately proved unsustainable.

The pressure that the war effort placed on an inefficient Soviet economy helped expose the extent to which the system was unable to meet the country's needs even in peacetime. That, in turn, contributed to demands for change that, just a few years later, would end with the dismantling of the Soviet Union.

Andrei Sakharov, speaking to the 1st Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1989, after the war ended, criticized it as a "crime [that] cost the lives of nearly 1 million Afghans," going on to say, "A war of annihilation was waged against an entire nation. One million people died. [This war] weighs on us as a terrible sin."

In Afghanistan, the war is widely remembered as a victory for the mujahedin and proof of the strength of faith in Islam.

Still Spawning Threats

But, in fact, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had even more crushing fallout for the winners than the losers.

Afghanistan plunged into more than a decade of civil war between mujahedin factions in constantly shifting alliances. That includes the war between the United Front (aka Northern Alliance) and the Taliban, which ended when the United States intervened in 2001 to topple the Taliban after it refused to hand over the suspected Al-Qaeda planners of the September 11 attacks.

More than seven years later, the U.S. military has said it needs to nearly double its troop strength in Afghanistan to 60,000 to try to contain a resurgent Taliban threat in the south and east of the country. Other Western powers also have troops in Afghanistan in hopes of stabilizing it and supporting reconstruction efforts.

At the same time, many governments continue to battle groups founded by militant Islamists who enlisted as foreign fighters with the mujahedin against the Soviets and then returned home, only to continue their armed struggle.

That makes the 20th anniversary of the end of the Soviet-Afghan war a moment for reflection in many capitals of the world.

-- Charles Recknagel