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What The Soviets Got Right In Afghanistan

A column of Soviet military vehicles crosses returns from Afghanistan in February 1989. But Soviet contributions to Afghanistan still remain. Will U.S. contributions fare as well?
Last summer I was invited to a friend's summer home outside of Kabul for a "picnic." After negotiating unfamiliar roads and a series of dodgy villages where my fair hair and pale skin excited quite a bit of notice, we arrived at a dusty farm with a small stone house.

I was escorted to the back patio, where about 15 middle-aged men were already ensconced. My heart sank when I saw the gathering -- it could have been a Taliban council, judging by the assorted beards and turbans on display.

I was the only foreigner, as well as the only female: my friend's mother and sisters were firmly relegated to the kitchen. They were not even allowed to serve the food -- such are the rules of the traditional Pashtun household. Women do not mix with men outside their immediate family.

I was excepted from the rule -- foreign females are honorary members of a "third sex" -- not quite men, but not exactly women, either. I gulped, tried a weak smile, and came out with my few phrases in Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan's two official national languages. The men nodded politely, but I could tell they thought, as I did, that it was going to be a long afternoon.

Suddenly I decided to try Russian, a language in which I am proficient, thanks to more than a decade spent in Moscow.

Almost before the first long syllables of "zdravstvuite" (hello) were out of my mouth, the men began to stir, laugh, and respond. All of them, without exception, were fluent in Russian -- they had all been educated at various respected institutions of the former Soviet Union. There was a lawyer from Kyiv University and an engineer from Leningrad State. There was an historian from Moscow, and even a language teacher from the Pushkin Institute, where I had also spent a year.

In no time we were fast friends, swapping stories of dorm life, favorite foods, beloved haunts. They even offered me a drink -- what I had thought was a pitcher of water turned out to be some of the vilest home brew I've tasted since my student days.

Russian Memories

These men were the intellectual elite of their generation, a middle class created by the Soviet attempts to forge a cadre of sympathizers. Exactly 21 years ago today, General Boris Gromov walked out of Afghanistan into Soviet Uzbekistan over the ineptly named "Bridge of Friendship," and the legacy of the Soviet period is still keenly felt. And not all of it is negative.

Exact data is hard to come by, but during their nine years in Afghanistan the Soviets sent tens of thousands of Afghans to colleges and universities in major Soviet cities. They built schools, roads, hospitals, and they brought in professionals to staff them.

At the same time, the war caused unimaginable hardship in many parts of Afghanistan: over 1 million Afghans were killed and more than 5 million -- a third of the population -- were displaced.

But while we want to attach a great big minus sign to the Soviet invasion and an even bigger plus sign to the U.S.-led operation that toppled the Taliban, it is just wishful thinking to imagine that Afghans see a clear, qualitative difference between the Russian occupation and the U.S. presence.

Veteran journalist Dan Rather recently appeared on "The Daily Show," having just returned from Kabul. "The Afghans know that the Russian came for conquest; we came to help," he said, with no apparent irony.

It's been almost 30 years since Rather was hanging around with the mujahedin, and, with no disrespect intended, I think he's a bit out of touch.

'Infidel Invaders'

During the five years I've spent in Afghanistan, I've spoken to hundreds of Afghans. They come in all shapes, sizes, and political persuasions. I have met some who swear that things were better when the Soviets were here -- although perhaps they are just being ornery. I have spoken to many more who lump us all together as "infidel invaders."

Those who are willing to damn the Russians while giving the United States a pat on the head are few and far between. And most of them are the fighters who reaped the benefits of U.S. largesse during the jihad.

In the 1980s, the United States poured money and weapons into Afghanistan to contain and defeat its nemesis, the Soviet Union. In the process we nurtured our own enemies: Osama bin Laden got his start during the mujahedin years, hiding in the Afghan mountains and dreaming of jihad.

The Taliban, too, were committed mujahedin, mercilessly targeting the infidel occupiers -- much as they are now, as a matter of fact. Except that then they were doing it on our dime.

The United States will soon surpass the Soviet tenure in Afghanistan. This is our ninth year of conflict. One has to wonder what our legacy will look like 20 years from now.

The Soviet Legacy

The number of killed and displaced is a mere fraction of the horrific Soviet total, which is all to the good. But the contribution we have made to Afghanistan's infrastructure is also minimal. We take a handful of scholars each year in various programs; we have built a few schools and a sprinkling of clinics. We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in a vain attempt to disarm the militias, only to begin rearming them over the past year.

We have tried, and failed, to build up the Afghan police; we've had limited success with the Afghan Army. Nevertheless, we are committed to "Afghanization" -- handing over the fight to the indigenous security forces, just as the Soviets did in 1986-89.

Afghan and international specialists warn that we are following in the path of the Soviet Union. The Afghan war contributed substantially to the demise of the seemingly unshakable monolith.

When Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, recently urged the alliance to stay the course in Afghanistan, one could almost hear a hollow chuckle from the general direction of Moscow.

Perhaps the United States should take some advice from its own State Department, which circulated this memo on Afghanistan in 1986: "The Soviets thus far have made little progress -- primarily because most Afghans reject any form of outside domination," it warned. "Most Afghans are scandalized by the sexual equality promoted by the Soviet media and the widespread consumption of alcohol in the Soviet Union."

Now the shoe is on the other foot, but the reality of the situation has not changed.

Don't be fooled by rhetoric. Our brave words about liberating the Afghan people sound increasingly absurd given the recent, badly flawed presidential election, runaway corruption, and growing insurgency. Communism and democracy may sound like opposites to us, but to the Afghans, they are just buzzwords used by invaders.

Perhaps we should listen to Rogozin and Gromov after all, who contributed a joint op-ed to "The New York Times" last month: "We are not sending our own troops to Afghanistan," the two men wrote. "We have been there before and we did not like it."

Jean MacKenzie has lived in and written on Afghanistan for the past five years. She is now the Kabul correspondent for "Global Post." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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