Veterans of Soviet war see same errors by US

Posted in Broader Middle East , Russia , Afghanistan | 02-Dec-09 | Author: Charles Clover

US soldiers patrol near Shigal village in Kunar province eastern Afghanistan on December 7.

It was May 1985 when General Igor Rodionov stepped off a military transport aircraft at Kabul airport, assuming command of the Soviet Union's 40th Army fighting in Afghanistan.

His now-creased face tells the ensuing story better than words. He was the fifth of seven Soviet commanders, sharing a place in history with a singular brotherhood: foreign generals sent to conquer Afghanistan. The line, stretching from Alexander the Great to the present day, is distinguished by one conspicuous characteristic - all ultimately failed.

One not very optimistic piece of advice he wishes to share with those treading in his footsteps is this: "Everything has already been tried."

On the eve of an expected decision by the US administration to commit thousands more soldiers to the struggle against the Taliban, Gen Rodionov and other Soviet veterans feel a mixture of Schadenfreude and sympathy for the latest foreign invaders in the mountainous land they left in 1989 after a bloody 10-year counter-insurgency.

From his base in the sumptuous Tajbeg palace, on a commanding hill on the outskirts of Kabul, Gen Rodionov quickly learned "there was no front. The bullets could come from anywhere".

The Soviet 40th Army comprised 120,000 troops at the height of the war, and operations focused on manoeuvring helicopter-borne paratroopers on to mountains, to control high ground, and then moving tanks through the valleys.

In a decade nearly 15,000 Soviet troops lost their lives - and hundreds of thousands of Afghans - in many of the same places that US forces and their allies are struggling to control today: the border regions in the south-east of the country near Pakistan, and the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

"The war, all 10 years of it, went in circles. We would come and they [the insurgents] would leave. Then we leave, and they would return," Gen Rodionov said.

Other former senior Soviet officers see a similar futility in US efforts in Afghanistan.

"More soldiers is simply going to mean more deaths," said Gennady Zaitsev, former commander of the KGB's elite Alpha commando unit, which took part in some of the most critical operations of the war.

"US and British citizens are going to ask, quite rightly, 'why are our sons dying?' And the answer will be 'to keep Hamid Karzai [the Afghan president] in power'. I don't think that will satisfy them."

For Gen Rodionov, the news emanating from the conflict is disturbingly familiar.

"They [the US and its allies] have to understand that there is no way for them to succeed militarily. The only way is politics. And Karzai has no popularity amongst the people, he just runs a mafia."

Relations between the Afghan people and the Soviets determined the outcome of the war, Gen Rodionov believes. "It was a social, a political problem which we utterly failed to grasp with our military mindset," he said.

Like the Nato forces, the Soviets had a honeymoon for one to two years after their 1979 invasion. Infrastructure projects went ahead - most of the high-rise buildings in Kabul are Soviet even now. But then, as Gen Rodionov remembered, around 1982 things drastically worsened.

"Of course the problem was the same - the 40th army was a highly armed and trained force. It answered every shot directed at them with 10 shots. They created many casualties among civilians.

"We would bomb a village because there were one or two Mujahideen there. Women and children would die and this created the insurgent movement. It was a classic partisan war."

Russia's Afghanistan veterans say the US is in danger of winning militarily but losing politically, echoing their own experience.

Pyotr Suslov, a former operative for a KGB special operations unit in Afghanistan, said Nato's main mistake was in not paying proper attention to the balance between Afghanistan's tribes, particularly the Pashtun, who make up just under half of the population.

Instead, the US focused its initial attention on the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, the guerrilla movement that swept the Taliban from power in 2001 with US backing.

"They ignored the Pashtun," said Mr Suslov. "The Northern Alliance was in power after the Taliban fell, they were just a bunch of different commanders, all different tribes, ethnicities. The Pashtun were ignored. That is where the problem has come from. It is important for the US to agree with the Pashtun tribes."

Gen Rodionov said he had come to Afghanistan harshly critical of the war, and his criticism only grew throughout his term.

During this time, senior officers, watching the futility of their methods, began openly to discuss withdrawal. "It was a very narrow circle at first, and then it grew. The attitude at the time of the withdrawal was simply 'we should have done it earlier'."