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Russia still haunted by Afghan ghosts, 20 years later

Published on 16/02/2009

Moscow -- Russia marked the 20th anniversary of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan on Sunday, still haunted by its catastrophic war against Islamists and convinced that the trauma harbors lessons for Western forces today.

On February 15, 1989 the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan, ending a war that Moscow initially saw as a brief incursion to bolster its Afghan supporters. The war became a protracted and bloody struggle that lasted almost 10 years.

The war, which cost over 13,000 Soviet lives and may have killed as many as one million Afghans, led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the takeover of Afghanistan by the Islamist Taliban.

"We did not expect the war to turn out like it did,” said Ruslan Aushev, a highly decorated veteran and lieutenant general in the conflict. “We had the wrong strategy maybe. We shouldn’t have taken our troops there. At a certain moment we made a military mistake that led to a political mistake."

Aushev later went on to become president of the Russian republic of Ingushetia.

The last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan was the commander of its forces in the country, Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, who crossed the Friendship Bridge across the Amu Darya River into Soviet Uzbekistan at midday on February 15.

"I am convinced of one thing,” Gromov, a hero of the USSR and now governor of the Moscow region, told the Rossiskaya Gazeta daily. “That it is irresponsible to forget about lessons like Afghanistan.”

Commemorations of the anniversary have been low-key. Wreaths have been laid at memorials and medals have been handed out to veterans amid calls that the many Soviet soldiers that were wounded should be better looked after.

But several officials have also sought to argue that the losses were not in vain and have praised the "heroism" of the Red Army in Afghanistan.

"The soldiers were true to the oath of military duty and brotherhood and showed manliness and courage as the Russian army has always done," said Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Avoiding past mistakes

The Soviets found themselves bogged down in an unwinnable guerrilla war against Mujahedeen Islamist fighters that were backed financially and militarily by the United States.

Ironically, former generals say the Soviet experience serves as a lesson for American and NATO forces fighting a renewed Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan: the forces must allow Afghans to build their own state rather than creating one for them.

"What is the goal of the coalition?" Aushev asked. "We wanted to create a Soviet Afghanistan. But if we want stabilization, we need to provide the Afghans the opportunity to build their own state."

A study released Friday shows that 47 percent of Russians believed the invasion of Afghanistan was a "political adventure into which the political leadership irresponsibly led the country."

Of those polled, 58 percent believe there was never a reason to put Soviet troops into Afghanistan.

"We should not repeat the same mistakes the Soviets made," said Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "The Soviets never had to deal with something like the Taliban," emphasizing the difference between the US-backed Mujahedeen and the even more fanatical Islamists who filled the power vacuum after the Soviets left.

The commemoration of the anniversary coincides with moves by an increasingly resurgent Moscow to restore its influence in the former Soviet lands of Central Asia, after its Caucasus war with Georgia last summer.

It has offered Kyrgyzstan a two billion dollar loan to help it through the economic crisis and has strongly backed Uzbekistan in a water dispute with ailing Tajikistan.

The probability that Kyrgyzstan will shut a US air base that served as a vital supply point for supplies to Afghanistan has forced NATO and the United States to seek alternative methods of supplying materials.

Russia has agreed to allow the non-lethal transit of supplies by land, a process that is expected to start shortly, and has said it could even consider air transit as well.

But Victor Korgun of the Russian Academy of Sciences said that Russia had learnt its lesson over Afghanistan and its regional ambitions ended at the country’s borders.

"Russia does not have its own conception of a policy for Afghanistan," he said. "After the Caucasus crisis in Georgia, Russia lost its contact with the world, especially with NATO. Russia has no ability to enter Afghanistan, not economically, not politically and not militarily."

John Wendle/AFP/Expatica