MOSCOW: When the last Soviet tanks rumbled back home across a bridge on the border with Afghanistan 30 years ago, the withdrawal was hailed as a much-anticipated end to a bloody quagmire.
Since then, Moscow’s view of the war has changed radically. As Russia prepares to mark Friday’s anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal, many see the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan as a necessary and largely successful endeavour.
Just like the ongoing Russian campaign in Syria, the Afghan war is widely perceived as a legitimate action against US-backed militants.
And in a twist of history, Russia also has emerged as an influential power broker in Afghanistan, mediating between feuding factions as it jockeys with Washington for influence in a country where a US-led coalition has been fighting for more than 17 years.
Ata Mohammad Noor, a former warlord who fought Soviet troops and served as governor of the northern Balkh province from 2004-2018, attended a meeting last week in Moscow that brought together former Afghan officials, opposition figures and the Taliban.
“I don’t think that Russia would like to repeat what it did in the past. It’s totally different today,” Noor said in an interview with The Associated Press. “On the other side, there have been 40 years of war in our country, and the Afghan people are all tired of war. People would support any country that would step forward to bring peace.”
The statement carries particular weight coming from a man who played a key role in defeating the Soviet army, was badly wounded in combat, and proudly recalls how his mujahedeen fighters destroyed countless Red Army tanks and dozens of warplanes. After the long US involvement, Afghans are deeply critical of the coalition forces.
Even those who fought in the 1980s give grudging credit to Moscow for leaving a legacy that outshines Washington’s. They point out that Russian left behind a strong and disciplined army and a 400-bed military hospital that is still among the country’s best health facilities. Some note that while communist President Najibullah’s government was ruthless, it was not wracked by the widespread corruption that has plagued Afghanistan’s US-backed government.
The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, driven by fears that the US could try to establish a foothold next to Soviet republics in Central Asia after losing Iran in the Islamic Revolution. Moscow’s initial plans for a quick operation were derailed by fierce rebel resistance, and in the years of fighting that followed, the Soviet Union lost more than 15,000 troops, according to official data. Estimates of civilian casualties in that period vary widely, from more than 500,000 up to 2 million.
The Soviet intervention drew strong international condemnation and imposed a heavy burden on the struggling Soviet economy. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the pullout amid his efforts to conduct liberal reforms and end confrontation with the West. Afghanistan’s communist government held for three more years, collapsing shortly after the December 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Nikita Mendkovich, a Moscow-based expert on Afghanistan, said Russia’s economic meltdown after 1992 resulted in the abrupt termination of fuel supplies to Afghanistan, triggering the fall of Najibullah.
“The tragedy of Afghanistan was one of many other tragedies caused by the Soviet breakup,” he said.
Mendkovich emphasized the changing public perception of the war, saying that it’s now widely seen as “painful, but necessary and even inevitable.” Many Russian officials and lawmakers argue that the US performance in Afghanistan has been far less successful than that of the Soviet Union.
“The army trained by the Soviet Union could stand alone for three years,” said Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Afghanistan. “As for this one trained by the Americans, you listen to the Afghans. They aren’t sure about even one month.” He acknowledged that the Soviet Union made many errors in Afghanistan, driven by communist dogmas and ignoring local conditions.
“The Soviet leadership has become hostage of its own decision,” he said. “They wanted to look at Afghanistan as a new socialist state. That was a mistake.” In one example, he recalled how Soviet advisers stubbornly tried to conduct a socialist-style land reform, distributing tracts that belonged to tribal leaders to farmers, who then turned it back to original owners.
Kabulov charged that the US ignored the Soviet lessons and made the same mistake in trying to foster the creation of a Western-style democracy in Afghanistan. “It’s a pity that our American colleagues don’t learn history; they prefer to make history,” Kabulov said with a sardonic smile.
He noted that the US support for the mujahedeen played a key role during the Soviet war, adding that the US later paid the price for backing insurgents like Osama bin Laden who was among those who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“They (the Americans) were obsessed with building Vietnam for the Soviet Union,” Kabulov said. “They believed everything is good to crush bloody Russians, so they got it back now.” Afghanistan veteran Sergey Zhidkov recalled that in the early stages of the Soviet war, clashes were rare and roads were relatively safe, but the rebels quickly strengthened and ambushes became routine.