Eighteen years after the Soviet army pulled out of Afghanistan in a humiliating defeat that hastened the collapse of an empire, many soldiers who fought there believe they’re seeing history repeat itself.
The United States – then the force behind the Afghan resistance – now appears trapped in a similar downward spiral in Iraq, besieged by a collection of forces not unlike those it trained and equipped to cripple the Soviets two decades ago.
For many, the similarities go beyond the symbolic. Retired Capt. Vladimir Vshivtsev was blinded by an improvised roadside bomb 20 years ago in Afghanistan. He shudders every time he hears about a U.S. soldier killed or wounded by a similar device in Iraq or Afghanistan, he said.
“They’re fighting the same war again,” he said. “Sure, the political stuff is different, but the military result is going to be the same: failure.”
The political reasons for the two invasions were as different as the governments that launched them. The United States went to war in Iraq ostensibly to disarm a dictator of suspected weapons of mass destruction, then set its goal as establishing democracy. Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union mounted its invasion in 1979 ostensibly to save communism in a place where it had never taken root.
But Russian soldiers, officers and experts point to many parallels. The Soviets also arrived to flowers and smiles, fought with a similar sized force (by the mid-1980s) of about 120,000 men and lost about 1,300 dead each year. They arrived a superpower, full of hubris, and departed humbled. Their political leaders never really understood the war.
The Soviet invasion also resonates today because of its unintended consequences. The United States and Saudi Arabia funded the Afghan resistance as a means to curb Soviet expansionism, and volunteer fighters flocked to the scene from around the Islamic world. One volunteer, Osama bin Laden, stayed to found al-Qaida and declare his own jihad, this time against the United States and Saudi Arabia.
For the Soviets, Afghanistan was a total disaster. It remained a dirty secret for over a decade and still isn’t mentioned in polite conversation. The first Russian feature movie dealing with the experience came out only last year.
Alexander Konovalov, head of the Institute of Strategic Assessments, a Moscow-based military research center, said the Soviets were trying to spread socialism, the United States democracy. But both arrived in losing situations, facing popular uprisings that grew with support from the Muslim world. And both confronted people used to fighting foreign occupiers: Afghanistan had never been conquered, and Iraq was an unnatural state, a remnant of colonial England.
For former Soviet soldiers, the U.S. war in Afghanistan evokes memories of the geography and the battles, Konovalov said, but most agree that Iraq is to the United States what Afghanistan was to the Soviet Union.
Retired Gen. Victor Yermakov headed the Soviet 40th army’s efforts around Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan in the mid-1980s. He can’t decide whether to shake his head or scream when he hears talk about how to improve the situation in Iraq and how to control Afghanistan, he said.
“All the future holds for American forces there are dead soldiers, and they will die for nothing,” he said. “There is nothing positive to be accomplished in Iraq. My advice is simple: Leave. Leave now.”
He cited the U.S. offensives in Tora Bora as an example.
“I was very impressed by the Americans,” he said. “Gaining control of Tora Bora is a great accomplishment. I should know. I did it three times.”
He shook his head ruefully, then added: “Unfortunately, the second I turned my back on the place, I needed to conquer it again. It is the same now. It will never change.”
Still, he said, “every nation believes it is more clever than those who came before.”
Alexander Golts, who covered the Soviet-Afghan war as a journalist, said the war was clearly a failure from early on, but Soviet leadership insisted on portraying it first as a minor operation and later as a struggle that ultimately would bring peace and prosperity.
In villages throughout the Soviet Union at the time, “mystery coffins” would arrive, containing soldiers who kept dying in a reportedly peaceful area. Soviet leaders tried to direct attention away from the coffins. Golts said Soviet leadership prohibited reporting on the war.
“A general stopped me one day to say, `I read that our soldiers are doing nothing here but building schools and planting trees, so please explain, how do my boys keep dying?’” Golts said.
Capt. Vshivtsev recalled a conference he attended in Prague a few years back, where he bumped into a Czech Republic soldier who’d recently returned from Afghanistan where he’d fought as part of the NATO coalition force. As they swapped war stories, he said he soon forgot they were talking about different wars and different armies. They’d walked the same ground, fought the same enemy, faced the same threats.
Today, when Vshivtsev hears President Bush say progress is being made and success is possible, it reminds him of Soviet statements from that time.
“The longer the conflict goes on, the more established become the methods for recruiting new fighters, the routes for smuggling weapons,” Vshivtsev said. “The enemy will only get better and better over time, their weapons more and more advanced. By now, the chance for victory – which was never good – has certainly passed.”