If the United States is preparing to assault Afghanistan to
retaliate against the alleged organizers of the New York and
Washington terror attacks, Russian experts have one piece of
advice: Don't go in on the ground.
"Afghanistan is a quagmire that is easy to enter and very hard to
leave," says Irina Zvegelskaya, an Islamic expert and vice president
of the independent Center for Strategic and Political Studies in
Moscow. "If the US commits itself to changing things there, or
propping up a particular government, it will be the beginning of a
long, painful and very costly story - just like it was for us."
Recent history explains Russia's reluctance to commit any
military forces to the US-led campaign to destroy alleged terrorist
bases and, some observers speculate, remove the militant Islamic
Taliban militia from power in Afghanistan. Experts say the Soviet
Union hastened its own collapse by waging a futile war in the
remote and rugged Central Asian state in the 1980s.
"Russian leaders are allergic to taking any direct military
action there, mainly because of those memories," says Oleg Pleshov,
a regional expert with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow,
who served as a political adviser in Afghanistan in the mid-80s.
Russia, however, has offered Washington support in the war on
terrorism, pledging to provide weapons to the Afghan opposition,
open Russian air space for humanitarian missions, and share
intelligence with the US.
Yesterday, a White House spokesman reiterated President Bush's
statements that the anti-terror campaign is "not about nation-
building." But White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card also told Fox
News in an interview: "If they [the Taliban] are going to be
associated with these terrorist acts, they should not be in power."
Afghanistan has long been known as the "graveyard of empires."
The British twice tried, and failed, to subdue its ferocious
mountain tribes in the 19th century. On both occasions the British
began their operations by installing a friendly government in the
Afghan capital of Kabul, but were subsequently compelled to back up
their clients with increasing levels of direct military support.
Disasters followed. Of a 16,000-strong British army that retreated
from Kabul in 1842, only one man made it back to India alive.
The USSR also opened its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan with a coup
d'etat. In a swift KGB commando operation, the Kremlin replaced an
extreme and unpredictable Marxist leader, Hafizullah Amin, with the
pliable and pro-Soviet Babrak Karmal. Mr. Amin's erratic behavior
and antireligious crackdown had provoked a popular revolt. About
100,000 Soviet troops entered the country - from the same Central
Asian bases the US may now use - to "ensure order."
Things went well, at first. "We were met with flowers and cheers
from the population," says General Makhmut Garayev, president of
the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, a top Soviet military
adviser to the pro-Moscow Afghan government during the war.
Soviet leaders initially vowed that their forces were in
Afghanistan only as a temporary "stabilizing factor" and would do
no fighting. Any military operations were to be handled by the well-
equipped 50,000-member pro-Soviet Afghan armed forces. …