Bitter Lessons from the Past ; as War on Terrorism Gathers Momentum, Russia Cautions against Entering 'Quagmire' of Afghanistan

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Bitter Lessons from the Past ; as War on Terrorism Gathers Momentum, Russia Cautions against Entering 'Quagmire' of Afghanistan


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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