The twentieth anniversary of Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is bringing natural comparisons with the NATO mission now in its eighth year.  Abdul Saboor, writing for Reuters, recalls a Soviet airstrike that killed 30 civilians and sees many similarities.

A string of bungled U.S. and NATO air strikes killed 455 Afghan civilians last year, according to the United Nations. Wedding parties seem to be particularly at risk, perhaps due to the crowds of people, some of them firing weapons in the air.  U.S. planes bombed two Afghan weddings last year alone.

Memories are long in Afghanistan and revenge is a duty.

In the mud-brick homes of Ali Mardan, close to the Afghan capital Kabul, villagers still visit the graves of those killed in the Soviet bombardment and keep photographs of the dead to remind the living of the cruelty of war.


Despite deploying up to 120,000 soldiers, supported by 300,000 Afghan government forces, the Soviets failed to crush the insurgency by Afghan mujahideen fighters who were backed by U.S. guns and money and had bases inside neighboring Pakistan. Some 15,000 Soviet troops were killed before Moscow decided the war could not be won and pulled out its forces in 1989. By that time, 1 million Afghans had lost their lives and another 5 million become refugees in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

The tables are now turned and the United States is considering whether to send another 25,000 troops to add to the nearly 70,000 Western forces locked in a bitter stalemate with Taliban-led insurgents in south and eastern Afghanistan. “I tell you this for sure, that if NATO and America put all their attention on fighting, and invest only in the military, they will not win,” former mujahideen leader and ex-President Burhanuddin Rabbani told Reuters.


But the Soviets also tried to bring progress to deeply conservative and traditional Afghanistan and in many ways their record was more impressive than that of the West so far.  Most of Afghanistan’s roads, ministries, major schools and hospitals were Soviet-built. Even now, many of the upper echelons of the civil service, army and police are Soviet trained.


But any gains the Soviets made through development and building the Afghan government’s capacity were scuppered by the resentment and anger their devastating bombing raids caused.  That is a lesson U.S. and NATO forces should learn from the experience of their former Cold War adversary. “I don’t think NATO has fully understood just how serious this issue is,” said a Kabul-based Western analyst. “They certainly have done what they can to try to avoid civilian casualties from air strikes, but I just don’t think they have grasped how central it is to informing the views of the nation.”

Jonathan Steele, who covered the Soviet adventure, contends in a Guardian op-ed that, “NATO is deeper in its Afghan mire than Russia ever was.”

Two decades later the ironies of America’s war in Afghanistan are telling. When Richard Holbrooke, the new US envoy to the region, visited the country this week he may not have been aware of the Soviet anniversary. But the US-led intervention is already almost as long. At this stage of their war the Russians were preparing to leave. Now the US and Nato want to get further in, and if Barack Obama’s plans for 30,000 extra US troops are met, along with efforts to get more from Nato, coalition forces will almost equal the 115,000 troops the Russians had at their peak.

Western casualties are considerably less, but Nato has been no more successful. Like the Russians, the western alliance mainly occupies Kabul and provincial capitals. The countryside is vulnerable to attack or in the hands of the resistance – a mixture of Islamic fundamentalists, Pashtun nationalists, local tribal chiefs and mullahs, and Arab jihadis – just like the mujahideen who confronted the Russians. The difference is that the west and Pakistan supported and armed them in the 1980s. Now, using the profits of heroin-running, they are self-sustaining and harder to control.

Nato faces tougher challenges than the Russians. Twenty years ago the Taliban did not exist, suicide bombing was not in vogue, and the Afghan army and police were more effective. Kabul under Soviet rule was an oasis of calm, where girls went to school and unveiled young women attended university. The mujahideen fired occasional rockets into the city but caused too little damage to upset normal life. Note the contrast with today’s siren-screaming armoured convoys and western offices hidden behind high walls and sandbags, and still the Taliban were able to attack three government buildings a few days ago.

The Soviet invasion violated international law and was condemned by the UN. But its goals were more modest than the US’s in 2001. Moscow was not seeking regime change. It was trying to prop up a regime under threat from a mounting civil war. Although western hawks claimed the Kremlin planned to advance through Afghanistan to seize warm water ports in the Gulf, the true aim was limited. Moscow wanted to defend an allied government, contain the mujahideen (who were getting CIA support before Soviet troops invaded), and prevent Afghanistan becoming a pro-western bastion. This was shortly after the US was expelled from Iran and the Kremlin feared Washington wanted Afghanistan as its replacement.

Getting out was easier for Moscow than it will be for the US. International negotiations in Geneva gave the Kremlin the face-saver of “parallelism”. The peace terms were that the Russians would leave when aid to the mujahideen ceased and an intra-Afghan dialogue was launched. This disguised any appearance of defeat. It even provided a good chance for the Afghan government to continue after Soviet troops withdrew. In fact, it lasted three more years.

Ironically, Yury Krupnov, in a Russia Today interview, argues that “Russia must come back to Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan is now in a state of humanitarian catastrophe. It is enough to say that more than a quarter of its population starves for the second year running. Up to 80 per cent of Afghan people do not have any job and there are no chances to get it in the future. The average daily income per capita is only one U.S. dollar. The world’s leading countries have to change the way they deal with Afghanistan profoundly. Russia and the United States must form a coalition with the main task of promoting complete recovery of Afghanistan and its further development.

While there are signs of cooperation, with supply of the Afghanistan mission through Russian territory to start soon, one can’t imagine that Russia is eager to get back into Afghanistan, much less to commit serious resources.  

The comparisons of the NATO and Soviet missions in Afghanistan are well taken, as Western confidence in the efficacy of military forces to affect massive changes in a primitive society could use tempering.  Still, there are important differences.  The Soviet Union was an empire in death throes; even with the financial crisis, the West is flourishing.   The Soviets were alone while the United States and NATO have the backing of the international community.  Unfortunately, that backing does not come with much in the way of resources.  If that doesn’t change, the mission will almost certainly fail.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.