Mark Franchetti: Can the West avoid Russia's fate in Afghanistan?





[Mark Franchetti is the Moscow correspondent of the Sunday Times of London.]

The white flashes of explosions and red traces of artillery fire filled the moonlit sky on the night of October 7, 2001, as Britain and the US launched the war in Afghanistan against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

From the roof of a mud-caked house in Tobdara, a mountainside village high above the Shomali valley, 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul, I watched as allied war planes and cruise missiles streaked beyond a high ridge separating us from the front line.

Loud explosions echoed into the night as I was joined by a group of hardened Northern Alliance fighters, the loose coalition of former mujaheddin rebels who had sided with the West. Armed with AK-47 machine guns and careful not to use even a torch to avoid attracting incoming fire from an enemy position above, the men had come to witness the twilight of the Taliban.
“It won’t take long,” predicted one, wrapped in an Afghan blanket and wearing a pakol, the woollen round-topped hat favoured by the mujaheddin. “The Taliban are finished. A few days of heavy bombardment and then we’ll go in with a ground assault. They’ll either flee or die.”

His confidence was engaging. But in the dusty plains below there were many reminders of another superpower’s bloody attempt to wage war in Afghanistan. Soviet tanks and armoured personnel carriers, burnt out and twisted, still littered the country, more than two decades after Moscow had withdrawn its troops, ending its disastrous nine-year war.

In the shadow of the Taliban front line, a few miles below Tobdara, the Bagram air base was overgrown and abandoned. The spot from where the Soviets launched their invasion in 1979, it is now the US army’s largest base in the country.

The mujaheddin’s predictions did not take long to come true. Five weeks later Kabul fell. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were on the run, dispersed in the high mountains along the border with Pakistan. His optimism, however, proved premature. More than eight years since the war began in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban have made a comeback.

Over 240 British soldiers have been killed in the war (more than in Iraq), many in ferocious close combat that has been compared to the trench warfare of the first world war. By the end of this year, American and British forces will have been in Afghanistan as long as the Soviets. And yet Russia’s experience in the country has been largely overlooked by the allies. It was, say American and British generals, a different war fought in different times by a different army.

Many military experts would now beg to differ. There are compelling parallels between the obstacles faced first by the Soviets and now the allies. Often, the mistakes are the same. What lessons are there to be learnt from the Soviet war in Afghanistan? Just as the allies failed in 2001 to study the fateful Soviet invasion, the Russians before them dismissed Queen Victoria’s foray into a country some have dubbed “the graveyard of empires”. So when in early 1980 the Soviet deputy foreign minister pointed out to his boss, Andrei Gromyko, that three previous invasions by the British had failed, Gromyko asked sternly: “Are you comparing our internationalist forces to those of the British imperialists?”

“No, sir, of course not,” answered his deputy. “But the mountains are the same.”..

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