January 3, 2009
Nato Making Same Mistakes As Soviet Army, Says Zamir Kabulov
By Tony Halpin and Jeremy Page
The Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, once told his British counterpart that Nato was making all the same mistakes that the Soviet army did in the country in the 1980s.
When Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British Ambassador, asked if Mr Kabulov would explain what those mistakes were, the reply was a quick and simple “No!”. It was a joke, but, like most Russian ones, it was rooted in an uncomfortable truth.
“The Soviet Union tried to bring socialism to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, you are trying to do the same with democracy,” Mr Kabulov, who served in Kabul in the 1980s, told The Times.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan 29 years ago it, too, wanted to overthrow a hostile government and install a more compliant regime. Nine years and 15,000 lives later, the mighty Red Army retreated, worn down by a relentless Islamist insurgency, in a defeat that precipitated the Soviet collapse two years later.
Ruslan Aushev, now 54 and head of Russia’s War Veterans’ Committee, served twice with a combat regiment in Afghanistan and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. “We have to ask what the Afghans want,” he told The Times. “What have the people of Afghanistan received from the coalition? They lived very poorly before and they still live poorly, but sometimes they also get bombed by mistake.”
He and other Russian veterans are quick to point out the key difference between then and now: the Mujahidin resistance received massive covert US support through the 1980s. The Taleban, by contrast, have no superpower support. Russia is even helping today’s mission by providing air and land corridors for Nato and US supplies to Afghanistan.
However, Mr Aushev recalls that the Red Army poured 120,000 troops into Afghanistan, almost double the number of foreign troops there today. “We controlled maybe 20 per cent of the country by day, but at night the Afghans controlled all of it,” he said. “Force cannot resolve this question … The Taleban is an idea and this idea has support among the local population because many problems were resolved when they ruled. Their methods were awful from a European perspective but they got results.”
Asked whether British forces could beat the Taleban, he said: “The British have their own experience of Afghanistan, let them read history and they can answer the question for themselves.”
British forces invaded Afghanistan in 1838, mostly out of fear that the Russian empire was expanding towards British India, but were massacred as they retreated three years later.
Likewise, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan partly to use it as a buffer against US influence in Pakistan. With hindsight, veterans say that the Soviet army lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population.
Vladimir Kostyuchenko won three Soviet Red Stars for tours of duty that included the southern province of Kandahar, next to Helmand, where British troops have been deployed since 2006. He is now deputy chairman of the Russian Union of Afghan Veterans. “When we first came to Afghanistan, we were ‘comrades’ for the Afghans,” he said. “After a year they began to see us as ‘Yankees’ and relations became very bad because we were given lots of stupid and cruel orders. Afghan trucks, for instance, could only move along approved roads and we were under orders to shoot any that did not travel on them.
“If the US and Britain can win the friendship of the local people, then they won’t help the Taleban. But if you bomb them and treat them badly, they will try to kill you in every way possible. I saw so many horrible things there, the pressure was just terrible.”
Mr Kabulov admits that part of him would like to see Nato and the United States leave the region, which Moscow regards as its strategic backyard. His priority at the moment, however, is to persuade his fellow ambassadors that they are wrong to attempt to replicate the “surge” in Iraq by bringing in another 20,000 American troops.
“The West should correct its mistakes and forget the idea that they can win the war,” he said. “Instead of bringing in more troops, they should focus on strengthening the Afghan army and police. And if you’re not going to stay here forever, you have to build the economy.”