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The Lessons of Afghanistan - 25 years after

February 15, 2014, 7:50 UTC+3 MOSCOW
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MOSCOW, February 15, 7:43 /ITAR-TASS/. On February 15, 1989 the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. The last armored personnel carrier of the 40th Soviet army crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Amudarya River, which served as a natural border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union.

“I did not leave a single Soviet soldier behind me,” General Boris Gromov, the commander of the limited contingent of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, told dozens of journalists as he crossed the bridge.

However, at least 250 Soviet soldiers and officers remained in Afghanistan to protect a group of advisers to the country’s army and leadership led by General Makhmut Gareyev as well as Soviet border guards and 400 captured and missing soldiers whose fate has been unknown until today.

Almost a decade of Soviet military hostilities in Afghanistan that started on December 25, 1979 was over on February 15, 1989.

Since then, Afghan war veterans, their families, relatives, friends, girlfriends and the whole country have been marking February 15th as the day when the Afghan war was over and the Soviet troops returned home.

Officially, the Soviet losses are estimated at 14,433 people plus 180 military advisers and 584 other experts who also died in Afghanistan; 49, 985 people were wounded.

The dead soldiers and officers were buried in conditions of top secrecy in their native cities or villages under the strict control of military officials. Relatives were forbidden to write where a person died on the tombstones. Soviet newspapers did not say a word that a real war was under way in the Afghan mountains. They wrote about Soviet soldiers who performed their internationalist duty; helped the Afghans to create their own army and organized military training for Afghan servicemen. Some reports said they had to deal with separate sallies by armed guerillas who fought against the lawful Afghan government. Journalists who wrote about the heroes of that war had to say that they had received their awards “for achievements in combat and political training.”

Almost 620,000 soldiers and officers served in Afghanistan during the Soviet military campaign. Out of 11,284 servicemen decommissioned from the army because of wounds, injuries and serious illnesses, 10,751 became invalids.

Russian leaders should know and remember these figures to avoid repeating the mistakes which the Soviet leaders made almost 35 years ago when they decided to send Soviet troops to Afghanistan without calculating the consequences of their decision.

In December 1989, the Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR passed a resolution saying that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan deserved political and moral condemnation.

But far from all Afghan war veterans agree with such an assessment. Frants Klintsevich, the vice-chairman of the Russian State Duma Committee for Defense; General Makhmut Gareyev, the former military adviser to Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah, and General Viktor Yermakov, the former commander of the 40th army, told a recent news conference at Itar-Tass that it was necessary to correct that assessment.

It is true that war was not the only thing which the Soviet troops did in Afghanistan. They guarded automobile roads and objects of Soviet-Afghan economic cooperation, including automobile roads, electric power stations, tunnels, water canals, airfields and the movement of truck columns on Afghan roads. Soviet experts built schools and hospitals and electrified highland mountain villages. They even renovated mosques. Soviet commanders supported Afghan units that fought against the Mujahideen.

Seventy Soviet soldiers, sergeants and officers became Heroes of the Soviet Union, including 23 who were awarded that title posthumously. More than 200,000 people were awarded orders and medals for courage and heroism shown while performing their line of duty. We can be proud of what they did.

In the end, the Soviet troops were drawn into fierce hostilities. The former CIA Chief Robert Gates wrote in his memoirs that the United States had started training experts for fighting regular military units six months before the Soviet troops came into Afghanistan. The U.S. administration did not even try to hide the fact of supplying the Afghan Mujahideen with mines, submachine-guns, machine-guns, small arms, mortars, fire systems and a thousand portable anti-aircraft complexes Stinger to shoot down Soviet planes and helicopters. The Mujahideen used 360 of those Stinger missiles. The Pentagon tried to buy back the rest of the missiles after the Soviet withdrawal. But still, 400 Stingers left in the hand of terrorists.

But not only the United States trained the Mujahideen to fight against the Soviet troops and supplied them with weapons. Britain, Pakistan, China and some Islamic regimes in the Persian Gulf also played their role in that. It turned out that the 40th army had to fight against the local Mujahideen and the Islamist radicals in many countries that were being helped by the West, which was creating an international terrorist alliance.

A lot can be said about the lessons of Afghan war for Russia and the whole world. This country can be proud that the Afghan war raised an entire generation of military leaders who later created a new Russian army.

However, the United State and NATO did not draw any lessons from the Soviet negative experience in Afghanistan. They started military hostilities in Afghanistan in October 2001 in retaliation for the 9/11 terror strike that destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing more than 3,000 American civilians. Their aim was to fight the Taliban and Al-Quaeda. But almost a 100,000-strong international coalition from 49 countries led by the United States and the European Union has failed to establish peace in Afghanistan and in many other countries which they have invaded in the past ten years. The Taliban keep attacking the coalition troops. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan has suffered irretrievable losses -3, 417 servicemen - by mid-February this year: the United States (2,306 people); Britain (447); Canada (158), France (86) and Germany (54).

The United States and its allies will have to leave Afghanistan just like the Soviet troops did 25 years ago. Washington has set late 2014 as the final deadline. And though U.S. generals and diplomats are still bargaining with Kabul how many troops they can leave to stay and how many should be withdrawn, it is clear that Operation Enduring Freedom aimed against the Taliban and Al-Queda has ended in absolute fiasco. The reason for that may be the one which the Soviet leaders once failed to take into account: the Afghan people will not tolerate foreigners, who teach them to live their way of life, in their country.

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