Bitter lessons from the past

As war on terrorism gathers momentum, Russia cautions against entering 'quagmire' of Afghanistan.

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'état. 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. "Within a few days, the Afghans were asking for our help," says Gen. Garayev. "Bandits started attacking Soviet troops, killing our men, and destroying our equipment. We had to retaliate."

In the counterinsurgency war that followed, 14,000 Soviet troops and about 1 million Afghans perished. Soviet forces battled elusive guerrillas across scorching deserts, through the rabbit warren of caves and ravines that define the foothills of the Hindu Kush, and in the thin air and bitter cold of the snow-covered high mountains.

"There are many different terrains in Afghanistan, and they are all hostile," says Sergei Merkulov, a Russian ethnic expert who served as a Pashtun interpreter with the Soviet Army.

A much bigger issue was Afghanistan's social and ethnic complexity. Pashtuns, who comprise about two-fifths of the country's (current) estimated 25 million people, are the dominant group. But there are dozens of others, many of whom have never submitted to the rule of any central government.

"If you gain the support of one group, you incur the enmity of another," says Ms. Zvegelskaya. "The one thing that stirs them all up is a foreign invader."

Gen. Garayev insists Afghanistan could have been pacified, but only if the USSR had committed more troops: "We would have needed about 30 divisions (half a million men) to cope with the situation."

He also charges that US support for the mujahideen rebels - which added up to almost $10 billion in training, supplies, and sophisticated weapons during the decade of war - aggravated the conflict and educated future terrorists, such as Osama bin Laden in the lessons of modern warfare.

Reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew Soviet forces in 1989, and later cited the strains and costs of the Afghan war as among reasons for the USSR's subsequent collapse.

Afghanistan dissolved into anarchy and civil war, until the Taliban militia emerged victorious in 1996. Among the Taliban's front-line troops were thousands of Islamic "volunteers" from around the world - including Mr. bin Laden - who Russian experts say have since imposed a global terrorist agenda on what had formerly been a local Islamic fundamentalist movement.

Only the Northern Alliance, a shaky ethnic coalition controlling about 10 per cent of the country, still fights Taliban rule.

Russian experts say that if the US is determined to engineer change in Afghanistan, it should make sure the United Nations is involved, and not commit American troops. "If the US acts unilaterally, it will look like a war on Islam, and all Afghans will unite behind the Taliban," warns General Garayev. He says that the Northern Alliance could do the fighting against the Taliban on the ground, but cautions that the coalition represents only a few ethnic minorities, while the Taliban is based among the dominant Pashtuns.

"Maybe with the US Air Force behind it, the Northern Alliance could win," says Ms. Zvegelskaya. "But I doubt they could form a viable government. Basically, Afghanistan remains an insoluble problem."

Material from Reuters was used in this report.

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