As Trump doubles down on Afghanistan, Russians shake their heads

The US president's decision to extend the war, reversing his campaign pledges to withdraw from it, stand in sharp contrast to the lessons that Mikhail Gorbachev and the USSR took from the conflict almost 30 years ago.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Afghan boys play on the remains of an old Soviet tank on the outskirts of Kandahar, Afghanistan.

When President Trump announced earlier this week that on the advice of his generals, he was expanding operations in Afghanistan despite his repeated promises to end US involvement in the 16-year-old conflict, some Russians couldn't help but think back to February 1989, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did just the opposite.

On a blustery day back then, the last of over 100,000 Soviet troops rolled across the unhappily-named "Friendship Bridge" into then-Soviet Uzbekistan, bringing an end to the futile nine-year war to keep Afghanistan in the USSR's orbit. Their return home prompted an explosion of public joy across the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal even spawned a popular song, "We're Leaving!", which briefly dominated the Soviet airwaves.

Though some of his generals and intelligence chiefs counseled him against the decision, Mr. Gorbachev was convinced that the war was unwinnable. The conflict had drained the Soviet economy, killed 15,000 troops, and stirred deep currents of anti-war unrest around the country.

"Gorbachev thought the war was a mistake, it was not going well, and couldn't be won," says Pavel Palazhchenko, the former Soviet leader's long-time personal translator, who was with him through those years. "He believed that with some assistance there was a chance for [former Afghan President Mohammad] Najibullah to build some kind of government of national reconciliation and avoid defeat.... But after 1992, both Russia and the US neglected what was going on in Afghanistan. It became a hotbed of terrorism, and that's one of the reasons 9/11 happened."

Today, the US war in Afghanistan – and Mr. Trump's decision to continue it – looks to Russian eyes to be destined to the same fate as the Soviets'. Despite trying to bring modernization, instill women's rights, and purge opium production from Afghanistan, the Soviets ultimately found leaving the best option – and Mr. Trump's plan looks unlikely to do better.

"Everything's been tried and there is nothing new in [Trump's plan]," says Gen. Makhmut Gareev, a veteran of the Afghan war who is currently president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences.

Russian soldier on patrol passes Afghan villager and his donkey on lonely mountain road near Kabul on Jan. 8, 1980.

Afghanistan, which had been a peaceful, secular, and heavily Moscow-influenced backwater best known to Westerners as an exotic stop on the "hippie trail" to India in the 1970s, was thoroughly destabilized and brutalized by the decade-long Soviet intervention. Much of the wider region has since been plunged into chaos by outside forces seeking to "set things right," a fact not lost on Russian veterans of the Afghan war and Central Asia experts.

Opinion polls show that few Russians today regret leaving Afghanistan back in 1989. But many do, paradoxically, worry about what might happen if the US were to suddenly withdraw as the Soviet army did. Five years ago Russian leaders actually urged NATO forces to remain and "finish the job" after President Obama announced that the mission would end in 2014.

"I was a young army officer when we entered Afghanistan," says Frants Klintsevich, who is today deputy chair of the defense committee of Russia's upper house of parliament. "I was amazed at the secular character of the society. People in Kabul were well-educated; young women wore short skirts and some went to Paris to get their hair done." He says everyone thought it would be a limited military mission at the time, just to help defend the populations of big cities against foreign-backed insurgents aiming to overthrow the pro-Soviet regime.

But Soviet forces were gradually drawn deeper and deeper into the quagmire, he says. "Neither us nor the Americans paid any attention to Alexander the Great's observation that you can't conquer that place. It's best to just pass through it," he says. "The Afghan mentality is that the longer foreigners stay on their soil, they more they will oppose them."

Russian experts point out that the Soviets tried, and failed, to do most of the things that Western forces have also attempted over the past decade and a half.

"There is some idea among Westerners that we sought to impose godless communism on Afghanistan, while they are bringing democracy," says Vladimir Sotnikov, an expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Actually, we tried to support the same kind of political solution that the US later did, by backing secular government, building infrastructure, promoting women's rights, and so on. We built schools, hospitals, and roads. We brought in doctors, teachers, and engineers to aid a process of modernization. The problem was that we were outsiders, just as the Americans are."

Rodrigo Abd/AP/File
US soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, secure the area after exiting a Chinook helicopter, Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, in 2006.

Oleg Tikhonov, head of an association for wounded Afghan war veterans in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk, says the Soviets also cracked down hard on drug production.

"When we were there, we destroyed poppy fields wherever we found them," he says. "After we left, drug production skyrocketed. Now the whole world is threatened by the flood of narcotics from Afghanistan."

Russia has been bracing for a possible explosion of Islamist militancy that could penetrate into the weak, mainly Muslim Soviet successor states of Central Asia after Western forces finally depart Afghanistan. Mr. Trump's decision this week doesn't seem to inspire Russian security experts with much confidence.

"The way the Americans are doing this doesn't hold out much hope that they can accomplish anything in Afghanistan," says General Gareev. "They need to either launch a major war, come in with massive forces, or just leave it as it is."

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