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Opinion: Unlearned lessons of the Soviet invasion

The U.S., like the Soviet Union, is learning the hard way that Afghanistan will change, but only at its own pace.

A convoy of Soviet tanks wave to crowds after their arrival in Kabul from the eastern city of Jalalabad as part of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, May 15, 1988. (Richard Ellis/Reuters)

BOSTON — On Christmas Eve, 30 years ago Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan and began a 10-year occupation that ended in humiliating defeat.

I recently came across a set of archival films from the Soviet invasion and the subsequent fighting in Afghanistan that dragged on and grew more and more bloody.

The images all looked so familiar.

The troops on patrol through Helmand’s dusty plains and tanks burning in wreckage on the roads that wind through the dramatic terrain of the Hindu Kush.

And the wounded being evacuated and lining up in triage looking wrecked and haunted.

These days the Soviet uniforms have been replaced by U.S. and NATO uniforms, but the battered, questioning faces of the soldiers look the same then as they do now.

After 10 years of fighting the Afghans, the Soviet Union finally pulled out and learned a hard lesson about Afghanistan and its people and its history of resisting empires.

This resiliency is the central fact of Afghan history and it seems America — its military and diplomatic leadership — has made little effort to understand the lessons of history learned by those empires that went before them, particularly the Soviets.

For sure, all wars are different. The Soviets invaded for different reasons on Dec. 24, 1979, than the U.S. did on Oct. 7, 2001, and the Soviets came with different intentions. But the fight they fought — and lost — on the ground is very similar to the one the U.S. is fighting — and losing — on the ground right now.

Back then it was a battle to control the road network just as it is today. The Soviets were crippled when insurgents cut off the supply lines. The U.S. is suffering the same fate.