Opinion: Unlearned lessons of the Soviet invasion

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These days the Soviet uniforms have been replaced by U.S. and NATO uniforms, but the battered, questioning faces of the soldiers look the same then as they do now.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

The strength of the anti-Soviet insurgency, which then was called the “Mujahadeen,” which the U.S. and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia supported to the tune of billions of dollars, controlled the remote villages just as the Taliban does today.

Back then the Soviets abandoned futile efforts to control the remote hamlets and focused on urban centers, just as Gen. Stanley McChrystal has called for now that President Barack Obama has approved the surge of 30,000 troops, bringing the total U.S. troop presence to approximately 100,000.

The Soviets eventually had some 400,000 troops in Afghanistan and they still never succeeded in controlling the country.

I reached Dmitri Trenin, an expert on military strategy, in Moscow by phone and asked him about these images and what lessons the Soviet experience has to offer in understanding Afghanistan.

Trenin, who is the director of Carnegie Moscow Center, served for more than 20 years in the Russian military during the time of the occupation of Afghanistan, and eventually taught at the war studies department at the Soviet Military Institute.

“When the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan, it was not thinking about the exit. It had a concept of what it wanted to bring to Afghanistan, and less of an idea of what Afghanistan wanted or even what it was all about. The Soviets learned the hard way what Afghanistan was all about and that what they were offering the country did not want,” Trenin said.

“The U.S. is making the same mistake. But they are also making some of their own unique mistakes. They are not all the same mistakes as the Soviet Union,” he said.

“The U.S. is going to withdraw from Afghanistan, and it will leave without having accomplished the mission set by Bush to create a democratic state,” said Trenin, referring to President George W. Bush.

“In the end, the U.S. will leave Afghanistan not having done much to effect change in the country. Afghanistan will change at its own pace, and that’s the lesson empires learn in Afghanistan.”

Elizabeth Gould, the co-author of the new book, "Invisible History: Afghanistan's Untold Story," says: “The unlearned lesson of the Soviet invasion and subsequent occupation was that the Soviet Union was up against itself in Afghanistan, afraid to admit the failure of its mistaken adventure to its people, afraid of infiltration on its southern border and afraid it would look weak in the eyes of its chief adversary, the United States.”

“Afghanistan is not easy,” added Gould, a journalist and author who has researched its history for the last 18 years along with co-author Paul Fitzgerald.

“But Afghanistan is hardest on empires who cannot restrain themselves and who learn too late that it's not Afghanistan they're fighting, but the image of their own vanity in the mirror.”