The other Afghan war
Retired Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev served for five years in Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s nearly decade-long battle with mujahedin there. He was wounded and named a Hero of the Soviet Union. Aushev, 54, who later served as president of the Caucasus republic of Ingushetia, is now chief of the Committee of Afghan Veterans.
He sat down Thursday in his Moscow office to talk about the lessons learned from the 1980s war in Afghanistan, and what they suggest as the U.S. military enters the eighth year of its own conflict in Central Asia.
In its invasion of Afghanistan, do you believe the United States benefited from the Soviet experience? Do you see any evidence of your lessons from the Soviet defeat?
I can tell you which mistakes you made and which mistakes we made. They are the same mistakes. We set up a very weak leader, Babrak Karmal. He didn’t have prestige with the people. Today the leadership of Afghanistan does not enjoy popularity with the people. They said of Babrak Karmal, he only sits there with the help of Russian bayonets.
We said, “Afghans, you are living according to the Soviet way of life, where religion is separated from the state, mullahs should be expelled, religion is the opiate of the people. You’ll be living in collective farms. You will have pioneer camps, Comsomol [youth] organizations, and so on and so forth.” The Soviet way of life in a country that still lives in the Dark Ages!
And what did you say? You said, “We are giving you democracy.” They cannot even translate the term properly. Under us there was a lot of corruption, and today there’s a lot of corruption. Neither under you nor under us did an ordinary person get anything.
At the height of the Soviet war, there were more than twice as many Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan as there are U.S. and allied soldiers in the country today. Do you believe the United States should increase the level of troops in Afghanistan?
You can expand your presence, but what will change? I think you need to do three things. First, create statehood. Set up a popular authority that would deal with corruption and social issues. Second, a combat-able armed force should be created in Afghanistan. And an economy should be created to help people. If you deploy 200,000 troops there, daytime is your time, you’re in command. At night, the Taliban comes and they are in command.
The U.S. now finds itself propping up a relatively unpopular government against attacks from a radicalized Muslim population. This scenario is familiar to you. What advice would you give American commanders on the ground?
No matter what, you won’t get away from the Taliban. You need to talk with the Taliban, come to terms. The Taliban should be engaged by the organs of power, they should take part in negotiations. You should find common points with them.
So you think the U.S. should explore negotiations with the more moderate elements of the Taliban?
Of course they should. You understand, you are dealing with an idea. If an idea exists, you should sit down and think why, and what to do with it. That’s why the Soviet Union broke down, not because it was bombed out of existence, but because private ownership of means of production won the day, and it won over the idea of public ownership of means of production.
At this point, what do you believe would constitute a victory for American forces in Afghanistan? Under what conditions could the U.S. leave Afghanistan?
Let me put it this way: Seven years is a long time. We began to talk about troop withdrawal in 1985, six years after the invasion. In 1986, exactly seven years after the invasion, we began to pull out some troops. But we were reinforcing the authorities in Afghanistan. When we were there, the Afghan army was more or less combat-ready. And there were officials, officers and generals, who were educated in the Soviet Union.
Najibullah was the president then and our advisors came up with this idea together with Najibullah -- they developed this policy of national accord. And when our troops pulled out in 1989, for two or three years Najibullah felt more or less comfortable without our troops.
What’s your assessment of Afghan leader Hamid Karzai?
I don’t know him. I know one thing: He failed as president. If he’s protected by American special forces, then how do people react to this president?
Do you remember a time when it became clear from events on the ground in Afghanistan that it was a losing war for the Soviet Union, that there was nothing to be done but withdraw? What was that time like?
When we entered Afghanistan in 1979, people gave us a very nice welcome. Exactly a year later, 40% of the population began to hate us. Five years later, 60% of the population hated us. And by the time we were to pull out, 90% hated us. So we understood, finally, that we are fighting the people.
That was the mistake of our politicians. Military doctrine says you go in, carry out your task and go, and give the power back to civilian authorities.
More than 1 million Afghans were killed in the Soviet war, along with almost 14,000 Soviet troops. The war’s aftermath included years of civil war and the rise of the Taliban. Do you, personally, have any regrets about this war?
Yes. In any sense -- in a human sense, in a military sense -- I am sorry we did that.
Doesn’t a destabilized Afghanistan also pose a strategic risk to Russia? Russia has had its own struggles with Islamic fundamentalists, and this is right on the border of the former Soviet Union.
Of course. First of all it will flow into Central Asia, and from Central Asia it will spread to the south of Russia. That’s why the Russian Federation should take active parts in the processes there, economic processes and others.
Why do you think Afghanistan is so little discussed in Russian media today? How does the Russian public think about Afghanistan?
We are preoccupied with other problems. We have problems in the Caucasus, the economy. Today we don’t have the society we had in the Soviet Union. Today every family thinks first about how to make ends meet. Even the federal government doesn’t have a strategic view of what to do with Afghanistan.
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