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Sacramento Bee
November 12, 2001
Russian vets' dire warning
U.S. could become trapped in Afghan war -- like they were.

By James Rosen -- Bee Washington Bureau

MOSCOW -- Andrei Petrovich Luganov arrived in Afghanistan on Jan. 4, 1980, one week after the first Soviet soldiers were dispatched to prop up a faltering communist government.

Luganov remembers being met by cheering children and women with flowers. By the time the infantry sergeant left Afghanistan 18 months later, he and his Russian compatriots were regarded as hostile invaders.

By then, the Kremlin was entangled in a failed occupation that over the course of a decade pierced the aura of Soviet invincibility and hastened the demise of the Soviet Union.

"Our main interest in the very beginning was to defend the southern borders of the Soviet Union," Luganov said. "But later on we got mixed up in spats among the Afghan people themselves.

"Everything that happened once we got farther and deeper immersed was bad. It became a war between clans. We just got mired in a situation in which we stood between two fires."

Now, as the United States teeters on the edge of a prolonged military campaign in Afghanistan in its war against terrorism, Luganov and other Russian war veterans say the Americans should heed their own hard-earned lessons.

"No matter how good your technology is, it can't level the mountains," said Vechislov Sivko, who heads the Committee of Veterans of the Afghanistan War. "Even if they are better prepared, American soldiers will end up being simply powerless. I don't think the United States in the end will accomplish its goal."

The United States' goal is to capture or kill Osama bin Laden -- the Saudi renegade accused of masterminding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- destroy his al-Qaida network and topple Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime, which has sheltered him.

In Moscow, the Soviet war against U.S.-backed Islamic guerrillas -- some of them the same extremists Washington is now targeting -- came to be called "Russia's Vietnam."

But if protests by college students helped end the U.S. war in Southeast Asia in the 1970s, it was mothers who turned Russians against the Afghanistan war a decade later. On the streets of Moscow and other cities, they hoisted anti-war posters and displayed photographs of their dead or missing sons.

Officially, 15,000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan, though some analysts believe the true number was higher. Guerrilla ambushes and hand-to-hand combat on mountain passes left some of the soldiers so badly mutilated that military authorities ordered their caskets nailed shut so relatives could not see the carnage.

Mikhail Gorbachev, in the midst of his perestroika reforms, called Afghanistan "a bleeding wound." He pulled the plug in February 1989 and summoned the troops home.

For many Russian vets, the Afghan resistance fighters attained nearly mythical status as they fended off a much larger and more powerful force from the north.

"Afghans are the best warriors in the world," said Tokhir Usupov, who served as a helicopter pilot in the war and now lives in his native Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan. "They can fight in snow or frost. They survive on a crust of bread while wearing a thin shirt.

"They're not afraid of anything. You put a gun to their head, and they look up to heaven and say, 'Praise be to Allah!' "

The Russian grunts' assessment of their Afghan foes came to be shared by Soviet commanders. While senior military officers didn't dare offer public criticism of the war policy at the time, memoirs and internal documents published in recent years show that at least some of them had early doubts about the prospects for success.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington and Texas from Tuesday to Thursday, has strongly supported the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.

But since the hijacked-plane attacks on the United States, some top Russian generals who led the Soviet war effort have voiced grave concerns about American military action in Afghanistan.

"I would not want America to repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union," Gen. Makhmud Gareyev, president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, said last month. "It was our military's naivet╚ to believe we could come to a country torn by civil war and stand on the side."

Fiona Hill, a Central Asia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said few Russians think the United States will prevail in Afghanistan if it gets bogged down in a land war against the Taliban.

"Russians are very pessimistic about the chances of long-term U.S. success in overthrowing the Taliban, even though they are now supporting that effort," she said.

A key difference between the Soviet and American approaches to Afghanistan, Hill said, is that Moscow pursued its war alone while Washington is wooing support from important neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan antagonized Pakistan, which together with the United States armed and funded the mujahedeen rebels.

Pakistan supported the Taliban in the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal, but it did an about-face after the Sept. 11 attacks and is now backing Bush's military campaign.

Ironically, many of the weapons that American bombers and soldiers now face in Afghanistan are a mixture of arms from Russia and the United States. Taliban troops use T-59 tanks, grenade launchers and Kalashnikov assault rifles seized from Soviet soldiers, and they employ anti-aircraft Stinger missiles paid for by Washington in the 1980s.

Long before the Soviet occupation, other invaders met with failure in the steep mountains and arid desert of Afghanistan. Twice in the 19th century, Britain lost thousands of soldiers in disastrous military adventures. Centuries earlier, famed conquerors from Alexander the Great to Genghis Khan also beat a retreat.

"You need to consider the experience of history," Sivko said.

"There has never been a government that has successfully fulfilled its goal of conquering or defeating Afghanistan. You can invade Afghanistan, but to possess it is practically impossible."

Celeste Wallander, a Russia scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it is true that during the Cold War both the U.S. and Soviet militaries focused on fighting conventional land wars with heavy infantry troops -- an approach that led to the Soviets' defeat in Afghanistan.

But the United States absorbed important, if painful, lessons in guerrilla warfare during its war in Vietnam. In recent years, Wallander noted, Washington has begun shifting its military emphasis to smaller, more mobile forces that are better suited to the terrain and opposition tactics in Afghanistan.

"The United States doesn't have a huge capacity in this, but we're way ahead of the Russians," Wallander said. "By comparison, we are so much more ready for this kind of counterterrorism campaign."

And American military technology, from its advanced pilot communications to computerized targeting, is far superior to anything Moscow used in Afghanistan, Wallander said.

Whatever they might say publicly about the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan, she said, Russian analysts acknowledge this technological superiority in private talks and military journals. They were stunned by the display of American might in Kosovo during the U.S.-led NATO airstrikes in 1998.

Luganov, the former Soviet infantry sergeant in Afghanistan, said the United States is losing the allegiance of many Afghans because its bombs are killing innocent people.

"The Afghans themselves say they're sick of the Taliban," he said. "The Taliban have done a lot of bad things. But children and women and old people are dying from the bombs. Nobody's talking about destroying bin Laden's network. This is bad. The bombing prematurely guaranteed that the Muslim world and for sure Afghanistan will regard Americans only as enemies."

The Russian vets ticked off a whole series of misfortunes they say are sure to befall the Americans. Luganov cited malaria, hepatitis and other infectious diseases. Sivko described a vast network of underground caves, tunnels and streams that Afghans use to hide and move about unseen.

But more than anything else, the Russian soldiers' memories return to the mountains and the fierce nature of their inhabitants.

"The Afghans are a freedom-loving people," Sivko said. "They would never allow any invader to rule them. And then there is the nature of the land itself, and how it helps them. They have patience and an eastern wisdom about how to outfox the enemy, even using insidious means. Their military cunning is of a completely different sort."

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