Russians Mark Anniversary Of Afghan War's End The grueling, decade-long war was a humiliating failure for a crumbling superpower. But 20 years later, Russians say it's a failure that holds grave implications for U.S. and NATO forces now in Afghanistan.
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Russians Mark Anniversary Of Afghan War's End

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Russians Mark Anniversary Of Afghan War's End

Russians Mark Anniversary Of Afghan War's End

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

The government of Pakistan got a hint of cautious optimism today in its long standoff with the Taliban. A spokesperson for the rebel group announced plans for a 10-day ceasefire in a region known as the Swat Valley. Other such peace deals have been offered in the past, but so far the Taliban has refused to stop fighting there until Pakistan imposes Islamic law.

That area near the border with Afghanistan has scarcely known a day without violence in generations. It was on this day, 20 years ago, that the last Soviet troops withdrew from their decade-long war with Afghanistan.

The Soviets' grueling campaign was a humiliating failure for a crumbling superpower. Russians today say those failures hold scary lessons for U.S. and NATO forces preparing for a new surge of troops in Afghanistan.

NPR's Gregory Feifer has just written a book about the Soviet war there. It's called "The Great Gamble." And Greg joins us from Moscow.

Hi there, Greg.

GREGORY FEIFER: Hi, Jacki.

LYDEN: So 20 years after the Soviet withdrawal, what do Russians think about their war in Afghanistan?

FEIFER: Well, veterans gathered to lay wreaths at war memorials today. Many of them to whom I've spoken over the last several days say they believe the war was a tragedy, but they also say that the Soviets were doing what they say is their duty to help build communism in Afghanistan.

I'd say that the atmosphere has been bittersweet and nostalgic, not nearly so anti-war as it was when Soviet viewers watched the withdrawal on their television screens 20 years ago today.

(Soundbite of news program)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Soviets watched with relief and some humiliation as columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled across a steel-girder bridge out of Afghanistan and back into the Soviet Union. One tank stopped in the middle, and the Soviet commander, General Boris Gromov, jumped off.

General BORIS GROMOV: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: He announced he was the last Soviet officer to leave Afghanistan, which wasn't entirely true, but formally ended a war that began after the Soviet Union invaded to prop up a communist government in its southern neighbor.

Soviet troops found themselves caught in a bitter civil war between a tottering government and mujahedeen rebels supported by the local population and armed by the West.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: On a raw, freezing day in Moscow 20 years later, veterans of an elite Red Army regiment that fought in the Afghan war meet each other near the Kremlin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FEIFER: There's a lot of laughter, embracing and drinking of vodka. No longer young men, the veterans say they're overjoyed to see their old brothers-in-arms, who are united by their arduous experiences.

Mr. ALEXEI FILIN (Former Soldier): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Former soldier Alexei Filin was a sapper in Afghanistan, searching for mines in treacherous mountain territory.

Mr. FILIN: (Through translator) It got so frightening sometimes that you just wanted to kill yourself and get it over with, and then you'd be on a break, and you'd sit there thinking how wonderful it is to be alive in this great world.

FEIFER: Many here say the Soviet Union was trying to do the right thing in Afghanistan, but former sergeant Boris Raisky says the Kremlin just had no idea what it had become involved in.

Mr. BORIS RAISKY: (Through translator) I realized we were fighting a counterinsurgency against local partisans. By definition, that's an unwinnable war.

FEIFER: The war symbolized the collapse of a superpower unable to best a group of bedraggled rebels on its southern border. And the unanimous opinion here is that U.S. forces will be no more successful in Afghanistan.

Mr. SERGEI MAXIMOV: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: Former Lieutenant Sergei Maximov says they should get out as soon as possible, or they'll be picked off like clay pigeons in target practice.

Some Soviet veterans believe U.S. and NATO forces can learn from the Soviet failure. But General Ruslan Aushev, one of the heroes of the Soviet war, says crucial lessons are being ignored, including the importance of building the infrastructure and government institutions the Afghans desperately need.

General RUSLAN AUSHEV: (Through translator) What goals did the Americans set when they went into Afghanistan? To make life better for the Afghan people. Are they living better there today? No.

FEIFER: And, Jacki, the Russians I've talked to say that's just one of the lessons for U.S. and NATO forces there today.

LYDEN: Well, Greg, the general in your piece talks about Afghan infrastructure. What are the biggest mistakes the Soviets made that NATO forces can learn from?

FEIFER: I don't think the Soviets really knew whom they were fighting. The mujahedeen rebels would attack the Soviet forces and then climb into the mountains, out of reach. And the Red Army really took out its revenge against the local population that was supporting the rebels.

U.S. and NATO forces today are trying to do exactly the opposite. And I think for that, it's crucial to understand both the needs and the views of ordinary Afghans. But they say that international troops have to stop creating resentment among the locals by racking up civilian casualties from high altitude bombing and doing things like violating local customs during house searches. And I believe there's still a critical mass of Afghans who still want to succeed in building a viable state.

LYDEN: NPR's Moscow correspondent, Gregory Feifer. You can find excerpts of his book, "The Great Gamble," on our Web site, npr.org.

Greg, thanks very much.

FEIFER: Thank you very much.

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