|Soviet forces left Afghanistan after nine years and the loss of 15,000 troops [EPA]|
US-led forces have now been In Afghanistan for 3,338 days, the same amount as the ultimately unsuccessful occupation by Soviet forces in the 1980s.
The two invasions of the country may have had different goals – one was trying to extend Soviet influence during the Cold War, while the other sought to force out Al -Qaeda and the Taliban – but whether they have significantly different outcomes remains to be seen.
Afghanistan has been referred to as the ‘Graveyard of Empires’ as it has never been successfully conquered by a foreign army.
The Soviet army arrived with a force of 40,000 soldiers in 1979. By 1985, there were 118,000 troops in the country. In 1989, Afghan fighters – armed by the CIA and known as the Mujahidin – drove the Soviets out.
Over the course of those nine years, 15,000 Soviet soldiers and as many as 1.3 million Afghans, mostly civilians, had been killed.
Twelve years later, in October 2001, the US toppled the Taliban government with a force of more than 5,000 troops. But now the war against the Taliban is being fought by nearly 150,000 US-led foreign troops, with an additional 112,000 private contractors working for the US department of defence.
Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from southern Afghanistan, said that the conflicts were very different, but some critics say the US is making many of the same mistakes as the Soviet Union.
James Bays reports on how US compares with the ill-fated Soviet occuptation
“Guerrilla fighters – equipped largely with old weapons, and homemade bombs – taking on the largest, best-equipped military in the world, with its satellite technology, state of the art fighter aircraft, helicopter gunships, cruise missiles and deadly unmanned drones,” he said.
“But the Afghans have fought another ill-matched battle once before – and they won.”
However, Faheem Dashty, editor-in-chief of the Kabul Weekly newspaper, told Al Jazeera on Saturday that there were major differences in terms of how the Afghan people perceive the foreign forces.
“Generally, there is this understanding between Afghans that they need Americans, or Nato, to fight a very dangerous enemy, which is [the] Taliban enemy, al-Qaeda or whoever,” he said.
The attitude of the US troops towards the Afghan people, however, has had a negative impact on their relationship with the locals, he said.
“The behaviour of Red Army troops [was] much better than what we see from the American-Nato forces.”
During the siege of Kabul, the US-led Nato forces “looked at each and every Afghan as the enemy, which wasn’t the case in the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” he said.
Andrey Avetisyan, the Russian ambassador to Afghanistan in Kabul, told Al Jazeera that with hindsight, Russians see their occupation of Afghanistan as “a huge mistake”.
“I wouldn’t regret losing this kind of world record,” he said.
One thing the Soviet Union did better than the US, he argued, was to invest in the country’s infrastructure. Whilst the Russians would never again have any military presence in the central Asian country, he said they would like to return to assist the Afghans to rebuild and to help with their economic development.
“All important infrastructure or industrial projects here were fulfilled by the Soviet Union,” he said.
“The fact is that not a single big project – infrastructure, industrial or agriculture – has been implemented during the past nine years … a school here, a hospital there, some small roads, but nothing big.”
He criticised the coalition for not focusing on supporting the Afghans to take ownership of governance and fighting sooner.
“I think the biggest mistake is been focusing on military efforts,” he said.
The Americans, like the Soviets before them, have repeatedly killed civilians, turning the public against them.
But Nader Nadery, an Afghan analyst who has studied the Soviet and US invasions, said “the time may be the same” for the two conflicts, “but conditions are not similar”.
|Just 5,000 troops toppled the Taliban, but now there are more than 150,000 soldiers in Afghanistan [AFP]|
More than one million civilians died as Soviet forces propping up the communist government waged a huge war against the anti-communist Mujahidin forces.
“There was indiscriminate mass bombardment of villages for the eviction of Mujahidin,” Nadery said. “Civilian casualties are not at all comparable.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank and expert on Afghanistan, said Nato forces have killed fewer than 10,000 civilians and a comparable number of fighters.
He pointed out that at the height of the resistance, there were 250,000 mujahidin representing all Afghan ethnic groups fighting the Soviets, while “the current insurgency is perhaps one-eighth as large and is only Pashtun”.
“We do have big problems. But there is no comparison between this war and what the Soviets wrought.”
However, comparison can be made between the two enemies. Some of those fighting the US invasion were the same men who had fought in the Mujahidin against the Soviets, while all have benefitted from honing the skills developed during that conflict.
Most of those fighting against the US and Nato are battle-hardened locals with knowledge of the difficult terrain and the complex tribal structures.
A Pentagon-led assessment released earlier this week described the progress made since the United States sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan earlier in the year as “fragile”.
But despite this, the US is still seeking to withdraw its soldiers from a combat role and hand over security to local security forces in 2014.
Alexander Konovalov, a Russian analyst, compared the transition to the Soviet Union’s departure. It backed Mohammed Najibullah, the president, with money and weapons, and left behind a trained and heavily armed Afghan military, but it all crumbled and the mujahidin took over Kabul in 1992.
“The Soviet Union tried to leave its protégé alone to run the country, but that ended in the Taliban victory,” Konovalov, who heads the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessment, an independent think tank, said.
“The US now wants to create a self-sufficient structure behind backed by some support forces,” he said. “It remains to be seen how successful it could be in Afghanistan.”