Why are Americans going to die in Afghanistan?

Veterans of Soviet war see same errors by US

By Charles Clover in Moscow

It was May 1985 when General Igor Rodionov stepped off a military transport aircraft at Kabul airport, assuming command of the Soviet Union’s 40th Army fighting in Afghanistan.

His now-creased face tells the ensuing story better than words. He was the fifth of seven Soviet commanders, sharing a place in history with a singular brotherhood: foreign generals sent to conquer Afghanistan. The line, stretching from Alexander the Great to the present day, is distinguished by one conspicuous characteristic – all ultimately failed.

On the eve of an expected decision by the US administration to commit thousands more soldiers to the struggle against the Taliban, Gen Rodionov and other Soviet veterans feel a mixture of Schadenfreude and sympathy for the latest foreign invaders in the mountainous land they left in 1989 after a bloody 10-year counter-insurgency.

From his base in the sumptuous Tajbeg palace, on a commanding hill on the outskirts of Kabul, Gen Rodionov quickly learned “there was no front. The bullets could come from anywhere”.

The Soviet 40th Army comprised 120,000 troops at the height of the war, and operations focused on manoeuvring helicopter-borne paratroopers on to mountains, to control high ground, and then moving tanks through the valleys.

In a decade nearly 15,000 Soviet troops lost their lives – and hundreds of thousands of Afghans – in many of the same places that US forces and their allies are struggling to control today: the border regions in the south-east of the country near Pakistan, and the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.

“The war, all 10 years of it, went in circles. We would come and they [the insurgents] would leave. Then we leave, and they would return,” Gen Rodionov said.

Other former senior Soviet officers see a similar futility in US efforts in Afghanistan.

“More soldiers is simply going to mean more deaths,” said Gennady Zaitsev, former commander of the KGB’s elite Alpha commando unit, which took part in some of the most critical operations of the war.

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