Alexander the Great and Ghengis Khan are no more, and the British generals fighting two Afghan wars are also unavailable. But one former Soviet official, intimately familiar with his country's debacle in Afghanistan, remains ready to instruct from the Soviet experience. But no one is listening. This John Burns interview has some enlightening - and discouraging - words which you may have missed.
An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons of the Past
By JOHN F. BURNS
New York Times -- October 20, 2008
KABUL, Afghanistan — It is one of a flow of disarming asides that Russia's ambassador to Kabul deploys while warning of the grim prospects that he says will doom the American enterprise in Afghanistan if the United States fails to learn from mistakes made during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
"I know quite a lot about the past," the ambassador, Zamir N. Kabulov, said in polished English with a broad smile during an interview in Kabul one morning last week. "But almost nothing about the future."
In fact, it is precisely because of a belief that the Soviet past may hold lessons for the American future that a talk with Mr. Kabulov is valued by many Western diplomats here. That is a perception that has drawn at least one NATO general to the Russian Embassy in Mr. Kabulov's years as ambassador, though the officer involved, not an American, showed no sign of having been influenced by what he heard, Mr. Kabulov said.
"They listen, but they do not hear," he said with another wry smile.
"Their attitude is, 'The past is the past,' and that they know more than I do." Perhaps, too, he said, "they think what I have to say is just part of a philosophy of revenge," a diplomatic turning of the tables by a government in Moscow that is embittered by the Soviet failure here and eager for the United States to suffer a similar fate.
Mr. Kabulov, 54, is no ordinary ambassador, having served as a K.G.B. agent in Kabul — and eventually as the K.G.B. resident, Moscow's top spy — in the 1980s and 1990s, during and after the nine-year Soviet military occupation. He also worked as an adviser to the United Nations' peacekeeping envoy during the turbulent period in the mid-1990s that led to the Taliban's seizing power.
Now he is back as Moscow's top man, suave and engaging, happy to talk of a time when the old Soviet Embassy compound was the command center for an invasion that ended in disaster and speeded the collapse of the great power that undertook it.
The compound, ransacked during the warlord turmoil of the mid-1990s and given over for a decade to refugees who squatted amid the rubble, is spanking new again, with fresh marble and sparkling chandeliers, as well as a memorial commemorating the 13,500 Soviet troops who died here.
Nearly 20 years after Soviet troops withdrew in humiliation, in February 1989, Mr. Kabulov has become a gloomy oracle, warning that the fate that overtook the Russians here may be relived by the Americans and their coalition partners.
"They've already repeated all of our mistakes," he said, speaking of what the United States has done — and failed to do — since the Taliban were toppled from power in November 2001 and American troops began moving into old Soviet bases like the one at Bagram, north of Kabul.
"Now, they're making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright."
The list of American failures comes quickly. Like the Soviets, Mr. Kabulov said, the Americans "underestimated the resistance," thinking that because they swept into Kabul easily, the occupation would be untroubled. "Because we deployed very easily into the major cities, we didn't give much thought to what was happening in the countryside," where the stirrings of opposition that grew into a full-fledged insurgency began, he said.
He places that blunder in the context of a wider failure to understand the "irritative allergy" among Afghans to foreign occupation, one that every invading power since the British in the 1840s has come to rue, and which, Mr. Kabulov said, grows into a fire if the invaders, especially non-Muslims, don't pull out soon. "One of our mistakes was staying, instead of leaving," he said. "After we changed the regime, we should have handed over and said goodbye. But we didn't. And the Americans haven't, either."
Confronted by an elusive insurgency and unable to maintain a presence in the hinterland because of a lack of troops, the Soviets, like the Americans, resorted to an overreliance on heavy weapons, especially airpower, he said. The resulting casualties among the civilian population only worsened the situation.
"We abused human rights, including the use of aggressive bombardment," he said. "Now, it's the same, absolutely the same. Some Soviet generals gave instructions to wipe out the villages where the mujahedeen were entrenched with the civilian population. Is that what your generals are going to do?"
The son of an Uzbek father and a Tartar mother, Mr. Kabulov said his family name is a corruption of an old Arabic term meaning capability.
"But the name's been my fate," he said, running through a career that has given him a front-row seat at almost every stage of Afghan's turbulent history for the past 25 years. In 1995, negotiating for the release of a Russian air crew forced down by the Taliban, he became one of very few foreigners to meet Mullah Muhammad Omar, the one-eyed former mujahedeen fighter who founded and still leads the Taliban.
Rebutting the suggestion that Russia hopes for an American failure here, Mr. Kabulov noted that Moscow supported the 2001 invasion as part of an international coalition against terrorism that was as much a threat to the security of Russia as to that of the United States. Russia still has nothing to gain from an American defeat, he said. "We have always said that it's better to fight the mujahedeen in the suburbs of Jalalabad than in Ashgabat," he said, referring to the capital of Turkmenistan, on Russia's southern border.
"How can they believe that we are so stupid and shortsighted?" he added. "Our approach is pragmatic. Why should we be jubilant at the prospect of the Americans being defeated by people who will take us on again, as they did in the 1990s in Chechnya?"
Still, the ambassador spoke with irritation at what he regards as an American distortion of the Soviet record here, one that ignores the "modernizing mission" Moscow pursued from the 1950s on, with billions of rubles spent on education, advancing the role of women and building roads, dams and an industrial infrastructure. "Where, I ask, are the big American projects to match those?" he said, and answered his own question.
"I'll tell you. There aren't any."
American generals, he said, have avoided contact with him. But with Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American commander, now pushing for a major increase in the 65,000 coalition troops that he commands, he said the Americans are replicating another of Moscow's mistakes: trying to turn the tide of the war by bringing in more troops.
Soviet troop strength in Afghanistan, he said, reached its peak in 1987 with a force of about 140,000.
"The more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked," he said.
The solution, he said, is to shift the fighting as quickly as possible to Afghan troops. This is something the United States and its partners have already embarked on, with a decision this summer to double the size of the Afghan Army. But even that, Mr. Kabulov said, will accomplish little unless the Americans turn the army into a genuine national force, with a sense among the troops that they are fighting for their country, not as "clients" of the Americans, as Mr. Kabulov believes they see themselves now.
One emblem of the American approach, he says, is the decision to re-equip the Afghan forces with NATO weaponry. Mr. Kabulov said this would mean retraining Afghan soldiers to fight with American M-16 rifles, in place of the Kalashnikov assault rifles that have been ubiquitous here for decades.
"Afghans have been very adept at using Kalashnikovs for 30 years, as we know only too well, and now you'll send them to Pakistan to be melted down into scrap? I ask you, how much sense is there in that?"