Russians watch U.S., remember their war

MOSCOW — Thirty years ago this week, the Red Army began its invasion of Afghanistan, a move that sank the Soviet Union in a decade of guerrilla war and hastened the collapse of the Cold War empire.

Today, as former Soviet soldiers watch American troops trying to pacify the same stretches of Afghan land they once fought for, aging Soviet generals and grunts alike are reminded of a war they would rather forget.

While Russians are willing, and often eager, to predict utter defeat for U.S. efforts based on their own failure in Afghanistan, they're much less comfortable talking about the pain of reportedly having lost more than 14,000 lives in a war that ended in retreat.

Comparing wars is a process riddled with inconsistency — the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was far different from the American presence today — but on the eve of the anniversary of the Soviet war, the somber and at times anguished way that veterans in Russia spoke of their time in Afghanistan was a disturbing reminder of the hurdles that American forces now face.

The retired soldiers talk about Afghanistan in terms that echo the American experience in Vietnam: of winning battles but losing the campaign, watching the local population throw its support behind an insurgency and, finally, coming home to a country that no longer understood or supported their war.

As the Obama administration sends in 30,000 to 35,000 more troops by next summer — raising the total of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan to at least 140,000 — men such as Alexander Tsalko say they can't fathom why anyone would want to fight in that land of sharp mountain ridges and hot desert sands.

"Nothing was achieved while I was there.... There wasn't anything good there; they fired at us, we fired at them," said Tsalko, who commanded a helicopter unit in Kandahar from 1982 to 1983.

Tsalko was later the deputy head of a Soviet state defense committee and then a member of a Russian government commission for veterans affairs. He has spent the past several years working for an organization that helps disabled veterans.

What are his thoughts in late December, the period when the Soviets thrust into Afghanistan with a troop buildup on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 and then the overthrow of the government on Dec. 27?

"Bitterness and regret that we were drawn into this war," Tsalko replied.

In short, he said, "those who fought there do not want to talk about it when they're not drunk."

Unlike Russia's springtime celebration of its World War II victory over Nazi Germany, a national holiday that includes a triumphant, sparkling military parade in Red Square, the anniversary of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is hardly mentioned in the cold, dark days of December.

"It's especially difficult to remember those episodes that so many would like to leave behind," said Vladimir Kostyuchenko, a helicopter pilot for three tours in Afghanistan who's now active with an Afghan veterans group in Russia. "These generals at the top, they had no sense of reality. They gave us murderous orders. I still bear a cross because I fulfilled those orders."

The Soviet experience, of course, isn't proof that the same fate will befall the United States, which is now more than eight years into its Afghan war.

The men who took part in the Soviet fight for Afghanistan say that no matter how smart the Obama administration's plans are for turning the tide, they stand little chance in a country that's known as the graveyard of empires.

"Afghans will fight foreign troops as long as foreign troops are there," said Lev Serebrov, whose time there was bookended by the Soviet invasion and retreat. He arrived in 1979 and stayed through 1981 as a lieutenant colonel and deputy division commander, and returned from 1987 to 1989 as a major general and deputy to the Soviet operations commander for the Afghan war.

"No one should go there armed," said Serebrov, who's now a deputy in Russia's lower house of parliament.