EDITORIAL: A Russian alliance in Afghanistan?

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One of the worst ideas we have heard recently regarding Afghanistan is to bring in the Russians. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested that 20 years after the Soviet Union’s defeat there, Moscow now might hold the key to victory. “Russia could provide equipment for the Afghan security forces,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “Russia could provide training. We could explore in a joint effort how we could further Russian engagement.” A moment of clarity is in order.

The Soviet Union fought a 10-year counterinsurgency in Afghanistan that became one of the gravestones of the Evil Empire. The brutality of that conflict is legendary. A member of the Afghan National Security Council staff pointed out to The Washington Times the most obvious legacy of the Soviet war in Afghanistan: “close to a million dead, and many more injured.” It’s not a memory that NATO should revive.

The Soviet effort in Afghanistan was never viewed as legitimate by the Afghan people. This is the most important distinguishing characteristic between the Soviet war and the current conflict. For all the talk of the Karzai government’s image being hurt by irregularities in the recent election, it is nothing compared to the hatred aimed at the communist government installed by force by the Red Army in 1979. This was the original sin of the Soviet war, a contradiction they could never overcome. Regardless of their fortunes on the battlefield, the illegitimacy of the regime they backed made victory impossible.

Russian involvement in the current conflict would be a public-relations gift to the Taliban, whose senior leaders got their first taste of guerrilla war fighting the Soviets and for whom that conflict is central to their heroic myth. A combined NATO/Russian effort would destroy what remains of Western legitimacy in the nation-building effort. “People as a whole separate the West from the Russians,” our Afghan source told us. “The U.S. and Europe helped them against the Soviets and regard them as old friends.” If NATO and the Russians join forces, “the Taliban can say they are the same and remind people how the Russians treated the Afghans, trampled their religion and their traditions. These are very bad memories.”

Russia already gives the coalition overfly rights to supply the conflict, and it could play a role in supplying aid money and logistical support. Moscow is also interested in stemming the tide of narcotics that flows north from Afghanistan’s poppy fields. But the most useful role Russia could play is providing examples of what not to do in Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov, Moscow’s outgoing ambassador to Kabul, recently noted that the United States is repeating some of the critical errors the Soviets made, including “neglect of the population, failure in establishing firm cooperation with local communities, [and] leaving them at the behest of the enemy.”

During their Afghan war, the Soviets chose only to defend the cities and abandoned the countryside to the guerrillas, making periodic forays when necessary. Those in this country who are advocating a similar approach, hunkering down in strong points and relying on unmanned Predator drones to keep terrorists in check, would do well to examine the Soviet experience. It did not have a happy ending.

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