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Lessons from the Soviet occupation

While many critics of Barack Obama's strategy of sending more soldiers to Afghanistan are quick to cite the failures of the USSR, a close reading of history shows this outcome could be different.

MOSCOW // The US-led war in Afghanistan bears ominous similarities to the disastrous Soviet war there 20 years ago, when a modern army was humbled by small guerrilla bands and the invaders struggled to prop up an unpopular government in Kabul. But comparisons like these, often cited by critics of the troop surge planned by the US president, Barack Obama, have emphasised similarities while ignoring key differences in the position of the Soviet Union then and the US and Nato today.

A close reading of history suggests there is still a chance that the allies can succeed where the Soviet Union failed. While more than 850 members of the US military have died as a result of the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, those losses still represent a fraction of 14,500 Soviet deaths in Moscow's Afghan adventure. During the 10 years the USSR fought in Afghanistan, the country was a Cold War battleground, pitting a Kremlin-backed atheist government against Muslim fighters clandestinely supported by the US, Pakistan, Iran, China and Saudi Arabia.

By the late 1980s, the United States and the others were supplying the rebels with everything from transport mules to advanced weaponry, including the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that played a crucial role in neutralising Soviet air power. Today the western allies face an insurgency in Afghanistan that is largely home-grown and self-financed, in part through opium production. No government in the world publicly supports the Taliban.

Negative assessments of the West's chances in Afghanistan typically dwell on Moscow's setbacks while ignoring its successes, including the creation of a relatively stable Afghan government and a 300,000-strong army. Afghanistan's Communist regime defied all predictions and outlasted the Soviet Union, collapsing only after post-Soviet Russia halted massive economic aid. In the current conflict, militants have turned parts of Pakistan into sanctuaries, as they did during the Soviet war. But unlike the Soviets, the US has been able to extend its air power into these ungoverned regions.

The US has alienated many Afghans through its bombing raids, which have caused numerous civilian casualties. Yet US and western troops have trod far more lightly than Soviet military forces, some of whom robbed farmers, looted markets and used air power indiscriminately, sometimes wiping out villages. Russian veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war have long predicted that the US-led battle against the Taliban was doomed, based on their own experience fighting among the arid peaks of the Hindu Kush.

These judgments perhaps are coloured by bitterness over the Soviet defeat. While mindful of Soviet failures, western forces have been slow to learn from Moscow's successes. Kabul's Kremlin-backed communist regime was generally brutal, corrupt and represented a small minority of the population. But the Afghan communist leaders arguably had far more control of their country than the government of the current Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

After the mid-1980s, the Soviet Union implemented a strategy of securing cities and the roads between them, strengthening the central government's grip. And to some extent this approach worked, creating islands of stability where the government could run schools and hospitals, organise police and train soldiers. Older residents of Kabul recall that the city was safer during the era of the Soviet occupation. Mr Obama's plan for ending the US-led war against the Taliban bears a striking resemblance to the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's scheme for ending his country's Afghan war 20 years ago.

After Mr Gorbachev took power in 1985, he authorised a surge in military forces. He gave his generals a year to win the war. After that, he warned, they would have to withdraw. * Associated Press

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