MOSCOW — The old diplomat sighed as he recalled his years in Afghanistan, and then leaned forward and said in a booming voice that no escalation of troops would bring lasting peace.
As the Soviet ambassador to Afghanistan from 1979 to 1986, Fikryat Tabeyev saw the numbers rise to more than 100,000 troops without any possibility of victory against a growing insurgency.
Even with President Barack Obama's plan initially to send 17,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines to that mountainous nation this year, the combined NATO-American force will be smaller than the Soviet contingent was. Moscow's failure to pacify Afghanistan, which broke the back of the Soviet Union, doesn't mean that the same fate awaits Obama's efforts, but ignoring a decade of experience there would be a mistake, former envoys and generals warn.
The Soviets rumbled into Afghanistan in 1979 to rescue a weak communist regime, a very different reason from the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, which sought to deny the 9-11 terrorists a haven. The seven years of war since the U.S. intervention, though, look familiar to the Russians.
Many challenges that bedeviled the Soviets confront the American operation today, the retired envoys and generals said. Among them are vicious tribal rivalries, a weak central government, radical Islamists, power-hungry warlords, incompetent or corrupt local military commanders, failing infrastructure and the complexity of fighting guerrilla groups. The former officials also cautioned that trying to bring democracy to Afghanistan, or anything resembling it, will be as fruitless as their attempts to install communism.
"You may elect a parliament, you may invite parliamentary delegations from Afghanistan to visit Europe, but it means nothing," said Boris Pastukhov, whose service as Soviet ambassador began in 1989, the year the Red Army withdrew. "The decisions by parliament cannot be compared with the decisions of a jirga," a tribal council.
Among the experts, there was gloating that the U.S. military is battling some of the same insurgents whom the CIA once funded to fight Moscow. All skated over the details of the brutal Soviet campaign to stomp out the Afghan resistance.
However, they also seemed to voice genuine concern about the U.S. troop buildup.
The Soviets also were convinced that superior numbers, firepower and training would make it possible to avoid the mistakes that the British and others had committed stretching back to Alexander the Great, former Ambassador Tabeyev said.
"History didn't listen to us," said Tabeyev, who's now 81. "All our efforts to restore peace in the country . . . this was a flop in the end."
The fundamental problem in Afghanistan is that it isn't a country in the way the West thinks of countries, said retired Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, who did two tours there and left as a regimental commander.
"There has never been any real centralized state in Afghanistan. There is no such nation as Afghanistan," said Aushev, who's a former president of the Russian Caucasus republic of Ingushetia and now heads a veterans group in Moscow. "There are (ethnic groups of) Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks, and they all have different tribal policies."
As a result, any occupation force will spend much of its time propping up a government that has little relevance outside Kabul and trying to corral disparate ethnic groups and tribes into a national army that's often unwilling to fight, Aushev said.
"We made the same mistake when we put the weak Babrak Karmal as the head of state," Aushev said of a former Afghan president. "He was so weak that no one obeyed him. He was hiding behind the backs of Soviet soldiers. . . . Today the situation is the same; (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai is being protected by U.S. special forces."
Retired Gen. Pavel Grachev, who spent two tours in Afghanistan, including commanding an airborne division, had a tone somewhere between disbelief and shock when he discussed the news of Obama's troop buildup.
"I believed as sincerely as American officers do now that we were fighting there to help make our country safer," said Grachev, who later became defense minister and sent in Russian units to quell Chechnya during the 1990s, a campaign that also ended in disaster. "After the war, as a politician, I could see this war had been pointless."
That said, Grachev offered some advice: Post soldiers to guard road projects and irrigation systems, and send in an army of engineers, doctors, mining experts and construction advisers.
Pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure would be a lot more productive than firefights in far-flung villages, he said.
"You have to understand that in the economic sphere, Afghanistan is now at a stage lower than the Middle Ages," Grachev said.
Unlike Iraq, which has relatively large cities and highways, much of the Afghan population is dispersed across small villages of mud houses connected by dirt paths and crumbling roads. In many regions, there are no jobs other than tending poppy fields. Health care and education levels are among the worst in the world.
That, Grachev said, is a commander's nightmare; it gives insurgents and terrorists a population that sees little reason to support the Kabul government or its Western backers. The hardened military man insisted that instead of bombs, "It is urgently necessary to create a comprehensive road network!"
Retired Gen. Viktor Yermakov agreed. He led the Soviet Union's 40th Army in Afghanistan during the early 1980s, and he said that his staff officers came to realize that they simply weren't going to win the war by military means.
"But unfortunately it was too late," Yermakov said, adding later that, "We had to answer fire. When we were attacked, we attacked with all of our might."
His soldiers were in a battlefield, caught in a cycle of attack and counterattack with an enemy that usually slipped away by the time the artillery shells rained down. There was no military solution, but he had a war to fight.
For the Americans, Yermakov said, it probably will become a familiar story.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009