Andrei PRAVOV, RIA Novosti analyst
On the cold morning of February 15, 1989, the last units of the limited contingent of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, or the 40th Army of the Turkestan Military District, crossed the Amudarya River from Khairaton to Termez. That day marked the end of the USSR's military presence in Afghanistan.
It meant that not a single Soviet soldier remained "on the other side of the river," the Afghan bank, except for those Soviet military advisors who stayed in Kabul for three more years until the collapse of Najibullah's regime and the complete evacuation of the embassy (already the Russian Embassy).
It was there, in Kabul, that the author of this article spent three years and six months between 1989 and 1992 as a Novosti correspondent, which meant witnessing the evacuation of the embassy, and fleeing the Afghan capital on a plane with dead compatriots travelling in their zinc coffins. On the last day, that aeroplane circled over Kabul, shooting magnesium missiles at stingers, and we could see through the windows the white clouds of the anti-aircraft shells exploding far below, having failed to reach their target. We could see the other Il-76 plane meant for the evacuation burning like a candle after being hit by a missile on the runway.
It was a sad day. The first thing that came to mind then was that the politicians who had made the decision to station Soviet troops in Afghanistan, could not have seen in their worst nightmares how their venture would end.
The three and a half years between the official withdrawal and the evacuation of the embassy were filled with Kabul being regularly shelled, cars exploding in the city centre and other lethal incidents. The events of the time were very similar to today's Baghdad. There, the local "resistance fighters" also refuse "for some reason" to accept the American benefactors with their immense financial aid.
The Americans control Afghanistan, too, these days - at least Kabul and the adjacent areas. During the day, that is.
The US military presence in Afghanistan today is, of course, reminiscent of the Soviet experience. And, just as the case is in Iraq, the local population does not really understand it.
As for the Afghans, conversations with some representatives of this nation in neighbouring Pakistan in the mid-nineties revealed that a foreign army deployed in their country first of all triggered off extremist Islamic forces' activity. Afghan refugees in Islamabad said that the Taleban believed that every Afghan who had ever read any other book apart from the Koran, was a communist. Prior to that, the mojaheddin, too, practiced extremist policies; for example, they made women wear the paranjas again.
Incidentally, many refugees had warm memories about the "Shuravi", as they called the Soviet people. They recalled that Soviet engineers had built many industrial and agricultural facilities in their country, as well as schools and universities. The mojaheddin, followed by the Taliban, destroyed it all.
An opportunity to verify this presented itself during a visit to Jelalabad in 1995, which the UN mission had arranged for the Islamabad-based press. The places that had once been familiar looked devastated: a destroyed olive-processing plant, broken irrigation system, etc. All that was built in the eighties with the help of the USSR. The gorgeous ensemble of the Polytechnic Institute in Kabul, where many leading Russian specialists had taught, lay in ruin, too.
Why did the Islamic extremists do all this? Did they not understand that the "Shuravi" would not be able to take it all with them, that the facilities would remain for the benefit of Afghanistan? Afghan refugees in Islamabad usually offered one of the following two explanations. Firstly, the extremists destroyed every trace of foreign presence on Afghan land. Secondly, the "people from the mountains" simply did not understand what the facilities were for. They had never before seen an olive-processing plant or an irrigation system. Therefore, they saw it all as "unnecessary" and even "hostile." Many appraisals would seem to confirm that the Islamic extremists think everything which comes from the "white race" - be it Russians or Americans - as unnecessary and hostile to Muslims. The "Shuravi" tried to enforce their socialism here, Afghans often say, while the Americans are imposing their own way of life, just like in Iraq. In fact, many Afghans are convinced that it only aggravates Islamic extremism, forcing civilians to join radically minded groups who urge them "to resist the invaders." On our last day in Afghanistan, we sat in an air-raid shelter, discussing what would happen there in a dozen years. A few older and experienced diplomats, who had gone through the extensive "Soviet school," predicted the Americans would be in Kabul soon. Younger democratically minded people argued heatedly. Pragmatic middle-aged ones mainly said the Americans would hardly repeat their predecessors' mistakes.
Interestingly, the older diplomats guessed right. The problem seems to be that the Soviet government in the eighties was convinced its soldiers "were fighting evil forces" and were bringing a "happy life" to the Islamic East. The same can be said about the current US administration. But Muslims are still not happy about it "for some reason."