Another War Lost

Jonathan Steele in Afghanistan

Russia’s man in Kabul, Andrey Avetisyan, has been travelling to Afghanistan since 1983, when he was a student of Pashto during the Soviet occupation. When Gorbachev took power and started negotiating the Soviet withdrawal Avetisyan was sent to Kabul for two years as a diplomat. He went back again in 1989, after the troops left, and watched Najibullah’s Soviet-backed regime survive for three more years. When mujahedin leaders finally entered the city only to fire rockets and artillery shells at each other in a lethal form of gang warfare that killed at least fifty thousand Kabulis, Avetisyan had the task of closing the badly damaged Russian embassy. Twenty years later he is back again, watching another superpower flounder. His embassy has been rebuilt almost as it used to be, with the addition of a bronze bell that hangs opposite the main building, a memorial to the fifteen thousand Soviet conscripts and officers who died in the 1980s. Like the other embassies in Kabul, Avetisyan’s is hidden behind high concrete walls. But since Russia isn’t part of the US-led coalition against the Taliban, Moscow feels security is good enough to permit its diplomats to bring their families. It even has a primary school.

Russia’s position on the American war is unexpected. Avetisyan would like a large contingent of US troops to stay in Afghanistan, unlike the Obama administration, which plans to have withdrawn the majority of its troops by 2014, leaving only a force of around ten thousand. He asks questions that no Western politician would: ‘If the mission of fighting terrorism here is not complete, why are you withdrawing? I’m not sure why fewer forces can do the job. We have asked the Americans and they give us no clear answers.’ The main reason for Russia’s concern is that Afghanistan has become its biggest supplier of heroin and it fears a surge in poppy production. Figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, published in November, show that the acreage used for poppy has continued to rise as conflict has spread across the country, disrupting food production. ‘Every year,’ Avetisyan told me, ‘thirty thousand Russians die from Afghan heroin. That’s twice the number we lost in the whole Afghan war.’

From Western embassies and officials of ISAF – the International Security Assistance Force, as the coalition is called – the line one hears endlessly repeated is that the Afghan security forces will fill the gap left by the departing Americans. Avetisyan will have none of it. ‘Security is going to worsen,’ he said. The morning I met him the blast from a suicide bomb rocked the building where I was staying. Avetisyan had been visiting the UN office nearby. ‘Attacks like that,’ he said, ‘are happening all over the country every day. Unfortunately for us the northern part of the country, which was quiet three years ago, is very unstable. Fighting in the north is the same as in the south and east’ – the traditional Taliban strongholds. ‘I don’t see any reason for it to become better in the next two years.’ It’s an open secret in Kabul that Western military leaders and diplomats would like nothing better than for the Afghan army to be able to hold its own for at least three years as Najibullah’s managed to do – to avoid the perception of Western defeat. ‘By the end of the 1980s,’ Avetisyan said, ‘the Afghan army was one of the strongest in the region. It had fighter jets, artillery, tanks.’ The problem was that after the Soviet Union collapsed, Moscow stopped sending money, weaponry and fuel. In his view the issue now is to ensure that the West fulfils its promises to fund and supply the Afghan army.

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