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Monday, October 20, 2008

An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons of the Past

Nearly 20 years after Soviet troops withdrew in humiliation, in February 1989, Mr. Kabulov has become a gloomy oracle, warning that the fate that overtook the Russians here may be relived by the Americans and their coalition partners.

"They've already repeated all of our mistakes," he said, speaking of what the United States has done ― and failed to do ― since the Taliban were toppled from power in November 2001 and American troops began moving into old Soviet bases like the one at Bagram, north of Kabul.

"Now, they're making mistakes of their own, ones for which we do not own the copyright."

The list of American failures comes quickly. Like the Soviets, Mr. Kabulov said, the Americans "underestimated the resistance," thinking that because they swept into Kabul easily, the occupation would be untroubled. "Because we deployed very easily into the major cities, we didn't give much thought to what was happening in the countryside," where the stirrings of opposition that grew into a full-fledged insurgency began, he said.

He places that blunder in the context of a wider failure to understand the "irritative allergy" among Afghans to foreign occupation, one that every invading power since the British in the 1840s has come to rue, and which, Mr. Kabulov said, grows into a fire if the invaders, especially non-Muslims, don't pull out soon. "One of our mistakes was staying, instead of leaving," he said. "After we changed the regime, we should have handed over and said goodbye. But we didn't. And the Americans haven't, either."

Confronted by an elusive insurgency and unable to maintain a presence in the hinterland because of a lack of troops, the Soviets, like the Americans, resorted to an overreliance on heavy weapons, especially airpower, he said. The resulting casualties among the civilian population only worsened the situation.

Below is a great clip from Charlie Wilson's War that seems appropriate given the subject matter:

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