An Old Afghanistan Hand Offers Lessons of the Past
By JOHN F. BURNS
KABUL, Afghanistan — It is one of a flow of disarming asides that
Russia's ambassador to Kabul deploys while warning of the grim
prospects that he says will doom the American enterprise in
Afghanistan if the United States fails to learn from mistakes made
during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s.
"I know quite a lot about the past," the ambassador, Zamir N. Kabulov,
said in polished English with a broad smile during an interview in
Kabul one morning last week. "But almost nothing about the future."
In fact, it is precisely because of a belief that the Soviet past may
hold lessons for the American future that a talk with Mr. Kabulov is
valued by many Western diplomats here. That is a perception that has
drawn at least one NATO general to the Russian Embassy in Mr.
Kabulov's years as ambassador, though the officer involved, not an
American, showed no sign of having been influenced by what he heard,
Mr. Kabulov said.
"They listen, but they do not hear," he said with another wry smile.
"Their attitude is, 'The past is the past,' and that they know more
than I do." Perhaps, too, he said, "they think what I have to say is
just part of a philosophy of revenge," a diplomatic turning of the
tables by a government in Moscow that is embittered by the Soviet
failure here and eager for the United States to suffer a similar fate.
Mr. Kabulov, 54, is no ordinary ambassador, having served as a K.G.B.
agent in Kabul — and eventually as the K.G.B. resident, Moscow's top
spy — in the 1980s and 1990s, during and after the nine-year Soviet
military occupation. He also worked as an adviser to the United
Nations' peacekeeping envoy during the turbulent period in the
mid-1990s that led to the Taliban's seizing power.
Now he is back as Moscow's top man, suave and engaging, happy to talk
of a time when the old Soviet Embassy compound was the command center
for an invasion that ended in disaster and speeded the collapse of the
great power that undertook it.
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.
"We abused human rights, including the use of aggressive bombardment,"
he said. "Now, it's the same, absolutely the same. Some Soviet
generals gave instructions to wipe out the villages where the
mujahedeen were entrenched with the civilian population. Is that what
your generals are going to do?"
The son of an Uzbek father and a Tartar mother, Mr. Kabulov said his
family name is a corruption of an old Arabic term meaning capability.
"But the name's been my fate," he said, running through a career that
has given him a front-row seat at almost every stage of Afghan's
turbulent history for the past 25 years. In 1995, negotiating for the
release of a Russian air crew forced down by the Taliban, he became
one of very few foreigners to meet Mullah Muhammad Omar, the one-eyed
former mujahedeen fighter who founded and still leads the Taliban.
Rebutting the suggestion that Russia hopes for an American failure
here, Mr. Kabulov noted that Moscow supported the 2001 invasion as
part of an international coalition against terrorism that was as much
a threat to the security of Russia as to that of the United States.
Russia still has nothing to gain from an American defeat, he said. "We
have always said that it's better to fight the mujahedeen in the
suburbs of Jalalabad than in Ashgabat," he said, referring to the
capital of Turkmenistan, on Russia's southern border.
"How can they believe that we are so stupid and shortsighted?" he
added. "Our approach is pragmatic. Why should we be jubilant at the
prospect of the Americans being defeated by people who will take us on
again, as they did in the 1990s in Chechnya?"
Still, the ambassador spoke with irritation at what he regards as an
American distortion of the Soviet record here, one that ignores the
"modernizing mission" Moscow pursued from the 1950s on, with billions
of rubles spent on education, advancing the role of women and building
roads, dams and an industrial infrastructure. "Where, I ask, are the
big American projects to match those?" he said, and answered his own
"I'll tell you. There aren't any."
American generals, he said, have avoided contact with him. But with
Gen. David D. McKiernan, the American commander, now pushing for a
major increase in the 65,000 coalition troops that he commands, he
said the Americans are replicating another of Moscow's mistakes:
trying to turn the tide of the war by bringing in more troops.
Soviet troop strength in Afghanistan, he said, reached its peak in
1987 with a force of about 140,000.
"The more foreign troops you have roaming the country, the more the
irritative allergy toward them is going to be provoked," he said.
The solution, he said, is to shift the fighting as quickly as possible
to Afghan troops. This is something the United States and its partners
have already embarked on, with a decision this summer to double the
size of the Afghan Army. But even that, Mr. Kabulov said, will
accomplish little unless the Americans turn the army into a genuine
national force, with a sense among the troops that they are fighting
for their country, not as "clients" of the Americans, as Mr. Kabulov
believes they see themselves now.
One emblem of the American approach, he says, is the decision to
re-equip the Afghan forces with NATO weaponry. Mr. Kabulov said this
would mean retraining Afghan soldiers to fight with American M-16
rifles, in place of the Kalashnikov assault rifles that have been
ubiquitous here for decades.
"Afghans have been very adept at using Kalashnikovs for 30 years, as
we know only too well, and now you'll send them to Pakistan to be
melted down into scrap? I ask you, how much sense is there in that?"
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company