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Russians Mark Anniversary Of Afghan War's End

Veterans of the Soviet army's elite 345th Paratroop Regiment, one of the most decorated to have fought in Afghanistan, meet in front of the Bolshoi Theater for a reunion marking the 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Gregory Feifer/NPR
Veterans of the Soviet army's elite 345th Paratroop Regiment, one of the most decorated to have fought in Afghanistan, meet in front of the Bolshoi Theater for a reunion marking the 20th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Alexei Filin fought as a conscript in Afghanistan. He says the Soviet Union had a duty to spread communism in its southern neighbor, and that the current NATO mission in Afghanistan will meet with the same failure the Soviets found there.
Gregory Feifer/NPR /
Alexei Filin fought as a conscript in Afghanistan. He says the Soviet Union had a duty to spread communism in its southern neighbor, and that the current NATO mission in Afghanistan will meet with the same failure the Soviets found there.

Just as President Barack Obama is preparing to send tens of thousands of new U.S. troops into Afghanistan, Russians are marking the 20th anniversary of the date the last Soviet forces officially withdrew from the country.

Their grueling, decade-long war was a humiliating failure for a crumbling superpower, but one that Russians say holds grave implications for U.S. and NATO forces now in Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, Soviets watched with relief — and some humiliation — as columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers rumbled across a steel-girder bridge out of the country.

One tank stopped in the middle, and the Soviet commander, Gen. Boris Gromov, jumped off. He announced he was the last Soviet officer to leave Afghanistan, which wasn't entirely true. But the event formally ended a war that began after the Soviet Union invaded to prop up a communist government in its southern neighbor.

Soviet troops found themselves caught in a bitter civil war between a tottering government and mujahedeen rebels supported by the local population and armed by the West.

On a freezing, raw day in Moscow 20 years later, veterans of an elite Red Army regiment that fought in the Afghan war meet each other near the Kremlin.

There's a lot of laughter, embracing — and drinking of vodka. No longer young men, the veterans say they're overjoyed to see their old brothers-in-arms, who are united with them by their arduous experiences.

Former soldier Alexei Filin was a sapper in Afghanistan, searching for mines in treacherous mountain territory.

"It got so frightening sometimes that you just wanted to kill yourself and get it over with ... and then you'd be on a break, and you'd sit there thinking how wonderful it is to be alive in this great world," he says.

Many in Russia say the Soviet Union was trying to do the right thing in Afghanistan, but former sergeant Boris Raisky says the Kremlin just had no idea what it had become involved in.

"I realized we were fighting a counterinsurgency against local partisans. By definition, that's an unwinnable war," he says.

The war symbolized the collapse of a superpower unable to best a group of bedraggled rebels on its southern border — and the unanimous opinion in Russia is that U.S. forces will be no more successful in Afghanistan.

"They should get out as soon as possible. Or they'll be picked off like clay pigeons in target practice," says former Soviet Lt. Sergei Maximov.

Some Soviet veterans believe U.S. and NATO forces can learn from the Soviet failure. But Gen. Ruslan Aushev, one of the heroes of the Soviet war, says crucial lessons are being ignored — including the importance of building the infrastructure and government institutions the Afghans desperately need.

"What goals did the Americans set when they went into Afghanistan?" he asks. "To make life better for the Afghan people. Are they living better there today? No."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.