Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Thursday, 15 May 2008 15:35 UK

Is Nato repeating the USSR's mistakes?

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

There are different soldiers behind the gun, but the task ahead of them is just as daunting

Twenty years ago today the tanks and armoured cars started to rumble north out of Kabul as the Soviet Union began its withdrawal from Afghanistan after eight-and-a-half years of war.

The mujahideen, backed by money and weapons from an alliance of the United States, Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, had beaten a world superpower.

Today the country is scattered with reminders of the Soviet occupation - you don't have to go far even in Kabul to stumble across the rusting wrecks they left behind.

The aptly named Zamir Kabulov first arrived in Afghanistan as a young Soviet diplomat in 1977 and has lived through the last turbulent 30 years of this country's misfortunes.

Same mistakes

Now he is Russian ambassador in Kabul and his voice of experience will ring in the ears of today's Nato- and US-led forces.

"There is no mistake made by the Soviet Union that was not repeated by the international community here in Afghanistan," Mr Kabulov said, listing the problems.

UK outpost in Helmand province
A British flag flies over a former Soviet outpost in Helmand province

"Underestimation of the Afghan nation, the belief that we have superiority over Afghans and that they are inferior and they cannot be trusted to run affairs in this country."

His list goes on.

"A lack of knowledge of the social and ethnic structure of this country; a lack of sufficient understanding of traditions and religion."

Not only that, but he says the country's new patrons are making their own new mistakes as well.

"Nato soldiers and officers alienate themselves from Afghans - they are not in touch in an everyday manner. They communicate with them from the barrels of guns in their bullet-proof Humvees."

And he admits to some satisfaction, watching those who once backed the mujahideen now suffering in the same way.

"To some extent, yes, I would not hide that. But I am even more satisfied by not having Russian soldiers among Isaf [Nato's International Security Assistance Force] because I don't want them to suffer the same results, implications your soldiers are suffering."

After the Soviet withdrawal the mujahideen turned on each other and tore Afghanistan apart.

Kabul crumbled in the civil war as the various factions rocketed at each other across the city, killing thousands of civilians.

'Killing innocents'

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a mujahideen leader and prime minister in exile during the 1990s, admits they failed in the years following the Soviet withdrawal.

He is now an opponent of the government who stood against President Hamid Karzai in the last election and also draws parallels between the 1980s and the current international mission.

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai
They were wrong then and the present Nato forces are doing wrong now
Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai
Former mujahideen leader

"The Russians were beaten because they invaded our country. They were the transgressors, not us," he said.

And asked how the Soviet occupation compared to today's mission: "To my opinion the ground situation is no different because the Soviets were imposing their Communist regime on us. The present forces - they are imposing their so-called democracy on us.

"They were wrong then and the present Nato forces are doing wrong now by killing innocent people - men, women and children."

Nato commanders object to this and say they are doing everything they can to stop civilian casualties, arguing they are making military progress against the insurgents.

"They are winning the battles but losing the war," ambassador Kabulov said, explaining that things are even harder now than they were in the 1980s.

"The structures of government then were very much there and our task was very much was to support and to win loyalty - or, if you will, hearts and minds - but we had a working administration."

Fresh wrecks?

In Helmand province British forces in Kajaki are fighting from positions originally built by the Soviets.

Old Soviet tanks slowly rusting in Afghan field
Uncomfortable reminders of wars gone by in this tank graveyard

There are wrecks of armoured vehicles rusting in irrigation ditches in the same places they are now fighting the Taleban.

They are fighting over the same patches of land.

"We didn't bother to collect the wrecks of our burned tanks and other vehicles but you do - you are more resourceful perhaps, or maybe you have fewer losses," the ambassador said.

"But if things continue going the wrong way, as they are now, come back in two years and you will find plenty of your own wrecks."

A negative, sobering but very well-informed opinion - and the kind that is often ignored.

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