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Soviet veterans warn United States that war in Afghanistan hopeless, deadly

By Sarah Karush, Associated Press, 09/14/01


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MOSCOW -- The prospect of a U.S. attack on Afghanistan brings an ominous message from veterans of the Soviet Union's decade-long war with Afghan guerrillas: You'll never win.

"You can occupy it, you can put troops there and keep bombing, but you cannot win," said Lt. Gen. Ruslan Aushev, who was decorated for bravery during the 1979-89 war.

The Soviet Union's brutal conflict in the mountainous land helped bring about the superpower's collapse. The Soviet Union said it lost 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, and unofficial estimates are much higher.

Moscow sent troops to Afghanistan to back a fledgling communist government against Islamic rebels supported by the United States. The Taliban militia who now rule most of the country have sheltered Osama bin Laden, whom the United States suspects of masterminding last week's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Any nation sheltering bin Laden faces "the full wrath" of the United States, Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday.

But even if U.S. officials are certain bin Laden is in Afghanistan, it may be impossible to find him there, Aushev said in a telephone interview Tuesday from the Russian region of Ingushetia, of which he is president.

"It's as easy to lose yourself in the mountains as in the jungle," he said. "They'll find him only if they're ready to go over 500,000 square kilometers (200,000 square miles) rock by rock."

Renowned warriors, the people of Afghanistan have staved off many a foreign enemy. Like the Soviet Union and Britain, which attempted to conquer the country in the 19th century, the United States is destined to fail, Aushev said.

"America doesn't want to kill 20 million Afghans," he said, implying that nothing short of genocide could win a war in Afghanistan.

"No matter how they prepare for a ground operation, it is hopeless," said Yevgeny Zelenov, a member of the Russian parliament and a veteran of the Soviet war.

U.S. troops would be facing a people who have learned to "sleep and live with their weapons," he said.

After the Soviet occupation, violence among rival factions killed more than 50,000 people. And fighting between the Taliban, who preach the idea of holy war, and the northern-based opposition alliance has continued since the Islamic fundamentalist militia took power in 1996.

But Alexei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament's defense committee, said U.S. officials have the advantage of Soviet experience as they plan their campaign.

Moscow has amassed in-depth knowledge of Afghanistan's terrain and may still have valuable intelligence contacts that it could share with Washington. But the United States may be able to learn the most from Soviet mistakes, Arbatov said.

"At a minimum, the experience of Russia in Afghanistan is already influencing the U.S. in the sense that the United States is not planning -- and I am convinced will never plan -- to bring in a big contingent of ground troops with the goal of occupying Afghanistan," he said at a news conference.

But because of the abundance of hiding places, missile strikes without a ground operation are destined to be nothing but "noise, aimed at showing the government is doing something," Zelenov said.

Khulkar Yusupov, who covered the Soviet war for the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, said he doubted the United States could pinpoint military targets and avoid heavy civilian casualties.

During the Soviet war, Yusupov was most disturbed by the suffering among the already impoverished civilian population. "You can't just pinpoint one gorge there. If you hit one gorge, you hit all the nearby villages," he said.


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