Reality Check: Russian vs American record in Afghanistan

Posted May 9th, 2011 at 3:07 am (UTC+0)

Russia’s foreign ministry has just issued a new statement lecturing the U.S.-led coalition “to take additional steps” to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Presumably, in this post-Osama Bin Laden era, Moscow is trying ingratiate itself with Afghan public opinion, and ultimately, the Taliban.

An Afghan soldier cradles his rifle outside a gateway to Kabul's airport following a shooting incident in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 27, 2011 AP

If so, then it’s time for some reality checks:

Reality Check 1: in March, the United Nations issued its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Of the 2,777 civilians killed last year, the U.N. said, 75 percent were killed by the Taliban, 16 percent were killed by NATO and Afghan government forces, and 9 percent by unknown actors.

The trends favor NATO forces. In 2010, the number of civilians killed by NATO and Afghan government troops dropped by 25 percent compared to the previous year. In contrast, the number of civilians killed by the Taliban increased 28 percent during the same time.
As the legal successor government to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin might best stick to highlighting civilian casualties in Libya’ civil war, its pet human rights cause this spring.

In pumping up NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Russian diplomats must think – or hope — we live in a world without memory.

Reality Check 2: During the nine year, 50 day Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, between 1 and 2 million Afghan civilians were killed. Since the Afghan population was 15.5 million in 1979, at the start of the war, let’s say the Soviet invasion led to the deaths of 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. With another 5 million fleeing to Pakistan and neighboring countries, about one third of the population became refugees. Another two million were internally displaced inside Afghanistan. So about half Afghanistan’s 15.5 million people were killed or forced to flee their homes.

A US soldier gestures as he guards a NATO compound in Kabul, Afghanistan AP

During the nine year and 213 day (as of Monday) American-led war in Afghanistan, total civilian deaths range from 14,000-34,000. Since Afghanistan’s current population is 28.4 million, let’s assume, for mathematical neatness, that 28,400 Afghan civilians have died during the decade since the Taliban were forced from power.

In the war between NATO and the Taliban, one out of 1,000 Afghan civilians have died.

In the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen, one out of 10 Afghan civilians died.

So, one can conclude that Washington’s war in Afghanistan is 100 times easier on the civilian population than Moscow’s war was.

But let’s drop the numbers and get on the ground.

In September 2002, I spent two weeks reporting newspaper stories in and around Kandahar.

Kandahar Airport was built in the late 1950s by the U.S. Government. During the Soviet period in Afghanistan, it became a key staging area for Soviet forces in southern Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, it became an international training center for Al Qaeda.

Kandahar’s three kilometer air strip is the key to supplying southern Afghanistan. The key to controlling the strip is to control a 15-kilometer perimeter zone around the airport. Mortars infiltrated into this zone threaten the air strip and the airplanes parked there.

One morning that September, I climbed into a United States Army humvee to ride along as American soldiers patrolled the perimeter zone. We passed the Tarnak Farms, a series of obstacle courses and firing ranges that Al Qaeda had used to train international jihadists.

After a few kilometers, our three humvee convoy rolled to a dusty stop at a baking hot village. Kids immediately ran out of their houses and gathered around the military vehicles. I soon saw why. Before leaving the base, the soldiers had thrown into their humvees several cardboard boxes. They were stuffed with small gifts collected and shipped from the soldiers’ hometowns, somewhere in the U.S.A.

Soon these beefy privates in flak jackets and helmets were handing out pens, school notebooks, and the occasional ball.
Meanwhile their officers had disappeared into a mud-walled house, where they sipped tea with elders and discussed, through an interpreter, civic action – well drilling, farm tools, jobs on the base. The trade off was clear: In return, alert us to all, absolutely all, outsiders who come into the area.

During a break in the tea drinking, I walked outside. Through an interpreter, I struck up a conversation with a farmer in his 40s, not old enough to be an elder, but old enough to remember the Soviet era.

How, I asked, were relations with the Soviet troops at Kandahar base?

There was no contact, but one. And he remembered that one very clearly. There had been a nighttime mortar attack on Kandahar airport from the vicinity of his village.

The next morning, Soviet tanks lined up on that ridge over there, he said, pointing to a slight rise with eucalyptus trees.

Then, the tanks shelled the village. Several hundred people, about 40 percent of the village population, were killed. The firing stopped. The tanks clanked back to the base.

Today, in the jockeying for influence in the post-Osama era, the Russians should remember that they return to Afghanistan with heavy historical baggage, marked USSR.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

13 responses to “Reality Check: Russian vs American record in Afghanistan”

  1. Pyotr says:

    The history of Russian people in 20th century was a line of mistakes beginning from the beginning of WWI. The line is not over yet. The modern RF government is truely the rightful successor of USSR communist click if not nominally but spiritually without doubt. Everyday I see Russia takes more and more after USSR, the restoration of one-party system de facto is over, RF is trying to prop all kinds of dictators like in Belarussia, Libya or Venecuela and so on while gradually extinguishing the rights and freedoms of its own people. I only hope the present russian rulers will not involve Russian people in a war like in Afghanistan to be resented by the whole world once again which will definitely be the end of Russia.

  2. Сергей says:

    Вы расскажите о сотнях миллионов убитых американцами в Японии, Корее, Вьетнаме. Расскажите о причинах войны в Афганистане, кто изначально провоцировал там бойню в 1979 году, расскажите о организованном вами наркотрафике в Россию и Европу. Лицемеры! Будьте вы прокляты, наследники и последователи Гитлира!

  3. wj says:

    >During the nine year, 50 day Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, between 1 and 2 million Afghan civilians were killed.
    1. Those numbers are obviously overestimated, and not provided with any solid proof.
    2. What percent of these civillians were killed by soviet troops?
    3. What percent of these civillians were killed by pre-talibs that were entirely supported and provided with weapons by American government?

    @Pyotr: When Soviets fought with islamists that was wrong, right? But when US now fighting with the very same islamists that is a good thing? How come?

  4. Lucky says:

    Ordinary(!) propaganda. 🙂
    Chewing gum for silly cows…
    Reed true in – “Afgantsy” by Sir Rodric Braithwaite!

  5. Pyotr says:

    to wj. The islamist the Soviets fought against hadn’t actually done Soviet Union any harm, right? They didnt try to blow up Kremlin, right? Soviet Union always declared that its army’s main purpose was to defend and never atack. That was a kind of apology for general conscription. Russian guys in Soviet Union didnt had a choice like Americans have now to serve or to stay home. Soviet soldiers didnt understand what they were fighting for. That is why the army quickly became demoralized and weak. After first atacks the only reason to fight for our guys was “an eye for an eye”. Soviet propaganda didnt help because this war contradicted the principles on which those guys were brought up. It contradicted itself. That is why Soviet war in Afghanistan was generally wrong imho. Americans declare now they fight terrorists and unhuman regime of Talibs. They fight for freedom of Afghan people and for their right to have democracy. I respect that. American sitizens have a right not to serve in the American army if they dont agree with their government’s decision to wage war against terrorism wherever it may occur. That’s why imho Americans fighting in Afghanistan are generally right.

  6. John Huffhines says:

    What can we do to defeat Russia’s Anti American plans?

  7. John Huffhines says:

    Very interesting. I don’t know what I can do to defeat Russia’s plans.

  8. Max says:

    Где ж такие цифры то взяли? От 1 миллиона до 2-х? и как то не верится что Американцы около 1000 человек. Они столько по убивали, когда ударили по свадебному кортежу,
    Во Вьетнаме янки применяли химическое оружие, по Японии ударили атомным оружием, хотя было видно, что Японии и деваться то некуда.

    Ты думаешь что американцы воюют за свободу? Ты слишком наивен. Рядовому американцу, как и рядовому солдату глубоко пофиг будет ли свобода в Афганистане, Ливии или где нить в Сомали. Пока это не касается национальной безопасности США. А “Национ-я безопасность”- это тот,критерий который определяется в Белом Доме и уже потом доводится до обычного жителя. Обычная такая,привычная для нас, пропаганда.
    Есть у меня знакомый американец, служивший в Афгане. Он сказал ,что после того как погибло 5 его друзей, он готов был убить всех афганцев. Для него главное было выжить, а не принести демократию в США. Для советского солдата тоже самое- после первого боя- выполнение интернационального долга перед афганскими товарищами,сменялось одним желанием0 выжить

  9. Pyotr says:

    Max, perhaps I am naive saying american soldiers are fighting for freedom, I do not insist that I know the truth. But I see that after american invasions germany, japan, south korea became fully fledged democracies economically developed and robust. I hope Iraq and Afganistan also will become at least “normal” democratic countries capable to control their own territories after americans leave. So the fruits of USA external politicis say for themselves – it is not so selfish after all imho. On the contrary, what about the countries SU has assisted to, militarily or otherwise? They still are trying to survive, like Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam. Others are bitter about SU role in their history like in Eastern Europe. How could Soviet Union make anybody in the world happy if it couldn’t provide its own people basic rights and freedoms, sometimes even food and security?

  10. Max says:

    Соединённые Штаты ничего не делают просто так. Последний транш за кредит, Германия перевела США в 2006 году. и это за кредит по плану Маршалла. Она расплачивалась больше 50 лет. Да, Германия, Япония и Южная Корея сейчас экономически развитые и демократические страны.Но не дорого ли они за это заплатили?(особенно Япония.) Можно,конечно, на это ответить, что шла война итп Это первый вопрос.
    Второй же: почему так поднялись только отдельные страны? И причём ВСЕГДА, противостоящие СССР? Возможно просто в них вкладывали деньги в обмен на лояльность? Но это отдельные,успешные примеры политики США. А вот другие- Вьетнам, Лаос… Я уж не говорю о действиях крупных американских ТНК в “банановых республиках”

    Что касается Ирака и Афганистана. Разве можно навязать свободу насильно? врят ли. Обычный афганец хочет ,прежде всего, жить хорошо и в своей стране. Ему плевать на свободу слова Зачем она, если всё устраивает? Разве нужен иракцу хаос в своей стране? А ,между тем, именно так и называется то,что происходит сейчас в Ираке.

    Что касается Кубы и Восточной Европы. Куба освободилась от власти Батисты. А ведь он ориентировался на США. . тогда ВЕСЬ кубинский народ поддерживал Кастро, но США пытались опять поставить своего диктатора( почитай документы, если не веришь) И даже сейчас кубинцев устраивает коммунизм, чем то , что им навязывала США.
    А Восточная Европа это совсем другой вопрос. Тут уже речь шла о национальной безопасности СССР Здесь СССР не церемонился, так же как сейчас США не церемонятся с теми , кто угрожает их безопасности. Прежде всего было важно оградить себя от НАТО. И даже не смотря, на эту первоочередную цель после войны мы им давали оч много. Один мал-кий фактик. СССР посылал им хлеб эшелонами, хотя у самого были проблемы с продовольствием

  11. HECK says:

    The Brits, Russians, and now the red white and blue (USA). After countless lives, A bankrupt Russia and a USA on the verge of the same. What is the answer and how can we avoid making the same mistake again. That is what we need to contemplate.
    The men we lost is a tragedy and its time to move on. Lets get our men back and put them to good use. The drug situation is now killing our only resource we have left, our kids.
    With one tenth what we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan we can man the borders, start new businesses fix our school system and repair our roads. That’s putting our dollars to work.
    The Brits,Russians,USA and countless other nations have tried and failed to teach Afghans how to create a social society and failed. Let them pray all they want. The world doesn’t need them or want them. Let Allah dictate which rock they eat today or tomorrow.
    Some one out there needs to explain how a country with massive debt like us can give billions of dollars to all these countries who would soon spit on our faces than shake our hands in gratitude.

  12. Что мне нравится в вашем блоге – так это постоянное развитие. Интересно читать.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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