Three months after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban. News reports from Kabul have vividly conveyed the sense of urgency and crisis in the country. For those who have experienced the war firsthand or those who remember the Vietnam War, the situation in Afghanistan will not feel like someone else’s business. I have somewhat mixed feelings when I think about the people left under the Taliban regime.
Afghanistan is so far away that without the war, we wouldn’t even know generally where the country was located. Surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and China, Afghanistan is an inland country, so it is not easy to get there over land. Due to its trapped geopolitical position, it was a place where the power of the Russian Empire and the British Empire, which took control of India, collided with each other in the 19th century. Thus, both empires decided to leave the land as a buffer zone, allowing Afghanistan to escape imperial rule. However, the subsequent history of Afghanistan is not so smooth. In the 20th century, we experienced the Soviet invasion and civil war, and in the early 21st century, we experienced the American invasion.
For Russians, Afghanistan remains a painful memory. Just as the memories of the Vietnam War are bitter for the U.S., the war against Afghanistan is bitter for Russia. In 1979, to support the pro-Soviet regime in Afghanistan, Gen. Leonid Brezhnev decided to invade Afghanistan. At the time, the Soviet Union was at the peak of its international stature during the Cold War, so no one could imagine that Soviet troops would struggle as much as they did in Afghanistan. Soviet troops, which entered the country, did not withdraw until 10 years later in 1989, in the wake of 15,000 Soviet casualties. Have you ever heard of a song called “Blood Type” by Yoon Do Hyun Band? The original song was sung by a Soviet rock band called Kino, led by Viktor Tsoi of Goryeo, in honor of Soviet soldiers who died in the Afghan war. Was the death of Soviet soldiers meaningful? The pro-Soviet communist regime, which was supported by the Soviet army, lasted 3 1/2 years after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, but eventually collapsed.
After the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, which supported al-Qaida, the organization behind the attack. The war that began appeared to produce a victory for the United States, but ultimately continued for 20 years. The U.S.-backed Afghan government handed Kabul over to the Taliban regime even before the withdrawal of U.S. troops was completed. This made Afghanistan the only country to win against both the Soviet Union and the United States.
For Russians, the current withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is like deja vu. “The U.S. should have learned from our experience,” they say, but inwardly they may also be critical because the U.S. has suffered the same failures the Soviet Union experienced. In the early days of the 2001 Afghan war, Russia actively provided information about Afghanistan to the United States, as if to reflect a friendly relationship with the United States. However, Russia, which is experiencing one of its worst relationships with the United States, may find an American failure broadcast to the entire world to its liking.
On the other hand, Russia may not be comfortable with the current situation, given the potential impact of the Afghan crisis on the former Soviet region, especially the Islamic countries in Central Asia. In particular, we cannot help but be wary of the possible spread of Islamic fundamentalism and conflict in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, countries which border Afghanistan. At this point, Russia is calmly watching the situation because it has opened a channel for dialogue with the Taliban regime and negotiated with them in advance, in line with its pragmatic form of diplomacy.