MOSCOW — It has been more than a month since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Sergei Opalev is still trying to wrap his head around the chaotic end to America’s 20-year war.
It’s not the defeat that confounds him — he understands that part all too well. Opalev served as a captain in the Soviet army as it was gradually humbled by Afghan mujahedeen fighters during a decade of war in the 1980s.
The problem, he says, is how U.S. forces left.
“It’s just a fact that if you want to evacuate a division, you need a week,” says Opalev, who was among the last Soviet soldiers to withdraw from Afghanistan. “If you pull out an army of tens of thousands, you need a year.”
As the United States grapples with the fallout from its exit from Afghanistan, former soldiers who fought as part of the USSR’s own losing military campaign see echoes in their experiences — similar searing loss — but also evidence of American miscalculation that casts the Soviet experience in a more flattering light.
Moreover, perceptions of missteps in the U.S. withdrawal have played into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wider efforts to rehabilitate aspects of Soviet history.
The Soviets fashioned a made-for-TV exit
Take the final days of the Soviet pullout from Afghanistan in 1989. The pullout was once viewed as a moment of national humiliation, but Russian veterans say it now looks more impressive and orderly in comparison with America’s hurried exit.
Soviet state television coverage of the final day shows popular crooner Iosif Kobzon in the Afghan border town of Hairatan to entertain troops. Soldiers shine their boots in anticipation of reunions with family members.
The footage culminates in this scene: On Feb. 15, 1989, the last tanks and trucks cross a bridge from northern Afghanistan into Uzbekistan, then a Soviet republic. They are followed by a lone figure on foot: Soviet Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov.
“I can say that not one soldier remains behind me,” Gromov tells a Soviet reporter on the scene. Soon, the general is joined by his young son, and the two walk arm in arm into Soviet territory.
The event was — of course — staged. Neither were Gromov’s words entirely true: Several hundred Soviet troops were still missing in action.
Yet, today, Opalev says he finds it an appropriate end to a decade of war.
“The main thing was that it was organized. From our perspective, the evacuation was done just right,” he says. “We left civilian infrastructure but took every tank and machine gun with us.”
The Soviet retreat was necessary. It was also methodical. For reasons Opalev still can’t understand, the American exit wasn’t. See the full article