Russia sees dialogue opportunity with Taliban decades after its own messy Afghanistan exit

As the United States continues to manage the fallout from its withdrawal from Afghanistan, in Moscow there's a sense of deja vu. Russia's departure after the Soviet war there led to a protracted period of chaos and civil war, which culminated with the U.S. invasion in 2001. But Russian veterans see some essential differences between both withdrawals. Special correspondent Stuart Smith reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the United States continues to manage the fallout from its withdrawal from Afghanistan, in Moscow, there's a sense of deja vu.

    The war the Soviet Union fought there lasted for a decade, from 1979 to 1989. But Russian veterans who were there as the USSR left see some essential differences between the Soviet and the American withdrawals.

    Special correspondent Stuart Smith in Moscow reports.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Withdrawals from Afghanistan echo throughout history. Before the U.S., it was the Soviets, who left in 1989, 10 years after they'd invaded on Christmas Eve, 1979. Officially, they had been invited by the socialist Afghan government to help fight the mujahideen and set up a 16th republic of the Soviet Union, partly because Soviet officials worried Afghanistan's new leaders would start to forge closer ties with the United States.

    After a bloody decade and heavy Soviet losses, troops withdrew. These paintings rendered by those who fought there are on display at Russia's Union of Afghan Veterans.

    Here, members work to help fighters of Moscow's old war and pass on what they have learned to young Russians.

  • Andrey Kuznetsov, Russian Army Veteran (through translator):

    You see the words, glory to the soldiers of the fatherland, glory to the sons of the motherland? See, this is how we left. And, today, the Americans just ran away, and that's it.

  • Stuart Smith:

    Andrey Kuznetsov fought as a paratrooper for the Soviet Union. When he compares the recent American withdrawal to the Soviet one, he sees a stark difference.

  • Andrey Kuznetsov (through translator):

    When, in 1989, the withdrawal operation was being prepared, it was orderly. And if you watch archive footage of those events, you will see along the whole route of the Soviet army big celebrations.

    Soviet soldiers were congratulated. There was this unity in peace and friendship. There was rejoicing, and there was no such disgrace that's happening in Afghanistan today.

  • Stuart Smith:

    The government Moscow left in place teetered for three years. Then the country collapsed into a brutal civil war that ended when the Taliban came to power for the first time in 1996.

    Kuznetsov has sympathy for the U.S. soldiers who fought over the past two decades, one veteran to another.

  • Andrey Kuznetsov (through translator):

    Our problems are the same. Life and chores. You have been used. You have gone through all that, and then comes a new step.

  • Stuart Smith:

    From 1979 to 1989, 15,000 soldiers died and 35,000 were wounded in Afghanistan. It's estimated that more than one million Afghans died in that war. Millions more fled the country.

    Snapshots of the decade-long conflict are on display at the Afghan War Museum in Moscow. Igor Yerin has collected weapons, armor, posters, and books to keep alive the memory of his friends and colleagues often donated by their families.

  • Igor Yerin, Veteran (through translator):

    Parents often don't have much. Some don't even have photos of their children in military uniforms, only in civilian clothes, because many didn't have the time to get photographed before quickly being sent to Afghanistan, where they were killed in battle.

  • Stuart Smith:

    But he believes there's a fundamental difference between the motivations of his comrades and those of U.S. troops.

  • Igor Yerin (through translator):

    Their duty is completely different. Don't confuse that. They are mercenaries. They do it for money. We did it out of patriotic duty.

  • Stuart Smith:

    In the visitor's book, you can read the comments of soldiers who came to the museum to seek answers and compare their experiences in Afghanistan. Yerin fears the story of Russian involvement in the country is not over yet.

  • Igor Yerin (through translator):

    It's unpleasant for us that this all was happening on the border of the former Soviet Union, because this can grow bigger and spill over, which we wouldn't want. This would mean more victims, a new war, new refugees again. America is very far away, and other countries are very close by.

  • Stuart Smith:

    For the Kremlin, the change in the balance of power in the Middle East means a change of approach is on the horizon.

    Russia has learned painful lessons from Afghanistan, ones which the U.S. is grappling with today. But with the tides now turned, Moscow sees opportunity in what it views as America's humiliation.

    To do that, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees talking to the Taliban as a necessity.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    The quicker the Taliban joins the family of, let's say, civilized nations, the easier it will be to contact, communicate, somehow influence them and ask questions, and if not demand, remind them that civilized relations require obeying civilized rules.

    In case of disintegration, there would be nobody to talk to. That is a threat to our neighbors and allies.

  • Stuart Smith:

    The fact that Russia is maintaining dialogue with Taliban representatives has incensed today's opposition Communist Party, the diminished descendant of those in charge 40 years ago.

  • Valery Rashkin, Lawmaker, Communist Party (through translator)):

    This is a disaster. I cannot imagine how the Taliban organization banned in Russia, banned in Russia, how you can interact with and meet with them.

    You guys tell me this organization is prohibited by law. How can you meet them? How can you negotiate with them? They cut off heads. They shoot. They cut people like animals.

  • Stuart Smith:

    At the museum in Moscow, American Cold War propaganda posters now ring darkly ironic. To many Russians, the message shown here is now reversed. And Russians know that conflicts have consequences. The failure of the Soviet-Afghan war helped bring about the collapse of the USSR.

    Afghanistan leaves an imprint on every foreign power that intervenes in it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stuart Smith in Moscow.

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