When the Soviet military occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, Andrey Avetisyan served as a young diplomat in Kabul who witnessed a war that ultimately ended with a humiliating Soviet withdrawal.
Today, he is back in Kabul, this time as the Russian ambassador. And his advice to the United States is not to pull out of Afghanistan precipitously.
Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, who is reporting from Afghanistan this month, sat down with Avetisyan and asked him about the U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the 1960s, when the superpowers were competing to help develop a poor — but peaceful — Afghanistan.
Andrey Avetisyan: This is the best weapon you can choose in any kind of war — development — because what Afghanistan needed then and what Afghanistan still needs now is development, not fighting. I wouldn't call this situation, the international situation, around Afghanistan in the '60s, a Cold War. It was competition, healthy competition. And both sides, the Soviet Union and the U.S.A., tried their best to help these people, to show them that their way of development, social system, was better. And that was the competition, the fighting that could have done something to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it stopped later then, but in the '60s, it was golden time for Afghanistan.
Renee Montagne: So in the'60s and the late '50s, you had Helmand province being something of a little America. A lot of development going on — schools, English, young girls being taught, and taught in English. A big dam being built to provide electricity, which even today could provide an enormous amount of electricity for Afghanistan if fighting wasn't preventing it. And then the Soviets, for your part, built a famous tunnel, a really important tunnel [the Salang Tunnel] that was needed.
Avetisyan: Absolutely, and a couple of things that are still working now are those built by the Soviets. Bread is produced by the silo built in Kabul by the Soviet Union. Some fertilizers are produced in Mazar-e-Sharif by the fertilizer factory built by the Soviet Union. So, a lot of important projects were implemented here, even in the '80s, during the fighting.
Montagne: People seem to be very fond of comparing this current conflict to the Soviet-Afghanistan war. It seems to me that there are some very important differences, although in the end, what are the similarities?
Avetisyan: Similarities [are] those who decided to go into Afghanistan to fight terrorism hoped for several months — exactly like the Soviet Union, which didn't want to be involved here for so many years. But they were dragged deeper and deeper into this, and in a couple of years' time found themselves in the midst of internal conflict. So, fighting in Afghanistan is not what you think it's going to be. So, what is the end to this? Just withdraw? I think premature withdrawal now will bring a lot of problems, new internal war, new civil war to Afghanistan. It is a very dangerous thing just to put yourself a date, artificially calculated, and then withdraw. I don't think today the circumstances are right for withdrawal of the international forces and transition of responsibility for the security to the Afghan security forces. They're not yet ready.
Montagne: Speaking as the Russian ambassador, who was here during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, you'd say now's not the time to get out precipitously.
Avetisyan: Because the job is not done yet. But I'm afraid with the troops drawdown, economic assistance will go as well. Instead, what Afghanistan needs is an increase of development assistance, not just aid money, because we saw billions of them disappearing through the sands of Helmand and other sandy parts of the country. That is not what is needed, pouring Afghanistan with dollars, but giving it to the government in return shows a clear development strategy, but the government must be held responsible for it.
Montagne: Does President [Hamid] Karzai have the will, or the power, to actually change the way the government is being run now, which is widely known to be quite incompetent and corrupt?
Avetisyan: Well, he has all the power he needs by the constitution.
Montagne: But will he do that? Will he do what needs to be done?
Avetisyan: I think if the international community decided to support this government, it must support it in everything, and if they make mistakes — of course they make mistakes because it is an [experiment] in general government, with very able ministers, but generally with very little expertise — they must be helped, supported. A school here, a dam there is not what Afghanistan needs. It needs real development as a country, with infrastructure projects. Not just roads that are needed for foreign tanks to go somewhere, but for the future of the economic development of this country. Not a single big infrastructure project was implemented for the past 10 years.
Montagne: Although the ring road, which is really key to allowing goods and services and people to travel around Afghanistan, a road that, by the way, was originally partly built by the Americans and the Soviets back in the 50s and 60s, that road was repaired and put back into service but the use of it has been thwarted by fighting along the road, where people cant really get on it and travel on it.
Avetisyan: Yes, of course. Without the security situation no serious company will come and put money into it. I had this problem in attracting Russian companies in Afghanistan, like Lada, they were very worried about security and they just don't waste money building things that will be destroyed tomorrow.
Montagne: After the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in the late '80s, in '89, it might have stayed committed to Afghanistan in terms of development and helping with development, but it was actually unable to, because the Soviet Union, pretty shortly after that, broke apart.
Avetisyan: Absolutely. The Soviet Union made a huge mistake sending troops to Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union paid a huge price for this mistake. Russia prefers to learn from the mistakes of the past and we will never send our troops to Afghanistan.
Apart from this, we are ready and already cooperating with Afghanistan on everything. We support the army and police, we support international coalition here, because we share the goals of fighting against terrorism and international crime. For us, drugs are even more important. Every year about 30,000 Russians die from Afghan heroin. Russia can't be involved in Afghanistan from a distance because we are members of the region. We are here. We can't go anywhere like many countries involved now can.
Montagne: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much.
Avetisyan: Thank you, thank you, it's been a pleasure.