In January 1980, I took a group of college students on a study tour of the Soviet Union. While we were in the air over the Atlantic, President Carter announced that the United States would not participate in the Olympics scheduled to be held in the USSR that summer. He did this in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979,
It was a tense time to be an American visiting the USSR. The Cold War had suddenly gotten much colder. Russia had spent many rubles building sports facilities for the games and many Soviet citizens thought that President Carter had cancelled the games and the USSR would lose money it had invested.
Restaurants, other than in our hotel, refused to serve Americans. A cleaning lady in the Moscow subway called us "Nazis, Nazis" when she saw our guide carrying a small American flag held high to keep our students together.
In Novgorod, a city of more than 100,000 people about halfway between St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) and Moscow, we were housed in the Intourist Hotel, the only one open to foreigners. Our first evening in that town, I received an invitation to visit with the manager of our hotel and the Communist Party secretary who ran the city.
We had a three-hour conversation in English and discussed many things of interest to both America and Russia. Their invasion of Afghanistan was the main topic of conversation.
Why had they invaded Afghanistan? I asked. The Communist officials said that Russia and Afghanistan have a treaty which says that Russia could enter Afghanistan any time when the stability of that country seems to be at risk. The Communist Party of Afghanistan had come into power in the past year but was so small it was losing control of the country. Russia invaded to provide stability, under that treaty.
I know about that treaty, I said. I read about it in the Washington Post. But that treaty was canceled by Afghanistan two decades or longer back. It is no longer in effect, so the Russian invasion was not legal, I replied. We had two different views of the same treaty. Who was right?
The secretary said something I will always remember. "You believe what you read in your newspapers. We believe what we read in ours."
How long will your troops be in Afghanistan, I asked. We will be out by summertime, the officials replied.
I told them I had heard the same type of comments all during our Vietnam War. Though promised many times, our military did not come home for 10 years.
The Soviet officials said over and over again, Afghanistan is not our Vietnam. But it was. They were there for eight years. The people back home lost support for the war, and veterans who came home after serving in Afghanistan, were not given heroic welcome like the soldiers of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is called in Russia.
At first in the United States, the returning Vietnam War veterans received only a cool reception from those citizens who strongly criticized the war. Later that reception changed to much warmer, so the U.S. and Soviet situations were not the same. But both were changing points in the history of each nation.
Some two decades later after my conversation with the Novgorod officials, the United States invaded Afghanistan, along with our NATO partners. Article 5 of the NATO treaty says that an attack on one member will be considered to have been an attack on all members. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and near Washington, members of NATO invoked that treaty to send troops into Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government which had openly supported Osama bin Laden.
In December 2001, the United Nations authorized the creation of an International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan. Today, that ISAF numbers 25,000 military, and U.S. forces add about 25,000 additional troops.
So we have been in Afghanistan for six years. The Taliban government was destroyed and a government headed by Hamid Karzai is in power. However, the Taliban seem to be making something of a comeback in the country’s south.
In addition to the military turmoil, Afghanistan is the world’s leading grower of the opium poppy, and drug sales are doing much to help the Taliban and other terrorists fight the United States and other members of the ISAF team.
Afghanistan was the Vietnam War for the Russians. Afghanistan may well be on its way to becoming a second Vietnam War for Americans. As long as the war against terrorists keeps us mainly occupied in Iraq, we seem not to be able to end the war in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan and Iraq will be two of the main problems facing the next president. And there are no easy solutions.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville.