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‘Different guns, different uniforms, but it’s the same war’

Army veteran and museum manager Igor Yerin: ‘They have fought against occupiers for centuries, and they will continue to fight,’ he says of Afghans.

Vladic Ravich/The Globe and Mail

It is early in the afternoon, but Igor Yerin has to turn on the lights – he doesn't get many visitors to the tiny Soviet Afghanistan War Museum he manages on the outskirts of Moscow.

This weekend, however, veterans will gather here to commemorate the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the last week of December, 1979.

To many in Russia, the disastrous war that resulted belongs to another era, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and two wars in Chechnya.

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But for vets like the 50-year-old Mr. Yerin, who served as a sergeant in the Soviet Army in the mid-1980s, the conflict remains a life-altering event and an important lesson.

Most exhibits in the three-room museum are memorials to those killed in action – just over 15,000 Soviet dead in a struggle that lasted nearly a decade. Estimates of Afghan casualties range into the millions.

On display are bullet-riddled helmets, crutches and even soldiers' guitars, along with photographs of mine-sniffing German shepherds and leaflets showing the rebel mujahedeen being given money by American agents.

This is obviously wartime propaganda, but based on fact: Russians often remind American visitors that the U.S. financed and armed Osama bin Laden and his fellow rebels during their war of resistance.

Scarred by their experience, Russians doubt West will win

Today, many Russians are sharply pessimistic about the chances of a positive outcome for NATO's conflict with the Taliban, and Mr. Yerin is no exception.

"You're making all the same mistakes. They know how to fight invaders and they will always do it," he says.

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"We both tried to put boots on their feet – different guns, different uniforms, but it's the same war."

He equates the defence of communism with NATO's claim to set up a democracy. Both ideologies have been represented by appealing slogans and promises, and yet he believes that neither one resonates with the conservative, clan-based culture of Afghanistan.

"They have fought against occupiers for centuries, and they will continue to fight until you leave."

Since the invasion in 2001, coalition forces have recorded 3,245 fatalities, according to iCasualties, an independent agency that also tracks the human toll in Iraq.

U.S. losses alone surpass 2,000 and, since the start of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, 17,674 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action, according to the Defence Department.

In many respects, the Soviet Union had an advantage with its invasion because of its proximity and ethnic connections.

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Unlike the United States and NATO, which must supply and manage the war from halfway around the globe, the Soviet action took place along its southern border. The coalition now uses an extensive Northern Distribution Network to supply its troops. One route follows railway lines built by the invading Russians, while others require co-operation from a host of countries the Soviet Union had no need to negotiate with, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Pakistan.

Likewise, the NATO coalition must hire and train – and trust – translators, while Soviet commanders could draw upon ethnic groups such as Uzbeks and Tajiks within their own borders.

As well, Soviet political and military leaders were more insulated from the political ramifications of a brutal war.

"Soviet soldiers fought like this – they said, 'If we wanted to take that hill, we took that hill.' Americans don't do it like that," says Vladimir Vasilievich Voshevoz, 56, a battalion commander in Afghanistan from 1986 to 1988.

"Maybe it's not exactly right … but for us, it turned out like this – lives weren't especially valued. Whether that's right or wrong, who knows?"

According to Mr. Voshevoz, "We certainly did try to save lives, but that didn't always work out, to say the least. But for you guys, it doesn't always work out, either. War is war. It doesn't happen without loss."

He continues to make trips to Afghanistan for a documentary he is making and has encountered former friends and foes alike. "They have been fighting all their lives," he says.

Another striking difference between the wars was the Soviet Union's consistent efforts to display Soviet and Afghan unity. The peak of this propaganda was in the final years of the war, just before Soviet forces had to withdraw from the quagmire.

When Mr. Yerin approaches the final room of the museum, he turns and suddenly asks, "Did you know we shot an Afghan into space?"

The Afghan was a celebrated combat pilot named Abdul Ahad Momand. He was chosen for cosmonaut training and launched into space for nine days in 1988. Stamps, books, posters and pins were produced to show the union of these neighbouring nations, even as they were locked in a war of attrition.

Mr. Yerin points out the centrepiece of this collection, a book of technical diagrams of the Mir space station labelled in various Afghan languages.

By the time the war was lost, the cosmonaut was a member of the Soviet-installed cabinet and had to flee to Germany. According to Mr. Yerin, the stigma of co-operation would endanger all Afghans.

"Anyone with American contacts will be dead in a few years if they don't leave," he says, when asked for advice he would offer NATO and American policy makers as they prepare to withdraw combat troop in years ahead.

Then he says with a shrug: "We were only there for nine years and you're going on 12. What can we tell you that you haven't already learned?"

Vladic Ravich is a U.S,-based freelance writer and contributor to Olga Belogolova is a staff reporter at National Journal magazine in Washington, D.C.

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