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Russia's 'Great Gamble': Lessons From Afghanistan

Thirty years after Soviet tanks rumbled through Afghanistan, many of them are still strewn — wrecked and rusted — along the country's mountainsides, a reminder of a war the Russians withdrew from in humiliation.

The year was 1979. Communists had taken over the central government in Afghanistan and were aggressively modernizing the country — and taking land and killing landowners.

Meanwhile, at the Kremlin, Leonid Brezhnev, the head of the Communist Party, was quite ill. His aides were giving him very limited information about the unrest in Afghanistan. Instead, they talked of the need to intervene to spread a socialist revolution.

Gregory Feifer, NPR's Moscow correspondent, has written a new history of that war, The Great Gamble.

"The common view of the war was that it was a Soviet territorial grab. But the truth was much more confused," Feifer tells Renee Montagne.

Feifer says the Soviets actually spent about a year turning down requests from the Afghan communist government to bring in troops. Eventually, the Soviets decided to take action — by getting rid of the Afghan leader. After two bungled attempts to poison him, Moscow decided to send in troops — a kind of "inertia," Feifer says, surrounding these failed assassination attempts.

"There was no one decision to launch an invasion," he says.

A brutal and scarring experience for both Russian soldiers and the local population, the Soviet war in Afghanistan provides many lessons applicable to the current coalition war there.

"We have to do, essentially, the opposite of what the Soviets did," Feifer says. "We have to be incredibly sensitive to the needs of the local population. And our mission is to rebuild the society so that the government can be sustainable.

"It's an incredibly difficult task, but it's vital that we understand what happened in Afghanistan if we have any chance of succeeding now," he says.

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