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Afghanistan Is Like Nothing You've Ever Seen, Soviet Vets Say

AFTER THE ATTACK | MILITARY OPTIONS

Strategy: Soldiers who fought there warn the U.S. to expect daily deliveries of coffins and few targets other than villages.

September 19, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He learned this his first day in Afghanistan when he entered a family's hut. The poverty was more than he could fathom. There was no furniture. No light. The only object inside was a copy of the Koran, tucked into an alcove.

"I asked an old man, 'Why do you live in such conditions? Don't you want to do something to improve your lot?' " Lisinenko said. "But the man replied, 'Don't you understand that the worse we live in this world, the better our lives will be in paradise? We don't want the same things in life that you want.' "

That's when Lisinenko said he began to understand that Western ideas of warfare might not succeed in Afghanistan. How do you battle a foe who has so little to protect in this world? A person who may believe a greater good will come from sacrificing himself, his home, his family? How do you vanquish an enemy for whom categories of defeat and victory, life and death do not match yours?

"Nothing we know works in their world," he said.

Lisinenko left Afghanistan two years later with a wounded leg and a shattered spirit. These days, the 39-year-old runs a tea bag company and represents a district of Moscow in Russia's lower house of parliament.

The lesson they learned in Afghanistan, the veterans said, is that actions to stop terrorism more often have the opposite effect.

They urged the United States to accompany military action with economic aid and forswear a bombing campaign.

"The Afghans will stop fighting each other and join together to fight you," said Izmailov, former battalion commander. "You need courage, but not to drop bombs. What you need courage for is to not drop bombs. Otherwise, your war will be endless."

And though veterans of the Afghan conflict point out that the U.S. bought the bullets for the moujahedeen who killed their comrades, Lisinenko said most wouldn't wish an Afghan war on their worst enemy.

"Don't do it like we did. Don't do it like you did in Vietnam," he said. "Don't listen to me if you don't want. Listen to your own people, those who fought in Vietnam. . . . They'll tell you the same things."

Sergei Loiko and Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this story.

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