Two years after Kabul was freed from the Taliban there's a sense of deja vu about Afghanistan. The striking comparison is not primarily with Iraq, although reminders of the trouble the Americans are having in Mesopotamia pop up constantly. Indeed, in some ways things are worse. Fighting is on a heavier scale, with US helicopters and aircraft conducting almost daily raids on Taliban groups. Swathes of the south have become no-go areas for UN aid workers and NGOs. More than 350 people have been killed by Taliban attackers or US air raids since August, a death toll greater than in Iraq.
No, Kabul today bears a strong resemblance to the Kabul of 1981. This time the men setting the model are American rather than Russian, but the project for secular modernization which Washington has embarked on is eerily reminiscent of what the Soviet Union tried to do. Schools, hospitals, electrification, rights for women, an expansion of education -- it's the same mix as the Russians were encouraging. Moscow's aid came within the framework of a one-party state and national control of fledgling industry as opposed to today's liberal democracy and an open door for private investors; but for most Afghans, then as now, the ideological trappings matter less than the practical results and the amount of money put to work.
Kabul's two campuses thronged with women students, as well as men, in 1981. Most went around without even a headscarf. Hundreds went off to Soviet universities to study engineering, agronomy and medicine. The banqueting hall of the Kabul hotel pulsated most nights to the excitement of wedding parties. The markets thrived. Caravans of painted lorries rolled up from Pakistan, bringing Japanese TV sets, video recorders, cameras and music centers. The Russians did nothing to stop this vibrant private enterprise.
Of course, Kabul was an invaded city, but most residents did not seem worried. Baghdad-style bomb attacks on Soviet troops were rare and the mujahidin who fought the Russians in the countryside never approached the capital. Unlike the Americans in Iraq, the Russians had enough intelligence from locals to forestall sabotage attempts.
I was no supporter of the Soviet invasion. Although nominally a response to an invitation from Afghan leaders, the dispatch of Soviet troops in December 1979 was illegal and foolish, as I vigorously argued against an official from the Soviet embassy at a protest meeting at the London School of Economics a few days later. But what I saw in 1981, and on three other visits to several cities over the 14 years that the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was in charge, convinced me that it was a much less bad option than the regime on offer from the Western-supported mujahidin.
It's a view that surfaces continually.
"Those were the best times," said Latif Anwari, a translator with an NGO in Mazar. Now in his late 30s, he studied engineering in Odessa from 1985 to 1991.
"There was no fighting, everything was calm, the factories were working," he said. I asked him about Mohammed Najibullah, the PDPA leader who ruled for more than three years after Soviet troops withdrew. He's universally known as "Dr. Najib." "He's still popular. If Dr. Najib were a candidate in the presidential elections, he would easily win. No one likes the mujahidin," Latif said.