Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Cold War flashbacks as Americans rebuild Soviet tunnel in Afghanistan
Under blazing June sunshine in the Hindu Kush mountains, U.S., Russian and Afghan officials gathered by the entrance of the Salang tunnel, arguably the most important stretch of highway in Afghanistan, linking the country’s south with its north.
They had come to celebrate emergency repair works carried out by the U.S. government on the 2.6 km (1.6 miles) of concrete passageway that the Soviets built in 1962. Constantly congested and leaking, the tunnel is on the brink of collapse.
But what happened next was a repeat of Cold War dynamics, unfolding in a country where Soviet forces made a dispirited 1989 exit after a decade-long war against U.S.-backed mujahideen.
Twenty-two years later, the United States will soon begin a troop withdrawal from the increasingly unpopular NATO-led war now in its tenth year.
“This tunnel is an example that the American people are committed to working in partnership with the Afghans,” U.S. envoy to Kabul Karl Eikenberry told swarms of local media by the tunnel’s cracked oval mouth.
As reporters and Afghan officials ventured into the mud-lined tunnel to admire the Americans’ repair work, such as lighting and plugging leaks, A Russian official on the sidelines started to grumble.
“We should be the ones repairing this, not them,” said the official from the Russian embassy in Kabul, who did not wish to be named.
Using their knowledge gained from burrowing through the mountains of Soviet Central Asia, the tunnel is one of many significant infrastructure projects the Soviets built in the decades leading up to their 1979 invasion.
“It’s our tunnel. We built it, we have the planning documents, and the engineers who did it are still alive. Why aren’t we doing this?”
His comments echo a well-shared sentiment amongst Russians, who feel hard done by when it comes to their Afghan experience. They were also reminiscent of the Cold War foes’ fight for influence in Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union invaded out of fear the United States would stick its nose in its backyard.
As the head of the Afghan Veterans’ Union told Reuters in an interview, the United States made a mistake by not consulting Russia ahead of entering into a war in a country they knew little about.
At the Salang tunnel, Russian Ambassador Andrey Avetisyan also took to the podium to praise the American repair work. But in stark contrast to Eikenberry, Avetisyan – like most Russian officials stationed in Kabul – addressed the crowd in fluent Dari, causing the Afghan journalists to rip off their headsets with glee.
The difference between the Cold War foes’ military presence in Afghanistan is regularly pointed out by Afghans and Russians alike. Avetisyan described the Afghans’ view of the Soviets as a relationship remembered through rose-tinted glasses.
Housing, large cinema halls and hospitals built across the country by the Soviets are singled out by ordinary Afghans when cozily remembering the war. They often accuse the U.S. force of not building enough.
Though Russia has offered to rebuild Soviet-era infrastructure across the country if the international community footed the bill, the West is yet to take them up on it. “They don’t want Russians here,” the official added.
It seems the Cold War in Afghanistan is not yet over.