Afghans mark Soviet withdrawal as US negotiates its own exit

KATHY GANNON and RAHIM FAIEZ
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Afghanistan-Soviet Withdrawal Anniversary

FILE - In this Feb. 7, 1989 file photo. a Soviet soldier waves as his armored convoy makes its way back to the Soviet Union along a north Afghanistan highway. Afghanistan is marking the 31st anniversary of the Soviet Union's last soldier leaving the country, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. This year's anniversary comes as the United States negotiates its own exit after 18 years of war, America's longest. (AP Photo/Boris Yurchenko, File)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan on Saturday marked the 31st anniversary of the last Soviet soldier leaving the country. This year's anniversary came as the United States negotiates its own exit after 18 years of war, America's longest.

Some of the same Afghan insurgent leaders who drove out the former Soviet Union have been fighting the U.S., and have had prominent seats at the negotiating table during yearlong talks with Washington's peace envoy.

Moscow pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, a decade after invading the country to support an allied communist government. Afghan mujaheddin, or holy warriors, received weapons and training from the U.S. throughout the 1980s to fight the Red Army. Some of those mujaheddin went on to form the Taliban.

The U.S. and the Taliban agreed Friday to a temporary truce. If successful, it could open the way for another historic withdrawal that would see all American troops leave the country.

The chief negotiator for the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was once an American ally against the Soviets. So was another Taliban negotiator, Khairullah Khairkhwa. He spent 12 years detained at Guantanamo Bay until his release in 2014 in exchange for U.S. Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl.

The Taliban are now at their strongest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan ousted them from power.

Kabul's streets were quiet Saturday, normally the busy start of the Afghan workweek. There were no official public celebrations marking the anniversary, and most people took the holiday off.

Shakeb Rohin was only seven years old when the Soviets pulled out. Now a graduate of Kabul University's economics department, he said he can't remember the Soviet occupation. Since then, he said he's witnessed only war.

“We are so tried of war, we want a peaceful solution for Afghanistan’s problems,” he said.

Abdul Shakor Ahmadi, 56, recalled how people were very happy on the day of the pullout. But he said the civil war that followed was worse.

With the Cold War over, the U.S. lost interest in Afghanistan. The mujaheddin government — which included many of the warlords in Kabul today — eventually turned their guns on each other in the early 1990s. The fighting killed tens of thousands of civilians. It also led some former mujaheddin to regroup into the Taliban, who rose to power in 1996 and implemented a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.

“I hope peace comes this time ,” Ahmadi said. “At least once in our lifetime we would be able to see peace in our country. We're so worried about the future of our children.”

It's unclear when newly brokered truce will take effect. The peace deal would call for negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month. It would also set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorist groups like al-Qaida.

Amin Mohammadi, a shopkeeper in Kabul, remained pessimistic. "Most people are jobless, no one has enough money to come and buy things. I don’t want to celebrate anything."

“The Soviets withdrew, but what was the benefit?"

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Gannon reported from Islamabad,