Like the Americans in Vietnam, Soviet commanders thought that superior firepower would be enough to defeat the Afghan mujahideen. Instead, they discovered that the enemy fought in small units and were adept at exploiting rugged terrain. Although they themselves were laying millions of mines throughout Afghanistan, the Soviets discovered that their lightly-armoured vehicles were almost useless when they ran over mines. Like the Americans, the Soviets lashed out with indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment. As in Vietnam, prisoners were often thrown out of helicopters, rather than being carefully exploited as intelligence assets. Many Russian conscripts sought refuge in the opiates which the Afghans offered, just as drugs became rife among US troops in Vietnam two decades before. Some 14,000 Soviets were killed, along with perhaps a million Afghans.
The Carter administration welcomed the Soviet invasion as a form of payback for earlier Soviet assistance to the North Vietnamese. Along with China, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the US funnelled money to the mujahideen, eventually arming them with sophisticated, portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Western journalists of a gung-ho disposition sang the praises of bearded barbarians who tortured and decapitated Russians. The cries of "Allahu akbar" when those missiles struck their target sound more sinister, viewed from today's perspective, than when they boosted staff morale in Ronald Reagan's Oval Office.
Whereas Lyndon Johnson's domestic policies were thwarted by the quagmire in Vietnam, a new Soviet leader recognised that ending the Afghan war might facilitate liberalising reform. In 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev resolved gradually to withdraw his forces, while the war against the mujahideen was Afghanisised, albeit with huge Soviet aid. This enabled the successive regimes of Barbak Kamal (murdered) and Mohammed Najibullah to limp along for several years, until Najibullah was captured by the Taliban and left hanging with his penis stuffed in his mouth. Osama bin Laden hubristically claimed that "he" had defeated a superpower.
Read what you like into this history, but none of its echoes bode well as UN-sanctioned coalition forces flounder about in Afghanistan, whose people seem congenitally incapable of assuming responsibility for themselves. Perhaps our responsibility to ourselves should be to leave them to it.