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Russian presence returns to Afghanistan

| Sunday, March 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — To the white-bearded Afghan machinists, it felt like the Cold War era had suddenly returned.

After 25 years of working in a sprawling Soviet-built factory — a vestige of a war and occupation long extinguished — they spotted a shipment of gleaming Russian equipment arriving last fall on an 18-wheeler.

The factory was abuzz. The Russians were back.

As the U.S.-led war winds down and Russia reasserts itself in Ukraine and the Middle East, Moscow is ramping up its investment in Afghanistan. It is rebuilding the relics of the Soviet occupation and promoting its own political and cultural prowess.

“You see Russia's interest in Afghanistan rising. It's visible,” said Stepan Anikeev, spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Kabul. “We want to enlarge our role in the region. It's not only for Afghanistan, but for our own goals.”

Russia's recent incursion into its neighbor, Ukraine, and its annexation of Crimea reflect its intent to maintain influence in some former Soviet republics. It is reaching out to old allies further afield.

Last month, President Vladimir Putin received Egyptian army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whose relations with Washington have been strained since a coup last summer, and expressed support for the military man's expected presidential bid.

Moscow is negotiating a major arms deal with Sissi and agreed in 2012 to sell Iraq $4.3 billion in weapons.

In Syria, Putin is strongly backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad as he seeks to crush a rebellion that has received support from the West.

In Afghanistan, Russian officials point to their development activities as a counterexample to American aid projects, which many Afghans criticize as wasteful and misguided.

“The mistake of the last 12 years is that people were eager to give money, but without the proper strategy,” said Russian Ambassador Andrey Avetisyan, who was based in Kabul as a young diplomat in the 1980s.

Many Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, praise the Soviet model, even though they fought a bloody 10-year war against the country's army, which invaded in 1979 to support an unpopular communist government.

“The Soviet money went to the right place. They were efficient in spending their money and doing it through the Afghan government,” Karzai said in an interview with The Washington Post this month.

The new warmth between the Kremlin and Afghanistan was visible last week when the Afghan government released a message from Putin marking the Islamic new year.

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