MOSCOW - It looks like a laughable mismatch: the world's sole remaining superpower pitted against one of the poorest countries on the planet. But if the United States invades Afghanistan, Russian military and civilian experts say, victory would not come cheap.
America might have an immense modern army, they say, but U.S. troops would have to learn to fight on the stony slopes of Afghanistan's mountains. They would be relentlessly harassed by snipers and sneak attacks. And they would face guerrilla forces second to none.
"I consider them the best soldiers in the world, when fighting in their own territory," said Viktor Baranets, a military journalist and retired Soviet Army colonel. "Afghanistan's soldiers would be invincible if they had Americans' weapons at their disposal."
Russia's military experts have a unique perspective on Afghanistan: Many, like Baranets, fought there during the Soviet Union's decade-long occupation - a conflict that ended in defeat, embittered a generation of Russians and helped accelerate the fall of the Soviet empire. Many are not sympathetic to the United States; America was one of the chief sponsors of the rebels fighting Soviet rule.
But, when pressed, here is their advice: First, the United States should try to cut the Taliban off from foreign support. American troops, they say, should stage major attacks on a few well-chosen targets rather than try to subdue the nation. Above all, they warn, United States should not get bogged down in a long conflict.
Most think America has a chance of winning. All say that war with Afghanistan could cost many American lives.
Through history, the Afghans have been battling invaders over control of their country, which sits astride the chief land route from Europe to India. In 1842, about 4,500 British troops marched over the Khyber Pass determined to install a friendly regime in Kabul. One returned to India alive.
Eighty thousand Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in late 1979 and set up a puppet government. By the time their last tank left over Afghanistan's northern border in 1989, the Soviets' will to fight was shattered after losing more than 15,000 soldiers. The Afghans are legendary warriors. One former Pakistani government official told the BBC this week that the Afghans "are only at peace when they are at war."
During their occupation, the Soviets controlled all of Afghanistan's cities, its airports and major roads. But Moscow could never stamp out the smoldering fires of resistance.
Alexander Romanenko, a former Soviet army colonel, helped lead the 1979 invasion and spent two years fighting the Afghans. Through the years of occupation, he said, each battle followed a bloody, predictable course:
Anywhere from a few Afghan rebels to several hundred would attack isolated outposts or ambush convoys on twisting mountain roads. After raking the Soviets with bullets and rockets, the rebels would disappear among the rocks before their bloodied adversaries could organize a counterattack or call for air support.
Snipers hid in the rocks, picking off stray Soviet soldiers. They shot down aircraft. They launched rocket attacks on camps by remote control. Never, Romanenko said, did they mount a large-scale attack on a major base.
As it did in Vietnam, the United States will probably try to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans. The support - or at least the neutrality - of ordinary Afghans could prove crucial. But persuading Afghans to accept an invading army will be difficult.
Dr. Habib Niazi, an exiled Afghan and founder of the Moscow-based Research Center for the Problems of Afghanistan, says that many of his countrymen are sick of the Taliban's strict Islamist rule. But an American invasion, he said, could rally them behind the Taliban.
He advises the United States to work with international groups to form a new government that Afghans can support. "If the United States takes only military action against Afghanistan, of course the reaction of the population will be negative," he predicted.
Russian military experts said the United States might first wipe out Afghanistan's small air force with long-range bombers and missiles, and then use captured air bases to launch further attacks.
But holding bases in Afghanistan, the Russians say, would require a major commitment. Although as many as 100,000 Soviet troops were in Afghanistan at one time, former Soviet officers say, only 15,000 were available for combat. The rest were tied up guarding bases, roads and cities.
A priority would be cutting the Taliban's supply lines. But Afghanistan shares long borders with Iran and Pakistan; both are likely to be the source of smuggled weapons.
The Russians say that hunting down Osama bin Laden will be tough. Baranets advises targeting the Taliban, leaving it up to their successors to surrender the suspected terrorist chief. "The main target of the operation should be the elimination of the Taliban as the chief military and political force," Baranets said.
No matter how it wages war in Afghanistan, Baranets cautioned, the United States takes a grave risk. "Based on the Soviet experience?" he asked. "I would say not to begin the war at all."
Some former Soviet commanders think the United States faces an easier task than the Kremlin did in the 1980s. Lt. General Boris Agapov, who served in Afghanistan from 1987 to 1989, pointed out that the Soviet Union was trying to pacify an entire nation and prop up an unpopular communist regime.
The Soviet army, Agapov told the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, didn't try to wipe out guerrilla forces; it merely harassed them with punitive raids. It attacked civilian populations, outraging ordinary Afghans. The Americans, Agapov said, have more limited goals, far more resources - and the determination to win.
"The United States is going to defeat Afghanistan," he predicted, "if they wage a real war."