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In the spring of 1983, I boarded a train for Kazakhstan along with other Lithuanians drafted into the Soviet military. Once there, we were to receive our orders for deployment to Afghanistan, where the Red Army was bogged down in what was to become one of the most notorious wars of the modern age.

As luck would have it, our commanding officer liked a drink, so once we got to Almaty, then Kazakhstan’s capital, we plied him with as much vodka as poorly paid conscripts could afford. He got so drunk that he passed out and didn’t wake up until our transport to Afghanistan was long gone.

We let him sleep, of course, and we never did get sent to fight the Afghans. We sat out the war, which helped bring down the Soviet Union, in Karaganda, far from the fighting.

Almost two decades later, I was sent to Kabul as the European Union’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Every conversation I have with the Afghan people is informed by the intervening years, when I was on the frontline of Lithuania’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union. It is that experience, fighting for the freedom and future of my own country, that helps me understand where Afghanistan finds itself today, on the precipice

My father and his parents were on the first train of deportees sent to Siberia, and they spent five years in the frozen labor camps between Kasnojarsk and Irkutsk. My mother was shot twice and has carried the bullets in her chest all her life—as souvenirs, we like to say. The family’s land was confiscated.

During my two years as a Soviet soldier, I had to attend regular political indoctrination sessions, where we were told that the war in Afghanistan was one of “liberation.” We had heard that one before, when the Soviets supposedly “liberated” Lithuania after the war.

After returning home, I studied law at Vilnius University, where I discovered Thomas Jefferson, who swore “upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” To this day I keep a picture of the man who drafted the U.S. Declaration of Independence on my desk as a reminder that freedom is everyone’s right.

In 1990, a year before the Soviet Union disintegrated, Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare independence. But it was almost two years before Washington recognized Lithuania as an independent country. During that time, my colleagues and I feared that it would all unravel, that freedom was for others but not for Lithuanians. History, it turns out, was on our side.

It is my belief that history will also prove to be on Afghanistan’s side. Now, two decades later, we can look back and understand how painful the Soviet war in Afghanistan was, but we can also see that it helped to undermine the Soviet Union. Afghanistan shook the foundations of the communist giant and enabled the Baltics to become free again. It is an achievement Afghan people can be proud of.

They can also be proud of the achievements of the past 10 years, since the Taliban were pushed from power and the Afghan people once more became masters of their own destiny. Many Afghans tell me that they worry their gains will be lost, given the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO combat troops and knowing that violent insurgency will continue for some time after that. One young man, citing the doomsayers, told me that if Afghans are constantly told their situation is hopeless, eventually it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that they will lose hope.

He has no reason to lose hope, but he does need to be vigilant. Only Afghans can determine the type of country they want for themselves and for their children. In pursuing freedom from tyranny, they have the wholehearted support of the international community, and the goodwill of all right-thinking people.


Mr. Usackas is the European Union’s ambassador and special representative to Afghanistan. He previously served as Lithuania’s foreign minister and its ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom.