Category Archives: USSR

The Last Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan, 1989

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4897-4916:

At nine o’clock Gromov called in his adjutant to check that his uniform was in order and at nine thirty he gave the order to move. The battalion’s armoured personnel carriers passed before him on to the bridge. Some of the soldiers were weeping. At nine forty-five Gromov followed them in his command vehicle, carrying the banner of the 40th Army. It was the last vehicle across. The withdrawal was complete.

The other side of the river was crowded with local Party and government officials, hundreds of Soviet and foreign journalists, and the relatives of soldiers who had not returned, hoping against hope to get news that they had perhaps been found safe and well at the last minute. Among the crowd was Alexander Rozenbaum, a young journalist from Severny Komsomolets, the Archangel youth newspaper. Fifty-nine boys from Archangel had been killed in Afghanistan and Rozenbaum’s moving report of the ceremony at the bridge ended with the questions which everyone was now asking: Why did we go in? Who are the guilty men?

People embraced the soldiers, kissed them, threw flowers under the tracks of their vehicles. Gromov’s son Maksim was there, and ran to embrace him. Then there were speeches, a meal in a nearby café for the officers. Gromov phoned Yazov, who congratulated him unenthusiastically. And then, apart for the administrative chores, it was all over.

Even now the official press was still peddling the old myths. In those very last days Pravda wrote, ‘An orchestra played as the Nation welcomed the return of her sons. Our boys were coming home after fulfilling their international obligations. For 10 years Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan repaired, rebuilt, and constructed hundreds of schools, technical colleges, over 30 hospitals and a similar number of nursery schools, some 400 blocks of flats and 35 mosques. They sank dozens of wells and dug nearly 150 km of irrigation ditches and canals. They were also engaged in guarding military and civilian installations in trouble.’

But there was no one from Moscow to greet the soldiers at the bridge – no one from the Party, no one from the government, no one from the Ministry of Defence, no one from the Kremlin. Years later their excuse was that it had been a dirty war, that to have made the journey to Termez would have been in effect to endorse a crime. It was an extraordinary omission – very bad politics, as well as very bad behaviour. The soldiers never forgot or forgave the insult.

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From Soviet Soldier to Muslim Convert

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4326-4349:

Aleksei Olenin, who was serving in a transport battalion, was kidnapped as he was relieving himself by the Salang Pass. He was beaten up, tried to escape, tried to hang himself, and was finally incorporated into a mujahedin detachment led by a greybeard called Sufi Puainda Mokhmad. After two months in the mountains, Olenin converted to Islam: ‘No one made me do it. I simply realised that since I was still alive I must have been preserved by some power … I would have adopted any faith that was available: after all, up to then I had been a Young Pioneer, a Komsomol, and was preparing to join the Party.’ He was given the Muslim name Rakhmatula.

In the course of the next six years four other Russian soldiers were brought into the detachment. One of them was Yuri Stepanov, who was renamed Mukhibullo. He too had been captured on the Salang Pass when his zastava was attacked.

Then the news came through that the 40th Army was leaving Afghanistan. The members of the detachment returned to their farms, and Olenin went with them: ‘In those days we grew wheat. The poppies only came with the Taliban.’ Sufi Puainda, who still regarded the Russians as his property, decided that they should all take wives. The Afghan fathers were reluctant to surrender their daughters, because the Russians could not afford the bride price, and because they feared that the girls would be dishonoured when the Russians eventually abandoned them and went home. But one poor man was willing to give Olenin his daughter Nargez. By now Olenin thought that his chances of returning home were in any case at an end.

He was wrong. Before the marriage could take place, the Russian government had successfully negotiated for the return of prisoners. General Dostum (1954–), the Uzbek commander in the north of the country, was anxious to strengthen his relations with the Russians and arranged for Olenin and Stepanov to travel home. He first brought their mothers to meet them in his stronghold of Mazar-i Sharif. Olenin’s mother fainted when she saw him. The prisoners then left via Pakistan, where they were received by Benazir Bhutto (1953–2007): one story was that she had provided the money for their ransom. Olenin arrived back in Otradnoe in May 1994, to find a country transformed beyond his recognition by the collapse of the Soviet Union. His mother paraded the local girls before him in the hope that he would marry one of them and settle down. But his conscience weighed on him and after six months he went back to Afghanistan to find and marry Nargez. He intended to take her back to Russia. But the arrival of the Taliban in power meant that he was once again trapped in Afghanistan. His small business profited, his wife bore him a daughter, and it was not until 2004 that he finally returned again to Otradnoe, this time with his family. He remained a Muslim and the women of the village noticed that he worked harder and drank less than the other men in the village. Musulmanin (The Muslim), a film made in 1995, explores just such a theme: the contrast between the orderly piety of a Russian Muslim convert from Afghanistan and the disorderly and dysfunctional life of the family and village he left behind him.

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Initial Soviet Goals in Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1386-1394, 2000-2025:

In 1968 the Soviet Union had deployed eighteen divisions, backed by eight Warsaw Pact divisions – some five hundred thousand men – to invade Czechoslovakia, a country with a much more forgiving terrain and no tradition of armed resistance to foreigners; a country moreover where, unlike Afghanistan, there was not already a civil war in progress. The government and the KGB initially believed that the job could be done with some 35–40,000 soldiers. The generals naturally wanted more. During the planning phase, under pressure from General Magometov in Kabul and others, the number was increased, and the force which crossed the frontier at the end of December consisted of some eighty thousand soldiers. Even this was nothing like the number that the soldiers believed would be necessary: Russian military experts later calculated that they would have needed between thirty and thirty-five divisions to stabilise the situation in Afghanistan, close the frontiers, secure the cities, road networks, and passes, and eliminate the possibility of armed resistance.

The task before the 40th Army and its commanders as they swept into Afghanistan may have seemed simple, clear, and limited. The Russians had intervened to put an end to the vicious feuding within the PDPA, and to force a radical change in the extreme and brutally counterproductive policies of the Communist government. The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.

This may have looked like a strategy, but it turned out to be little more than an impractical aspiration. The Russians understood well enough that the problems of Afghanistan could only be solved by political means: Andropov had after all argued right at the beginning that the regime could not be sustained with Soviet bayonets. But they also hoped that the Afghan people would in the end welcome the benefits they promised to bring: stable government, law and order, health, agricultural reform, development, education for women as well as men.

They discovered instead that most Afghans preferred their own ways, and were not going to change them at the behest of a bunch of godless foreigners and home-grown infidels. The Russians did not, and could not, address this fundamental strategic issue. The vicious civil war which greeted them had started well before they arrived and continued for seven years after they left, until it ended with the victory of the Taliban in 1996. It was a war in which loyalties were fluid and divided. Individuals and whole groups switched sides in both directions, or negotiated with one another for a ceasefire or a trade deal when the opportunity arose. Fighting and bloodshed erupted within each of the Afghan parties to the war as leaders and groupings struggled for advantage. The Russians found themselves fighting the worst kind of war, a war against an insurgency which they had not expected and for which they were not equipped or trained. All sides behaved with great brutality. There were executions, torture, and the indiscriminate destruction of civilians, their villages, and their livelihood on all sides. Like others who had entered Afghanistan before and since, the Russians were appalled at the violence and effectiveness of the opposition which faced them almost immediately and which made a mockery of their hopes.

One day, both the Russians and the Afghans knew, the Soviets would go home. The Afghans would have to go on living in the country and with one another, long after the last Russian had left. Even those Afghans who supported the Kabul government and acquiesced in the Soviet presence, or perhaps even welcomed it, had always to calculate where they would find themselves once the Soviets had departed.

And there was another fundamental weakness in the strategic thinking of the Soviet government. They had underestimated – maybe they had not even considered – the eventual unwillingness of their own people to sustain a long and apparently pointless war in a far-off country. They were never of course faced by the massive popular movement in America which opposed the war in Vietnam. But a growing disillusion inside and outside government sapped the will of the leadership to continue a war that was brutal, costly, and pointless.

These two misjudgements were sufficient to nullify the military successes of the 40th Army.

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Soviet Reluctance to Invade Afghanistan, 1979

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 793-810, 980-992:

The legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN Charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. What was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.

Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. Two divisions were being formed in the Turkestan Military District and another in the Central Asian Military District. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th Airborne Division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.

As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.

And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.

The KGB had long experience of dealing with Afghanistan, many covert contacts there, and its own ideas of how things should be handled: it was in many ways the lead department. It had invested much of its capital in the Parcham faction, and tended to reflect their views, even though these were a comparatively small proportion of the membership of the PDPA – fifteen hundred out of fifteen thousand.

The rest of the membership was from Khalq. That was also the faction to which most of the Communist officers in the army belonged, men whom Amin had made a special effort to cultivate. The result was a growing contradiction between the views of the KGB, who came to favour intervention and the replacement of Amin by their man, the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal, and the views of the Soviet military, who were prepared to live with Amin because they believed that the main thing was to retain the support of the Khalq officers in the army, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union and had good professional relations with their Soviet military colleagues. These disagreements were exacerbated by poor personal relations between senior KGB and army officers, and by rivalries between the KGB and the army’s own intelligence organisation, the GRU.

All this had an increasingly negative effect on the formulation and execution of policy, including the decision to invade Afghanistan in the first place, and the management of policy in the nine years after the invasion took place. Afghan government leaders naturally took advantage of these differences to play one faction off against the other.

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Fatal Mistake of the Afghan Communists, 1978

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 680-715:

On 9 May the new government issued a radical programme of social, political, and economic reform. ‘The Main Outlines of the Revolutionary Tasks’ proclaimed the eradication of illiteracy; equality for women; an end to ethnic discrimination; a larger role for the state in the national economy; and the abolition of ‘feudal and pre-feudal relationships’ – code for the power of landowners, traditional leaders, and mullahs, especially in the countryside. As for Islam, when Kryuchkov visited Kabul on a fact-finding mission in July 1978, the new President, Taraki, told him to come back in a year, by which time the mosques would be empty. It was all a measure of how far out of touch the new regime was with the realities of their own country.

A woman was appointed to a top political position for the first time in modern Afghan history. Anakhita Ratebzad (1930–), a doctor by training, was one of four women members of the Afghan parliament in 1965, a founding member of the PDPA, and a member of Parcham. Her first husband had been Zahir Shah’s personal physician. Now she was the partner of Babrak Karmal. In the Kabul Times on 28 May, immediately after the coup, she stated firmly, ‘Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country … Educating and enlightening women are now the subject of close government attention.’ A striking person in her own right, she succeeded in charming some of the most senior Soviet officials in Kabul, and they took care to remain on good terms with her as long as Karmal was in power.

The Soviet authorities were distinctly uneasy about what had happened. The Soviet Ambassador, Alexander Puzanov, attempted at the end of May to draw the threads together in a letter to Moscow. He argued that the failed politics of the Daud regime had led to ‘an abrupt sharpening of the contradictions between the Daud regime and its class supporters and the fundamental interests of the working masses, the voice of which is the PDPA’. The actions of the PDPA had been ‘met with approval by the popular masses’. This crude piece of Marxist analysis was characteristic of much of Moscow’s thinking about a country where it was almost totally inapplicable, a cast of thought which underlay some of the Russians’ later policy mistakes.

Puzanov nevertheless conceded that the continuing friction between Khalq and Parcham was already undermining the effectiveness of the new regime. This was a crucial weakness, and he and his specialist party advisers had told the new leadership that they must eliminate their differences. This, he admitted, had not yet happened. Nevertheless, he optimistically concluded that the overall situation was stabilising as the government took measures against the domestic reaction.

His optimism was misplaced. The new government’s programme was a mixture of typical Communist nostrums and some admirable aspirations. The new men had little or no practical experience in government. Whatever attractions the programme might have had in theory, it was not thought through and the people, especially in the villages, where most Afghans lived, were almost entirely unprepared for it. The promotion of women’s liberation and education for girls, laudable as it was in principle, came up against the same fiercely conservative prejudices which had plagued Afghanistan’s reforming kings. Revolts against the new regime began straight away, in both the towns and the villages. The countryside began to slip out of control.

The new government was nothing if not determined, however, and when persuasion failed it used ruthless measures of repression. It targeted not only known members of the opposition but also local leaders and mullahs who had committed no crime. Several generals, two former prime ministers, and others who had been close to Daud – up to forty in all – were executed immediately. Nine months after the coup, ninety-seven men from the influential Mojadedi clan were executed. The Islamists who had been imprisoned by Daud in the Pul-i Charkhi prison in Kabul were executed in June 1979.

In their fanaticism, and in their belief that a deeply conservative and proudly independent country could be forced into modernity at the point of a gun, the Afghan Communists resembled the Pol Pot regime. Unlike in Cambodia, however, in Afghanistan the people were not prepared to be treated in this way by their government. Previous rulers, such as Abdur Rahman, had imposed their authority throughout the country – more or less – by the most brutal methods. But they could make a plausible claim to be good Muslims, after a fashion. The Afghan Communists made the fatal mistake of underestimating the power of Islam and its hold on the people.

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Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 535-559:

By the 1970s Afghanistan had many of the rudiments of a modern state. It was reasonably secure, and you could travel and picnic and see the sights with comparatively little risk. Foreigners who lived in Kabul in the last days before the Communists took over – diplomats, scholars, businessmen, engineers, teachers, aid workers, hippies – later looked back on that time as a golden age. So did many of the very thin crust of the Afghan middle class who lived in Kabul and some of the big cities.

In the 1970s much of old Kabul still stood, a rabbit warren of streets, bazaars, and mosques, still dominated by the great fortress of Bala Hissar, a place, the Emperor Babur said more than four hundred years earlier, with ‘the most pleasing climate in the world … within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where the snow never falls. But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.’

In the centre of the city was the imposing Arg, the fortified palace build by Abdur Rahman, the scene of one violent turn in Afghan politics after another. Amanullah, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, commissioned European architects to build him a monumental new capital, a vast palace, the Dar-ul Aman, on the south-western edge of the city; and a summer resort in Paghman, a village in the nearby hills, complete with Swiss chalets, a theatre, an Arc de Triomphe, a golf course, and a racecourse for elephants. Across the road from the Dar-ul Aman palace stood the Kabul museum, which was opened in 1924 and contained one of the richest collections of Central Asia art and artefacts in the world: flint tools forty thousand years old from Badakhshan, a massive gold hoard from Bagram, glass from Alexandria, Graeco-Roman statuary, ivory panels from India, Islamic and pre-Islamic artefacts from Afghanistan itself, one of the largest coin collections in the world, and more than two thousand rare books. A grandiose British Embassy, built in the 1920s as a symbol of British power, lay on the northern edge of the city. An equally large Soviet Embassy lay in the south-west on the road to the Dar-ul Aman.

‘Kabul’, said a guidebook sponsored by the Afghan Tourist Bureau, ‘is a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues filled with brilliant flowing turbans, gayly [sic] striped chapans, mini-skirted school girls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.’

Those were the days when Kabul was on the Hippie Trail and thousands of romantic, adventurous, and often improvident young people poured along the road from Iran through Herat and Kabul to India, driving battered vehicles which regularly broke down and had to be repaired by ingenious local mechanics, seeking enlightenment, drugs, and sex, living on nothing and sometimes dying on the way.

But behind that fragile façade lay the real Afghanistan, a land of devout and simple Muslims, where disputes between individuals, or families, or clans and tribes, were still settled in the old violent way, where women were still subject to the absolute authority of their menfolk, where the writ of the government in Kabul barely ran, and where the idea of national rather than family or local loyalty was barely formed.

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Afghanistan’s Early Attempts to Modernize

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 220-258:

Abdur Rahman’s successors attempted to push Afghanistan further along the path of modernisation. His son Habibullah (1872–1919) was assassinated in 1919 and succeeded by Amanullah (1892–1960), who took advantage of British weakness at the end of the Great War to invade India. The British bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and drove the invaders back. Neither side had much stomach for the war, and it fizzled out after a month. The British ceased both their subsidies and their control of Afghan foreign policy. Amanullah promptly opened a fruitful relationship with the new Bolshevik government in Moscow – the first foreign government to do so.

He then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform in imitation of the secularising reforms of Atatürk in Turkey. He established a Council of Ministers, promulgated a constitution, decreed a series of administrative, economic and social reforms, and unveiled his queen. His plans for the emancipation of women, a minimum age for marriage, and compulsory education for all angered religious conservatives and provoked a brief rebellion. Tribesmen burned down the royal palace in Jalalabad and marched on Kabul. In 1929 Amanullah fled into exile in Italy.

Nadir Shah (1883–1933), a distant cousin of Amanullah, seized the throne, reimposed order, but allowed his troops to sack Kabul because he had no money to pay them. He built the first road from Kabul over the Salang Pass to the north and continued a cautious programme of reform until he was assassinated in 1933.

His son Zahir Shah (1914–2007) reigned from 1933 to 1973. This was the longest period of stability in Afghanistan’s recent history, and people now look back on it as a golden age. Reform continued. A parliament was elected in 1949, and a more independent press began to attack the ruling oligarchy and the conservative religious leaders.

In 1953 Zahir Shah appointed his cousin Daud (1909–78) as prime minister. Daud was a political conservative but an economic and social reformer. For the next ten years he exercised a commanding influence on the King. He built factories, irrigation systems, aerodromes and roads with assistance from the USSR, the USA, and the German Federal Republic. He modernised the Afghan army with Soviet weapons, equipment, and training.

In 1963 Zahir Shah got rid of Daud to appease conservatives infuriated by his flirtations with the left and the Soviets. But the King continued with the policy of reform. He introduced a form of constitutional monarchy with freedom of speech, allowed political parties, gave women the vote, and guaranteed primary education for girls and boys. Women were allowed to attend the university and foreign women taught there. Ariana Airlines employed unveiled women as hostesses and receptionists, there were women announcers on Kabul Radio, and a woman was sent as a delegate to the United Nations.

During all these years, the educational system was systematically developed, at least in the capital city. Habibia College, a high school modelled on an elite Muslim school in British India, was set up in Kabul in 1904. Amanullah sent many of its students to study in France and elsewhere in Europe. A School of Medicine was inaugurated in 1932, followed by faculties of Law, Science, Agriculture, Education, and Engineering, which were combined into a university in 1947. Most of the textbooks and much of the teaching were in English, French, or German. A faculty of Theology was founded in 1951 linked to the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo. In 1967 the Soviet Union helped establish a Polytechnic Institute staffed largely by Russians. Under Zahir Shah’s tolerant regime student organisations were set up in Kabul and Kandahar.

Daud rapidly expanded the state school system. Between 1950 and 1978 numbers increased by ten times at primary schools, twenty-one times at secondary schools, and forty-five times at universities. But the economy was not developing fast enough to provide employment for the growing numbers of graduates. Many could find jobs only in the rapidly expanding government bureaucracy. Salaries, already miserable, lost half their real value in the 1960s and 1970s. The good news – though not for conservatives – was that about 10 per cent of this expanded bureaucracy were women.

The American scholar Louis Dupree called Kabul University ‘a perfect breeding ground for political discontent’. It was in the universities that Afghanistan’s first political movements were created. A Communist Party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was set up in 1965 by Nur Mohamed Taraki, Babrak Karmal (1929–96), and Hafizullah Amin, all of whom were to play a major role in the run-up to the Soviet invasion. A number of students who were later to become prominent in the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet struggle also fledged their political wings there: Rabbani (1940–), Hekmatyar (1947–), Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (1946–), and Ahmad Shah Masud (1953–2001) all studied together in Kabul University. Students rioted in 1968 against conservative attempts to limit the education of women. In 1969 there were further riots, and some deaths, when high school students protested against the school management. The university was briefly closed.

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