The following was written by Misha Pozhininsky, a former Russian paratrooper who served in Afghanistan. We both wrote for the now-defunct webzine Sobaka. He started in Winter 1999 and I came along in Summer 2003. There was some great stuff in there, and it deserves to be more visible than in the Internet Wayback Machine. This is Misha’s first article, and it’s eerie how it echoes off some of what I’ve heard of the US experience. I’ve edited it for profanity so I don’t get sued for that if one of my students should read it. If I get sued for something else in this article, I’m ready to start the Revolution.
Afghanistan means pain. Afghanistan means tears. Afghanistan can mean anything you like, but not shame. It was politicians who made the decisions: some wise, others less so. For the unwise decisions, soldiers paid with their blood. The politicians who started and ran the war knew that neither they, nor their children, nor their grandchildren, nor their friends, nor anyone they knew personally would do the fighting. The “workers’ and peasants’ Red Army” fought there.
Maj. General Aleksandr Lebed
Afghanistan, ’79 – ’83
The Antonov-12 plane touched down at Bagram Airfield, and we were told to wait. Then a brutal-looking Major with eyes like bullets lodged in plaster threw open the door to the compartment where thirty of us were sitting in battle dress. We were not a unit, just reserves to replenish another unit’s dead.
“Helmets on, *************!” he roared. Hardened by Airborne training in Ryazan, I did not think twice.
“What the **** is this?” the Major wailed at a poor private beside me. “Get your ******* helmet on! And you,” he grabbed me by the Airborne patch on my shoulder, “get this ***** flak jacket off. These things don’t block ****. From now on, I want all of you to get used to sitting on them. Take them off and sit on them, now!” All 30 of us jumped up and with economy of movement stripped off our flak jackets and put them between the seats and our asses.
“The flak jacket on your ass will protect you from mines,” he said, “and the helmet will give us something to scoop your guts up with. You will bleed here, and you will probably die, but you are dying in the Airborne, so don’t forget it. It’s up to you whether we throw vodka on your grave or spit on it.
“Now, get outside on the tarmac and bring those coffins in.”
THAT WAS HOW AFGHANISTAN was – fresh soldiers come in, coffins come out. Sweating in the heat, I glanced out across the cliffs around our base and saw 30 mud huts with their roofs burned off. The walls had taken a beating, and were cracked and punctured with big holes, but they still stood. Later I found out that these were not pill boxes or guerrilla nests, but fences attaching the typical dwelling of the sedentary Afghani, a duval. They were indestructible. It would take five self-propelled grenades to make the inside so hot that every dushmani or Afghan fighter inside would evaporate. But we still couldn’t knock down those walls. The next day a new band of dushman would be inside, sniping and shooting down planes with the Stinger missiles your CIA supplied them with. Once, my commander ordered a bunch of construction equipment, bulldozers and trucks, to come and tear down the walls, but then the sniping would start and the whole thing would be a tragedy.
Now to us in Moscow or Ryazan, the Afghans were a race of herders. It was true, a little bit. What they didn’t tell us in the useless news reports that for nine years reported nightly that everything was going great, was that the whole country of Afghanistan was made by a combination of climate, terrain, and man-made structures for a fifty-year insurgency. For example, a vast network of tunnels built hundreds of years ago, kyariz, crisscrossed the country and served as escape routes for bands of dushmani. I’d rather be shot than step down into that darkness, then see a flash of the knife. The other soldiers felt the same. The kyariz, the duvals, the ordinary huts that could stand five grenades – nobody told us about these. Duval and kyariz meant nothing to us. Jihad we would learn about on our own
AFGHANISTAN, IF YOU MEASURE by coffins, was not a very big war. We had about 15,000 deaths, which is nothing like the millions and millions of casualties in the Great Patriotic War, as the political officers (Communist Party snitches attached to every unit) never forgot to remind us. The tragedy of Afghanistan became clear 10 years later, when the veterans who caught diseases croaked thirty years before their time, or like my friend and fellow Lieutenant Yu. I. Maksedov who disappeared one night in Kaliningrad and showed up in an irrigation ditch with a self-inflicted wound a few weeks later.
Afghanistan in a way was like an incubator for this new era. Every time we killed a civilian, intentionally or not, we made his children orphans, his wife a widow, and every male in his family from grandfathers to boys new recruits for the mujahedin. Every time we blew up a village, nest of resistance or not, we got a few dushmani and a lot of civilians, and everyone who got away joined the uprising. We created guerrillas with everything we did, but it was the Americans who trained them and turned them into terrorists. Afghanistan was the coming-of-age for the Mujahedin, al-Faran, the Algerian GIA, some of whom fought, but many more of whom swindled the CIA out of their money and guns and hid in the lawless hills outside of our air bases waiting for the Red Satan to die and plotting against the Great Satan. It was our fault first, your fault last, to quote a Russian saying.
I didn’t think I was unlucky. I joined Airborne because I wanted adventure and, like most, I was a frustrated aviator. Now of course I have to add that I was a little cracked in the head. I didn’t meet the minimum requirements for math skills or physical stature, so my dream of flying MiGs and taking out rogue F-16s over Soviet airspace was ruined. The next most glamorized wing of the Red Army was Airborne. We were kind of like your Navy SEALS, we were elite and anonymous. We trained jumping out of planes into high drifts of snow but when I jumped off to load the coffins from the tarmac in Bagram, that was the only time I jumped out of a plane in Afghanistan. I didn’t even get to use my parachute.
I served a two year tour in Afghanistan, which was later followed by another two years. My reconnaissance company had been commanded by Aleksei Ivanovich Lebed, the brother of Aleksandr Lebed and now also a governor somewhere in Siberia. But that was two years before I got there – ancient history in “war time”. I served under a lot of people perestroika made famous. Aslan Maskhadov, President of Chechnya, I knew in Hungary; former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev ran the training academy in Ryazan. Today, if someone asks you, “Did you serve in Afghanistan?”, it’s kind of shorthand for saying “Cut the crap, you and I have been in the real **** before, so let’s be level.” Afghan War veterans make up a lot of the new politicians and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation barely has anyone who served. Why they make the same mistakes is the subject of another article entirely…
Our unit did recon, which meant that we saw action in just about every major offensive in the 100 kilometer sector that included Bagram and the capital of Kabul. In the beginning, our Red Army did well. The Afghans were split into factions and fought against us in a normal state of warfare. We pushed into the capital minutes before Babrak Karmal, our puppet and all-around worthless scum, rode into town on the first Red Army column.
Why were we there? Why were you in Vietnam? Sure it doesn’t make sense to you or me. It makes even less sense when you and 200 soldiers armed with state-of-the-art weapons are pinned behind rocks for two hours by an old man with an rifle. We were there because of the arrogance of our leaders. They dreamed of glory, while we were turned into guts. Every Russian king from Aleksandr to Stalin dreamed of expanding the empire south. Maps don’t do Afghanistan justice. Anyway you look at it, it’s a real hellhole, unless you’re a geologist. But these were men who dealt in maps, thought in maps. I wasn’t even a dot on their maps, no matter how close the detail.
Map thinking might have worked but for what happened after we declared victory in our “intervention”. Almost immediately after the Red Army and Afghan turncoats (and that’s what they were, so call them by their real names) entered Kabul, the patriotic instincts in the Afghani were agitated. At first it was very funny, from what the old-timers said. Old men with rifles from World War II were shooting at tanks. Then two words came to our ears for the first time: jihad, or holy war, and more important for us, mujahedin, the terrible holy warriors. The Afghans to me seemed like a manly people, and war did a great job in radicalizing patriotism into the world’s most radical form of Islam.
We didn’t talk about mujahedin or jihad. Some ass in Moscow decided that calling the enemy by his real name was bad for morale – a sure sign we were losing the war. We called them dushman, like your soldiers called the Viet Cong “Charlie”. I remember most of our political officers called them “bandits” or “foreign sponsored terrorists”, a reference to the several billion dollars your CIA gave them. Back then, dushman were freedom fighters, and worthy, courageous ones at that. Today, thanks to overkill, they are terrorists, and show up around the world wherever a Muslim of any sect is fighting. Many years later I saw them in Tajikistan where I was serving as “security” (like a mercenary, only we didn’t get paid. We were supposed to but again that’s another story.) For now, let’s just say they were an exhausting enemy with great guns, favorable terrain like the kyariz and duval to help them, and a hatred of every Russian.
They even used to blow up our dead. They’d go out of their way to do it, too. Afghanistan was not going to be a part of the USSR or a graveyard for its errors, either. They went through the trouble of digging up some of our “unknown soldier” graves and blowing those corpses up, too. The creatures who live in the cliffs would eat the flesh, then you would just be more dust in a hard desert. At night you could sometimes hear them doing it – booms followed by long pauses, then chants of “Allah Akhbar!” and another explosion. I was supposed to be asleep like everyone else, but I don’t think anyone was. You could almost hear the teeth chatter in the barracks.
SO THERE WE WERE. Anyone who joins war for adventure shoots himself – there’s so much boredom that it’s almost crippling. You get out of shape, you fight your comrades just out of boredom. So one night I was out there, shooting at rocks near the perimeter of Bagram Airfield where I manned a checkpoint, when we got orders to take part as reconnaissance in an operation. It was famous because Red Army journalists filmed the best parts and made a movie about it, which was ignored by record numbers of Moscow television viewers.
We were supposed to take the “point” before a column . “Taking the point” means “blowing up land mines” and “getting shot first”. If we encountered any heavy resistance we were supposed to hit the ground and wait for the rest of the column to come up behind us (and hopefully blow off any land mines with our bodies before they got there). You could try to call the Mi-8 attack helicopters if you had strayed out too far ahead of the column, or if they had been ambushed, but these were for “emergencies”. There really isn’t any greater emergency than laying ten meters from a pit of dushmani entertaining themselves by shooting at you with rocket propelled grenades and anti-tank weapons. But calling on the Mi-8s was considered cowardly, and these things mattered in Airborne. Not only that, but calling on them and living to tell about it meant it wasn’t an emergency after all, and that you had to file an official document with the commander and probably get bawled out for cowardice.
For the first five miles, we didn’t see anybody or anything, though we had a few snipers and we could see the firefight in the neighboring canyons. Our goal was to comb the valley for terrorist elements, but they were wise and mobile and ran away before we could do anything.
Another reconnaissance unit reported a large group of bandits heading towards us – they were traveling on the tops of the canyons but another regiment of the had diverted them towards us. We kept moving, marking probable mines with long-burning flares that gave away our positions to the enemy but at least saved a couple tons of armor.
Suddenly, I heard a burst of Kalashnikov fire. It was coming from another recon grunt, a guy named Zhelivsky. As usually happened, everyone in our unit was startled and began firing in the same direction at nothing at all. Our commander, Captain Goryenko, had been disabled and picked up by a UAZik jeep a few miles back, so as ranking officer, I called off the fire.
I radioed back to the first BMP behind us that we had come across something. I heard a rustling above, then the flash of a white robe. A baby was crying.
In a rush, about 70 Afghans came out and ran towards us. I nearly gave the order to fire before I saw they were mostly old men and had their hands in the air. Before I knew what had happened, we were engulfed in their numbers, four or five of them beseeching each of us in a confusion of Russian words and Afghani expressions. I radioed back to the BMP.
“Comrade Commander, we have about seventy civilians, it doesn’t look like any of them are armed.”
“Well check, *****!” came the order.
With some determination, we managed to make them sit on the ground. It sounds brutal, but the Afghanis – in lots of ways like Russians – had been ruled by cruel leaders for so long that you can’t argue sensibly with them. There is no persuasion. The only way they will respect your authority is to brandish a gun and push them where you want them to go. Let me remind any one with hair trigger sympathies: I was in the middle of an offensive, and found myself outnumbered with prisoners of war. I was quite proud that our first instinct to shoot them all didn’t overwhelm me.
I pushed two or three of them down and waved for the others to follow. Five of my comrades undertook to search them. They turned up a nice looking knife, but no guns. I took the knife from the old man, but gave him my watch, which was much more valuable, to let him know that I’d be giving it back. He disappeared with it before I could give him his knife back, which is probably what he wanted.
I radioed back to the BMP, which could be heard above the explosions in the distance, requesting instructions. I had no idea if we were near the end of the canyon, as my commander had been the one with the maps and I was operating by radio direction since he went down. The word from the BMP told me to wait for further instruction. I was stuck here.
About thirty or forty other Afghans joined them while we were waiting, sometimes just walking up and sitting down casually next to their brother, or friend, or husband. This was one of the screwed up things about war. I wanted to give them guns, so I could rake them all and be done with it. We were here to kill anything that moved and very good at doing that. Now we had to sit and direct our attention to these refugees, while at any minute a blast of fire could kill both us and the refugees together. I had long ago got over my fear of the arbitrary bullet. I had seen 10 members of my thirty-man recon company killed. I knew that if I thought about the randomness of life and death there I would go crazy. But I’ve never felt so much desire to go out and shoot someone as I did then, standing vulnerable and exposed in the bottom of a canyon.
Finally, having still received no orders, I radioed that I’d be sending three sharpshooters and two sappers (mine-clearers) ahead to scout. They gave the OK. A few minutes after they left, the point BMP showed up behind us and we were saved.
Or so I thought. It turns out that the operation was over and we were told to set up camp a few miles ahead at the end of the canyon and wait for another regiment to meet us. What was I supposed to do with the prisoners we “captured”?
Bring them with me, of course.
I ASKED A RUSSIAN-SPEAKING youth who the leader was. This might sound stupid, but usually bands like this were from the same village and had an old man who was renowned as the leader. Stuff like that. An old man came up to me as we were ready to move out and through the boy I told him that we would be going down to the end of the canyon and then waiting. I said that with his cooperation we could make this really easy, and he agreed and told his people the news. They respected him, and did what he said, but I kept him close – both for his protection and for mine. I didn’t drop my Kalashnikov the whole time, but kept it in his general direction.
Along the way, the boy told me, “People will listen if you treat him with respect. Why don’t you get him in one of your cars?” he said, gesturing to one of our UAZiks.
“I don’t ride in a UAZik, neither does he.” He was an old guy, ancient, but tough. We gave the prisoners some of our water and the women some of our hard food when we camped.
I had a few men guarding them as they lounged a bit, but they were still my responsibility and I sat up with them. The explosions had died down and the sun was beginning to lighten the sky when the boy and the old man came to me.
“He wants to know if you believe in God,” the boy said.
The strange question brought me back to my senses. “What?”
“He wants to know if you are a Christian.”
“Tell him no,” I said in a low voice. Forget about politics – I didn’t want to talk about God in this place.
“Do you know much about Allah?” the boy asked. “He asks permission to recite you some of the Koran.”
I looked around, but no one was paying attention to us. Two of my comrades were cleaning their rifles while two others guarded the troops.
“All right,” I said, “if it makes him feel better.”
The old man sat down and began reciting things from memory, giving his folk-versions of the ramifications of God’s Law, and asking me questions about life and morals in general. I humored him for awhile, but it was hard to be sarcastic, even though the details of our relationship dictated it. He was so genuine, speaking to his captor about his religion and what it meant to be a Muslim and follow Allah’s way, that cynicism and bitterness went away. Finally, someone came to tell me that our commander had his left arm in a sling and would be relieving me for the move out. He would be taking charge of the prisoners, and I should go get an hour of sleep.
I tried to interrupt the man and the boy’s translation, and finally did by saying simply, “Thank you, I have to go.” The man placed his hand on my forearm and said, through the boy, “Do you now accept that there is no god but Allah, and accept Mohammed as his prophet?”
I was tired, but I really wanted to make him feel better. He was kind, and reminded me somewhat of my father in Kaliningrad. Under different circumstances, I would have liked to have sit with him all day and talk about everything, but now there was not the possibility. I shook my head and turned away.
The next day, as the prisoners were evacuated on a GAZ-66 flatbed truck, I looked for the old man but didn’t see him. As ranking officer during the second half of the offensive, I had to file a report when we got back to Bagram. I looked over other reports, and gathered that the old man was probably one of a small group that had seized a Kalashnikov and stole away during the night. The whole thing was a ruse to get me to let my guard down, I guess. I felt betrayed at the time, but like a lot of things about Afghanistan, I’ve come to peace with him, too. Under the same circumstances, I like to think that I would have done the same.
The transition from war to peace was a two-hour trip, but it wasn’t that easy. Peace is the normal human condition, smiling women, laughing children, stores doing business, men, in no hurry, not afraid of anything. Two hours ago I saw flaming vehicles, charred bodies, entrails on walls… We brought Afghanistan home with us – in our hearts, our souls, our memories, our habits, in everything…
Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Lebed