Afghan Predictions from 2001

MISHA POZHININSKY IS PROBABLY the only website columnist who has actually killed an Afghani. He spent his youth as a soldier in the Red Army’s elite Airborne corps, and returned for the first time since the war in February of 2000 to territory held by the Northern Alliance.

My friend Cali Ruchala posed a series of questions and assertions which have appeared in the American press about the ‘War Against Terror’ from both the Left and Right. He answered via email and telephone from Moscow. This was from November, 2001. It’s fascinating to read what he had to say then as the USA prepares to pour more soldiers into Afghanistan.

1. Afghanistan will turn into a cemetery the minute the Americans step foot in the country. They will unite in their hatred of the enemy.

This is a complete falsehood, or just wishful thinking for those who want it to be true.

Every people invaded, including people of my country and including the United States, will have traitors. Some will be criminal elements, others opportunists or worse. Then you have men who think a familiar face (theirs) fronting for the invader will alleviate suffering (or that’s what they say when they say before the firing squad).

When we came into Afghanistan, we did so at the invitation of their Communist government. They were unpopular and seized power in a coup, but split among themselves over this “invitation” with some immediately breaking off to join the uprising against us, but collaborators were not hard to find. Even many of the best mujahedin commanders joined us for a time to get the advantage over their own enemies in the mujahedin.

No, Afghanistan is not circled by an angel with a sword of fire. It is actually quite easy to get into and conquer. We did it in just a few hours.

2. Afghanistan is a poor country that will embrace liberation from the Taleban.

I don’t know if this is true or not. I say that some men have had a gun in their hand so long, they will not peaceably put it down. For them it doesn’t matter if they fight the Taleban or join them. They also will not distinguish between if they fight the Americans or join them.

Of course all of this is dependent on the fact that American troops will enter, which no one will know until it happens. I read rumors in American media in September that soldiers from America were gathering in Tajikistan. I made one phone call – I am NOT surprised no one else thought to do this – and found it was not true. And American troops did not even inspect bases until October.

The problem of Afghanistan has never been to take it. Anyone can take it for a short while. What you cannot do is hold it. In one operation I remember — I was thinking of it recently because it was against the forces of the “Lion of Pansher”, Ahmed Shah Masood – we shelled a certain area for many hours of the night. We were playing it safe, relying on our gunships (though as I have said before, in Airborne we hated to call on them, it was a sign of cowardice). As was often the case, we made big mountains into little stones and if we killed any dushmani (Afghan rebels), we never found their bodies. They always knew a way out and if they didn’t, they would probe our lines for weakness and slip out through a fold. Or once, when they hid in cellars and hillocks, waited for us to “conquer” the town, then came out firing.

As for what the people without political allegiance will do, I said before they are people who will rally to who they think is strongest. This is not a slur, I think Russians are the same way, we despise no one so much as a weakling. They may even hold parades of the American liberation of their country. But over time there is just too much money for a very few men who command large formations who make money from Afghanistan in turmoil. Yet they have pride, too. Threats won’t work alone, neither will bribery, but something between the two. At least that is how we worked out our own cease-fires and collaboration with elements of the mujahedin.

3. The Arab world will rise against America for military action against Afghanistan.

Without your CIA’s help, Arab volunteers who are the ones bringing this hateful ideology to Asia would not have been so organized. For instance the foreign volunteers in the first Chechen War would be shot by the Chechens themselves when they approached their camps. Only after great organizing and communications systems have been created – which Afghans themselves as guerrillas were incapable of – were these foreigners linked with dushmani and after the war began spread their influence.

Anyway, most Arabs agree that Israel is a blasphemy, but most terrorists in Israel are Palestinian. Saddam Hussein is a Ba’athist, but made many appeals to religious sentiment during the Kuwait war. He was ignored. The Assads of Syria are pro-Soviet Ba’athists yet have supported fundamentalists too.

We infidels are terrified of religious irrationality in Arabs, but for few concrete reasons. Mohammed’s demand to aid suffering co-religionists is always cited but barely heeded. Bosnia had some volunteers, but their army was not overrun by dushmani or foreign Arabs. And it was very clear that Bosnia was a religious war.

Some unstable individual might decide to mark the anniversary of whatever action America may take, but that itself is not indicative of Arabs being seized by bloodlust at the site of their poor brothers being bombed. In Afghanistan at least, to become rich was always easier by stealing and banditry. Those who join a struggle against Americans will do so for those reasons, more or less.

4. America built the Taleban up to what it is during the Soviets’ war.

What an obscene lie that is. It doesn’t look bad on me, either. As a soldier though this is a slur against the many Afghans who were trying to kill me (all bullets shot at me for many years, I took personally). Most prisoners of war I interrogated were brave, simple men. Sometimes patriotic vigor brought them to arms, sometimes my boys had killed their father or their mothers and wanted revenge. We were told they were irrational religious fanatics and looked for that in interrogations which I was present for. Only a few times would that be the case.

But none of them were Taleban. The Taleban did not exist then. I did not even know the word. They say some Taleban were mujahids during the Afghan War and this is true, but not ones that I knew by name. Though Red Army propaganda tried to keep us from knowing, we knew there were seven “lions” of Afghanistan who were the top commanders. Masood was the lion of my area. We knew the seven by name. Reading the list of Taleban leaders, ministers and clerics published in a Russian newspaper, I do not recognize a single name from those times. My guess is that these people were all second-tier commanders, probably under Hekmatyr’s gang. Some reporters make a big deal out of Mullah Omar (their supreme leader) having only one eye, and the religious police chief having only one leg, lost in the war.

We did a job on that country, a grisly amputation, and the civil war that followed our evacuation only deformed this beautiful country worse.

5. Terrorist bases should be destroyed, and then America should leave.

A terrorist base is an abandoned farm or a barn. I could build a terrorist base in downtown Moscow and no one would know except maybe when we had target practice. And there are a lot more guns shooting in the middle of the night in Kabul than in Moscow, so I doubt that would give them away.

Terrorist bases can be anything you like them to be. You guys bombed a chemical plant in Sudan that it appears made dangerous aspirin pills. I would agree that these places need to be taken out as an objective in a war, but there’s not much to blow up there that couldn’t be rebuilt in a matter of weeks elsewhere. If not in Afghanistan then somewhere else. The collapse of Soviet power left many governments unable to control their own ground.

6. The Afghan people live in fear of the Taleban.

I am not there, I can’t say what a man fears or does not fear. It was my view, comparing the population from when I arrived to when I left four years later, that they are generally weary. Hours every day were spent to find a little food, and with drought they spend even more time trying to find water now, too.

The Taleban represent the Pathans (or Pashtuns), who are closely related to Pakistanis and are the largest group in Afghanistan. They are not city dwellers, traditionally. The people of Kabul, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and so on, did not speak Pashto, or not very well, but the Persian language. From what I understand the Pathans are more tolerant of Taleban misery because they have brought order.

The minorities and city dwellers, who are many, are the ones fighting the Taleban. Masood I thought was the only one who could earn the respect – here is that character trait again – of the Pathans. Maybe others can too, I don’t know.

7. The Afghans have nothing left to lose, so will fight to the death against the Americans.

I think the Afghan is not afraid of death, but I think he would like to die in a way other than as servant of religious policemen who beat him with hoses. Yet I too could fear the KGB’s grip on my country and the trouble they could make for my family, while still doing something like going to Afghanistan to fight because they demanded I do so. The first time I had no choice, but my second tour of duty I volunteered for. I was not brainwashed. I was not a Communist, and I did not desire to make Afghanistan a colony of my country. I wanted to live, and the only thing I knew how to do well involved weapons, death, horror and terror.

Under normal life, this statement would make me a creature and criminal. As a soldier they honor you for this instead.

8. Oil and the energy companies are behind all of this.

Americans in Central Asia will make their job easier to be sure. But the largest resources are in Kazakstan and Turkmenistan. The president of Kazakstan has almost declared himself president-for-life and the president of Turkmenistan – who changed his name to Turkmenbashi, “Father of All Turkmen” – has already done so. Neither country for what I know has much problem with Islamic militants or Taleban problems.

Afghanistan itself has nothing in energy resources (some uranium, maybe, but it would be very expensive to extract due to terrain). Tajikistan has huge potential for hydropower, but dams and waterfalls are not what get oilmen excited. It is possible that a friendly Afghanistan will provide the link for a central oil pipeline to the Indian Ocean. I heard talk about this many years ago. But I don’t understand how that is even a possibility. Afghanistan will not become a “good neighbor” for many years, maybe decades. The problems are not just the Taleban. The last time I visited the territories then held by the Northern Alliance in February of 2000 I saw a situation even worse than when we were there. Every man and soldier was fighting for personal reasons which coincided sometimes with the goals of the movement. I don’t see how this is going to change with the topple of the Taleban or capture of Osama bin Laden.

9. America has no choice: they were attacked and must retaliate.

I was in Moscow when apartment buildings began going up in explosions. I wanted nothing so much as a Kalashnikov then to put down every criminal and terrorist I could find.

Russia’s reasons for getting involved in a second Chechen war were also justified. Militants, mostly religious, attacked Dagestan and claimed they wanted to fuse this Russian republic with Chechnya. Muslim Dagestanis and our boys repelled them easily. Kidnappings and hostage taking in the North Caucasus was widespread – two thousand in a year, according to non-governmental organizations, chained in basements and when ransom was not met, beheaded (and videotaped to send to television stations or even relatives who could not come up with the thousands of dollars to buy back their husbands and sons). That has ended now. Instead of civilians two thousand Russian soldiers die every year in the North Caucasus, saying nothing of losses by the Chechens.

This is the exchange that our government has made. Maybe yours will be the same.

10. The Northern Alliance is as bad as the Taleban.

There are good people, there are bad people. In the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, a Central Asian political scientist compared the Taleban to the Khmer Rouge, in that many early supporters had no idea how far their leaders would go. Under pressure from Vietnamese invasion, a great many defected to the “invader”, though the Cambodians hate Vietnamese as much as any Afghan hates the infidels.

Of the Northern Alliance, there are many double-dealers and crooks. You Westerners are under the delusion that “morals” have any place in war. Your Criminal Tribunals and World Courts give you an idea that war was at some point in history an honorable thing. You are measuring yourself against an ideal of what “normal” and “just wars” should be like. They have never been that way. You are there to kill, you are promoted more for success in killing. Many of the Northern Alliance resent lost status as kings. Some are “hardline” Islamists, but not of Taleban caliber for cruelty to their own people.

11. The Red Army’s problems during the Afghan War are irrelevant. American soldiers have better weapons, better strategy and better trained soldiers.

It’s true that part of our failure was that we tried to occupy Afghanistan and through indoctrination make it “friendly” and “fraternal” to our Soviet Union.

But there is really only one way to wage war in Afghanistan, and we did that. Russian despair over the Afghan War is not in the actual fighting, not battle-by-battle casualties, but the spiral of brutality. Let me explain: in the early days, we had a strategy, we had orders (I wasn’t there for the beginning, but this is well known) to treat the Afghans as a “friendly nation”. This strategy deteriorated with the stubbornness of the dushmani, until we were simply doing everything out of spite: bombing everything, shooting at everyone. Technology and training had little part in it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.