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The long, terrible legacy of Afghanistan’s Soviet war
Slow Views

The long, terrible legacy of Afghanistan’s Soviet war

Tuesday 20 July 2021

As the West departs after 20 years, it is an earlier conflict that defines so much of the country today – and contributed to a history of death, displacement and religious fervour


Reflecting on my time spent reporting the Soviet war in Afghanistan, I often wonder what has happened to the people I picked out as a young freelancer trying to make sense of a conflict that traumatised a nation.

Take, for example, Joma, an Afghan farmer from Takhar in the north of the country who was waiting for me on a day in April 1988 as I walked back to my digs with the British charity Afghanaid in the University Town suburb of Peshawar in northern Pakistan.

As I approached the guarded gate of the villa in the city where the Mujahidin resistance was based in exile, I noticed a man sitting on his haunches draped in his putu blanket. He quickly got up, moved to his left, and grabbed a tiny baby boy squatting in the dust and sucking on his fingers.

When I reached him, Joma was holding the baby out towards me and muttering the words: “Paisa bedeh; paisa bedeh.” In Dari this means “give me money,” and I realised that, in his shame, what he was really trying to say was: “It’s not for me, it’s for him.”

Joma’s story offers a glimpse of what Afghans had already gone through after eight years of Soviet occupation during which up to five million people had either been killed, injured or become refugees.

The shock of war had forced more than three million Afghans to leave their homes, many of them heading to exile in refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran. Joma, his wife and the little boy Zikrullah, along with his sister Salima and the wife of Joma’s best friend, were among the latest to join that exodus. 

He explained to me that his village had been repeatedly bombed by Soviet forces, killing half of its inhabitants, and that Soviet and Afghan government troops had looted it five times for animals and for young men for the army. For two years he had been trying to cultivate his small acreage while living in the ruins of his house, but eventually he had decided he could not go on.  

Thirty-five year old Joma’s possessions now amounted to four hessian bags cut and hung in a square between trees, a few blankets, and a blackened old teapot. It had taken them three months to trek on foot through the snows and over the mountains of the Hindu Kush, and he had brought his best friend’s widow with him after her husband and three sons were killed in the latest raid on their village.

“She is a calamity-stricken woman,” muttered my translator Malang. “This man will have to look after her and feed her for the rest of her life – he has to do this.” 

Joma and his family almost certainly would have ended up living in a refugee camp on the burning planes of the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, where Zikrullah and Salima would have been brought up. They were heading for a miserable existence in a foreign land with no family and community structures to call on, their livelihood taken away and, for Joma, little prospect of income or work. For the children, education would be rudimentary at best, healthcare little more than basic, while Afghanistan would remain a dreamland out of reach across the frontier. 

Theirs was a story that you could write any day about the tens of thousands of ordinary Afghans who came across the border every year, trying to escape the dismal effects of a largely unreported war prosecuted by a Soviet army that acted with impunity for almost a decade.

For anyone who witnessed aspects of that war – in my case, travelling and living with the Mujahidin at their bases around Kabul in the late 1980s and then accompanying Soviet troops in their last weeks in the country – it is hard not to view Afghans as the victims in a tragic history that has seen their homeland embroiled in conflict for 42 years and with no end in sight.

Nowadays, sympathy for Afghans, whether it be those supporting the government of President Ashraf Ghani or those backing the Taliban insurgency, is in short supply in the West, especially in countries that have paid a high blood sacrifice of their own in Afghanistan over the last 20 years. The view seems to be that the Afghans – who harboured the architects of 9/11, after all – have only themselves to blame for their current predicament.

But the beginning of this tragedy was in December 1979, not 2001. To think otherwise is to overlook what was visited on this patchwork quilt of a nation in the 1980s by a Soviet occupying force that had no idea how to fight a counter-insurgency war. Their generals’ modus operandi was straight out of the Second World War and the impact was brutal. 

In order to deny the Mujahidin resistance use of its bases and supply routes in and out of the country – especially from Pakistan – the Soviet army laid waste to vast areas of land, mining fields and destroying villages, usually by bombing from the air in operations carried out with no warning. 

The result was that hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians were killed or maimed and millions were displaced. The figures are astonishing – estimates range from 850,000-1.5 million civilian deaths in a population that was then only 12 million strong (it is now 36 million). That is a death-rate of between 7 per cent and 12.5 per cent. The refugee population was the biggest in the world at the time and amounted to a quarter of all Afghans.

It is hard to imagine this sort of impact or to quantify it in any society. But Afghanistan was already one of the poorest countries in the world with no health service or social services to speak of in its rural areas and only a limited transport infrastructure. The war left its society broken, its leaders angry and determined to regain what they had lost. 

The call to arms quickly coalesced around the idea of a jihad or holy war, a natural rallying point in a country in which Islam and the mullah were at the heart of community tradition, organisation and spiritual life.

My personal view is that it would be wrong to argue that the Afghans were in some sense a nation of extremists in waiting. My impression was of a society in which Islam played a key role, but the mullah was often not a powerful figure. He became so only in response to the impact of war, and the guerrillas quickly learnt to define themselves as holy warriors seeking a place in paradise either for having killed an enemy, or by being killed, and thus becoming a martyr to the cause.

But there is no doubt that radicalisation took hold rapidly in a national crisis. Even by 1985, the Mujahidin – who are regarded as more moderate than the present-day Taliban – were practising extreme forms of religious observance. At a camp high in the mountains south of Kabul from where guerrillas launched hit and run attacks on Soviet troops in the city, I listened to more than 100 men praying together in a small mud and timber building under the mulberry trees. It wasn’t the normal rite, but a collective chanting that built up to a frenzied wailing and howling that sent a chill down my spine and left the men incapacitated in a sort of collective delirium. 

A few days earlier, I had returned from an abortive attempt to secretly enter Kabul with a group of seven men when we were spotted by Soviet gunners as we headed across an open plain towards the hills under moonlight. To my amazement, several of them started running towards the mortar fire – not away from it – inviting a glorious death.

Afghan guerrillas carry ammunition to the front from a remote base in the Safed Koh Mountains

For years, the Afghans had to fight with outdated, primitive or low-calibre weaponry – before the CIA finally gifted them Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which allowed them to shoot down helicopter gunships – and thousands of young men died in hopeless and amateurish military operations that achieved very little. Religion was all they had, it was their source of strength and the characteristic that defined them, and who can blame them for investing in it collectively and so heavily?

While the power of faith and the logic of a holy war drove men to throw away their lives on the battlefield, back in the refugee camps, the mullah was the only show in town and the radicalisation of the sons of the Mujahidin that spawned the Taliban was underway. As the French anthropologist Olivier Roy remarked of Afghan society at this stage: “Collective prayers and preaching in the mosques (had) reached an intensity unlike anything that was ever witnessed before the war.”

The difficulty for Western journalists trying to report on the Soviet war was that it was almost impossible to be in the right place at the right time to witness the sorts of atrocities that drove the transformation of Afghan society. Afghanistan is a large, inhospitable country with high mountains in the north and desert in the south and you covered the conflict on foot with whichever guerrilla band you had placed your trust in, a trust that was sometimes betrayed with fatal consequences. Illness, being injured, killed or captured were the other ever-present dangers.

The war moved erratically and events could be going on even in the next valley which were impossible to reach. But there were stories aplenty of reprisal attacks on villages and occasional massacres. I remember, for example, seeing photos of a tractor pulling a trailer stacked high with the chopped up body parts of the inhabitants of a village that had been attacked by Soviet soldiers in retaliation for the deaths of several of their comrades. These events were difficult to follow-up and often went unreported because of the lack of access and the risks involved in trying to carry out even basic research in the field.

But for anyone who travelled in Afghanistan in those days, it is not hard to understand how an already radicalised Mujahidin generation (that was applauded and armed by the West) was succeeded by a more militant Islamic extremist Taliban movement. Nor why this movement would set out to establish a hardline Islamic caliphate in Afghanistan, with all its barbaric medieval trappings in sharia law and uncompromising policies on excluding women from public life and secondary education. 

What is harder to understand is how the Soviet Union and subsequently the Russians got away with what they did in Afghanistan without ever being made to pay for their crimes, bar the boycott by Western nations of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. That came in response to the initial invasion in December 1979; there has been no other sanction for what happened during the nine years of fighting that followed as a result of that invasion.

In those days of the Soviet occupation, the situation in Afghanistan looked so simple from a Western perspective. The Mujahidin – or “freedom-fighters” as they were routinely described in the Western media – were fighting an invading force of foreign troops supporting a “puppet” communist government in Kabul with its own Soviet-backed army. Although the Mujahidin were bitterly divided among themselves, few foresaw that that war of national liberation would be followed by a vicious and destructive civil war before the Taliban took control.

Now that pattern is in danger of repeating itself, with the West having swapped sides, regarding the Taliban as “terrorists”, “extremists” or “rebels,” as they take on the government and the Afghan National Army. Just like its earlier incarnation, this is a reasonably well-resourced force, but it lacks the stomach for a fight against its own countrymen. Already the clock is ticking on the Ghani government, as it seeks to stave off the fate that befell the regime of the Soviet-backed dictator, Najibullah, who ended up swinging from a Kabul lamppost. In both iterations, Afghanistan is being riven by a conflict that sets the countryside against the capital and the major cities and towns. 

For the Mujahidin generation, the fruits of victory they yearned for – and sweated blood and tears for, and walked millions of miles for across a rugged land – were quickly frittered away in a civil war that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed large parts of the Afghan capital. The commander I spent most of my time with inside Afghanistan used to talk about his dream of returning to his house in Kabul after the war was over and sitting in the garden listening to the birdsong. He had been a shop owner selling Western-style clothes before the Soviet invasion, but had taken his family to Pakistan and then returned to the hills to fight. By 1985, he was leading a group of several hundred men infiltrating the capital. A charismatic Pathan who was not particularly religious, Niazuldin never got to enjoy the peace – he was shot and killed by rival Hazara fighters during the civil war in either 1992 or 1993.

Sitting in the hills south of Kabul in the summer of 1985, it would have been frankly impossible to convince me that any circumstances could arise that would prompt the United States and Britain to follow the Soviet Union and Victorian-era Imperial Britain in taking on the Afghans in what, for them, would be yet another war of national liberation. But 9/11 was an epoch-defining catastrophe that changed strategic calculations overnight. Not only did the West intervene in Afghanistan; it then managed to get itself involved in another unwinnable conflict against an enemy that has shown itself prepared to fight on for as long as it takes.

The Soviet army’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988

When I look back on my travels in Kunar, Logar, Paktia and Nuristan provinces in the 1980s, I often feel that I was lucky to glimpse what Afghanistan would have been like before the 40-year whirlwind of violence and hectic development took hold. In those days, it was a largely peaceful, almost medieval society with its own pace of life, its own traditions of government and ways of settling disputes. It was a loosely thrown-together nation made up of around 13 ethnic groupings in which the majority lived – as they still do – in the countryside and in which the writ of Kabul barely ran in most villagers’ lives.

In Nuristan, for example, an idyllic area in the wooded foothills of the Hindu Kush in eastern Afghanistan, there were still one or two villages that had not been destroyed by Soviet gunships, and the farmers lived in beautiful stone and wooden houses with their livestock all around. They tended terraced fields, growing all their own food, and life moved at a rhythm unchanged for centuries in a world without cars, phones or modern weapons. 

Since that time, Afghans have witnessed and been killed, injured and traumatised by three wars; they have seen their country transformed by billions of dollars of spending on infrastructure, health care, education, western-style democratic institutions and women’s emancipation; and they have both suffered and benefitted from almost continuous outside intervention in their affairs. This has either taken the form of outright military intervention by the Soviet Union and then the US and Nato, or less visible meddling by neighbouring states such as Pakistan, Iran and India.

None of this has achieved stability in Afghanistan, and now we appear to be on the brink of yet another round of civil war in which yet more Afghans will die, after the failure of Nato and US efforts to establish a lasting peace. At some point, everyone else is going to have to leave the Afghans to sort themselves out, even if that means taking the risk of standing by while another Taliban government is established in Kabul.

Ed Gorman is the author of Death of a Translator (Arcadia, 2017), which details his travels in Afghanistan between 1985 and 1994.

tHINKIN