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Afghanistan

Soviet-Afghan Battlefield Enemies Play Soccer Friendly

Soviet-Afghan Battlefield Enemies Play Soccer Friendlyi
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April 18, 2013
Afghan and former Soviet veterans faced off in a friendly soccer match in Kabul. The occasion, meant to help erase old enmities, was warmly received by many. But for some the return of Soviet soldiers to Afghanistan is a step too far. (By Sabawoon of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan)
By Frud Bezhan
The last time Afghans and Soviet soldiers faced off, it was on the battlefield. Today, more than 20 years since the end of the bloody Afghan-Soviet war, they met again on much friendlier ground -- a soccer pitch.

A team of Afghan and Soviet veterans played a friendly soccer match on April 18 in Kabul. The match, played between ex-Soviet soldiers and former Afghan mujahedin, was meant help erase enmities stemming from the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

But not everyone was thrilled about the game, which the Soviet team won 1-0.

Many Afghans harbor great resentment toward Moscow. In the course of the Soviet Union's decade-long occupation, an estimated 1 million Afghans were killed. Millions more fled the fighting and settled in neighboring countries as refugees. An estimated 15,000 Red Army soldiers lost their lives in the war.

Hares Kakar, an Afghan journalist living in Kabul, ridiculed the contest in a rant posted on Twitter. "We suffered a lot during the so-called jihad against Russians. Now former enemies are friends and drink 'red bull' together," he wrote.

"Dear Mujahedin & Soviet Union fighters! You could have played this soccer game years ago before fighting each other & killing millions."

On Facebook, Ahmad Shirin quipped: "Shameful," later adding that the game was "a slap on the face for our brave jihadists."

Friendly Gestures

Because Afghan authorities feared the game could attract violence, there was no pregame publicity. Only a few hundred spectators, many in good spirits, attended the match at the Afghanistan Football Federation Stadium in Kabul, which has a capacity of more than 5,000.

The two teams lined up for a photo shoot and shook hands with several Afghan officials, including Panjshir Province Governor Keramuddin Keram, before kickoff. And while a dozen Afghan police and soldiers circled the pitch just in case, the match was played without incident.

Due to Kabul's location, located some 1,700 meters above sea level, the game was shortened to 60 minutes from the usual 90.

Two more games are scheduled in Afghanistan. One is expected to be played on April 19 in the northern Panjshir Province, once a bastion of the resistance to the Soviet occupation. The other game will be hosted on April 21 in the city of Mazar-e Sharif, in the northern Balkh Province.

The matches come amid growing ties between Russia and Afghanistan. Moscow has embarked on a series of infrastructure and hydroelectric projects and, in a sign of goodwill, Russia recently scrapped almost $12 billion of debt owed by Kabul.

According to recent Russian media reports, Russian officials are exploring the possibility of sending military personnel to Afghanistan to repair and maintain military hardware once international forces withdraw at the end of 2014.

Apart from maintaining Russian hardware, including light weapons, armored personnel carriers, and helicopters, Moscow is also considering ways to expand its transport routes into Afghanistan via Central Asia. The supply routes, known as the Northern Distribution Network, are vital to maintain supplies for the Afghan security forces following the Western troop withdrawal.

Frud Bezhan

Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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