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Veterans Remember Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan 30 Years On

An elderly Afghan man sits at a grave in a graveyard of Afghan casualties of the Soviet war.
An elderly Afghan man sits at a grave in a graveyard of Afghan casualties of the Soviet war.

Twenty-seven-year-old Lieutenant Valery Vostrotin had never seen combat before when the elite Soviet paratroop company he commanded was briefed by a KGB general on the afternoon of December 27, 1979.

Vostrotin's unit had been guarding the Kabul palace of communist President Hafizullah Amin. The ruthless Afghan leader had begged the Soviets to send troops to shore up his repressive but fragile government against a growing rebellion of largely Islamist militants. But now the KGB general ordered Vostrotin's company to take part in an operation to storm the palace and kill the president.

Worried the new communist regime in neighboring Afghanistan was about to be toppled, the Kremlin had decided to turn on its ally Amin and install a puppet in his place. Everything else, Moscow believed, would fall into place. Instead, the Soviets would launch a conflict that would reflect the decaying state of a superpower that couldn't best a ragtag group of rebels on its southern border.

A first attempt to kill Amin had failed when the poison his cook -- a KGB agent -- had dropped into a glass of Coca-Cola was neutralized by its bubbles. This time, the Soviets took fewer chances by deploying more troops to Afghanistan to make sure the government toppled.

Still, a second plot to poison Amin on December 27 also spectacularly failed when the Soviet Embassy, unaware of the KGB's plan, dispatched doctors to revive him. But it was too late: a loud explosion in the city center had already given the signal for Soviet troops to launch an attack.

As the battle at the presidential palace raged, Lieutenant Vostrotin realized his company was handicapped by inadequate equipment.

Valery Vostrotin is now a State Duma deputy and "Hero of the Soviet Union."
Valery Vostrotin is now a State Duma deputy and "Hero of the Soviet Union."

"If our armored personnel carriers were hit, it would mean death for the entire crew. Any mine would do it," Vostrotin recounts. "Other units had better models that would allow the crew to escape with only concussions. Ours would be destroyed."

More than that, Vostrotin says, the operation was poorly planned, allowing chaos to reign. Different units didn't know of each other's existence, let alone coordinate their attacks. Another Soviet paratroop division fired on Vostrotin's company, killing several of his men.

Still, the Soviet invasion was a success. Special forces troops killed Amin and members of his family. Afghans learned about his overthrow the following morning from an announcement on Radio Kabul by the new, Soviet-installed leader, Babrak Karmal.

Karmal denounced his predecessor as an American "imperialist" spy.

Elsewhere in Kabul, Soviet and pro-Kremlin Afghan troops seized key government buildings and fanned out across the country to take other major cities in a lightning-quick invasion. By the end of the month, there were 80,000 Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

Getting Bogged Down

Announcing the news to Americans in early January, U.S. President Jimmy Carter called it "a callous violation of international law and the United Nations charter."

"It is a deliberate effort of a powerful atheistic government to subjugate an independent Islamic people," Carter added.

The United Nations called for an immediate withdrawal. Carter boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but he could do little else because his attention was fixed on the Iran hostage crisis. It would take years for the United States to join Saudi Arabia in channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to the rebels in Afghanistan.

Washington's weak response belied Soviet propaganda that the Kremlin was acting to protect Afghanistan from capitalist imperialism. Moscow believed it could accomplish that by imposing Marxism on a rural Islamic society leading an essentially feudal way of life.

But the Soviets soon found themselves bogged down in a military quagmire, as growing numbers of Afghans joined a rebel movement of fighters who called themselves the mujahedin, or "soldiers of God."

Dmitry Polyakov was a young patriotic lieutenant in an artillery platoon that entered Afghanistan in the snowy first weeks of the war. He believed his commanders who told him he'd be fighting American soldiers.

But he says battling Afghan rebels in inhospitable mountain territory quickly disillusioned him.

"We came up against the reality that the Soviet authorities didn't see individuals as valuable," Polyakov says. "We were cannon fodder thrown into Afghanistan to realize someone's ambitious and absolutely unnecessary goals."

'Soldiers Of God'

Soviet troops lacked the most basic supplies, including heating fuel and even food. Many local residents say they initially turned against the occupation because soldiers spent much of their time robbing shops and farms.

The Soviets were crippled by the mujahedin's favored tactics of staging ambushes or sniper attacks, then melting away into the local population. Often not knowing whom they were fighting, the Soviets responded by bombing and mining large parts of the countryside, killing more than 1 million Afghans and prompting millions more to flee.

Mikhail Gorbachev announced the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan shortly after he came to power in 1985. But first he gave the Red Army a year to do what it wanted, a scheme strikingly similar to President Barack Obama's recently announced plan for Afghanistan.

By the time Moscow finally withdrew from Afghanistan four years later, more than 13,000 Soviets had officially died in the war, although many veterans believe the real number is far higher. Polyakov says the Kremlin had set itself an "absolutely unrealizable" task.

Withdrawal: A column of armored vehicles rides on the way from Herat to Kushka in 1988
Withdrawal: A column of armored vehicles rides on the way from Herat to Kushka in 1988

"We went in there feeling like heroes and liberators and left feeling like occupiers," Polyakov says. "We weren't needed there, and we didn't understand whom we were fighting for."

But despite the Soviets' sense of defeat, military historian Lester Grau, of the U.S. Army's Foreign Military Studies Office, says Moscow's effort almost worked.

"From what I can determine, they almost did it," Grau says. "They came very close to breaking the back of the mujahedin effort. But they didn't have complete victory. And, of course, the question is always: What is complete victory in a guerrilla war?"

Lessons Of History?

Grau praises the Soviet withdrawal strategy, which left behind a government strong enough -- thanks to massive Soviet aid -- to outlive the Soviet Union, which collapsed barely two years later.

Valery Vostrotin -- the lieutenant who took part in storming the presidential palace 30 years ago -- spent much of the war in Afghanistan, rising to general and becoming the war's biggest hero in the eyes of many of its veterans. He was awarded the Soviet Union's highest decoration in 1987 for hand-to-hand fighting that helped expose a growing Islamist jihad that was changing the conflict's nature.

"For the first time in the war, we came across blacks killed in the fighting," Vostrotin says. "They were from Ethiopia. We had found a training camp [that the mujahedin had built] for foreign volunteers."

The Soviet withdrawal set the stage for a civil war in the 1990s between victorious mujahedin groups that destroyed what was left of the country and gave rise to the Taliban U.S. and NATO forces are fighting today.

Vostrotin and other veterans predict that the United States is doomed to the same fate the Soviet forces met in Afghanistan. But despite their obvious similarities, the conflicts differ in fundamental ways. U.S. and NATO fighting forces are far better trained and equipped, and Afghans still support the international drive to establish a viable Afghan state.

Still, Moscow-based military expert Aleksandr Golts believes the Soviet failure showed no attempt to impose a "foreign way of thinking" can succeed in Afghanistan.

"On one hand, [Obama must] understand he can't win," Golts says, "but on the other, in order to keep more or less stability in a huge region, [he has to decide] not to withdraw troops."

Golts says a U.S. exit from Afghanistan in the near future would destabilize Central Asia and the Middle East by letting Islamic extremists believe they had beaten the United States. Whatever happens, Golts warns, Afghanistan will remain an "impossible task."

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