The Red Army vs. the Mujahideen, 1980–1989 Part II



In a professional army, officers and NCOs are supposed to inspire and discipline soldiers and channel their aggression in a constructive direction. But in the Red Army the officers acquired a reputation as “jackals” who looked out primarily for their own comforts and allowed senior soldiers (the dedy, or grandfathers) to bully and beat the new men. Beset by what one soldier called “an all-encompassing moral corruption,” they did little to restrain their frightened, unmotivated, trigger-happy men who acted in complete contravention of the teachings of Mao, Castro, Magsaysay, and other leaders, both insurgents and counterinsurgents, who had instructed their men to respect the populace in order to win its allegiance. All counterinsurgent forces commit some abuses: even the U.S. Army, which by the standards of most other armies has been relatively restrained, has been guilty of atrocities ranging from Wounded Knee to My Lai and Abu Ghraib. But the prevalence and scale of such human-rights violations in Afghanistan was much more troubling, and Red Army leaders did much less than their American counterparts to police their own ranks. Soviet soldiers were told, “Do whatever you want, but don’t get caught.” This became a license for rampant human-rights abuses, which inflicted not only great suffering on the Afghans but also considerable psychological trauma on the perpetrators—and that undermined their war aims.

Morale was not helped by the fact that the Red Army was unable to provide enough food, warm clothing, or heating oil to its troops even though the war was being fought next to its own territory. Some soldiers were reduced to eating rotten potatoes or cabbages. Almost 70 percent of them were hospitalized with serious illnesses, including typhus, malaria, hepatitis, and dysentery, often caught from drinking polluted water. Discipline was so lax that many soldiers sold arms and ammunition to the muj so that they could buy jeans or a cassette player to take home.

So dismal were the conditions that some soldiers shot themselves to get a quick ticket home. Others deserted. Many more took refuge in alcohol and drugs to escape the “sweet-and-sour smell of blood,” which, one soldier said, “turned my stomach inside out with nausea.” Troops got drunk on vodka, moonshine, aftershave lotion. Or they got high on marijuana, heroin, hashish, sometimes provided free by Afghan suppliers who were happy to corrupt their enemies. Said one soldier, “It’s best to go into an operation stoned—you turn into an animal.”

The echoes of the American experience in Vietnam—another unpopular counterinsurgency conflict fought, at least in its later stages, by disgruntled draftees—were not entirely coincidental. Just as the Soviet Union had extended aid to the Vietcong, so too the U.S. extended aid to the mujahideen to humble a rival superpower.

Washington had begun sending nonlethal assistance to the muj—radio equipment, medical supplies, cash—even before the Red Army’s arrival. Immediately after the invasion, Jimmy Carter signed a presidential finding authorizing a covert program to supply the resistance with weapons. To keep the U.S. role secret, the CIA bought up Eastern bloc weapons from Egypt, Poland, China, and other sources, and shipped them to Pakistan. Saudi Arabia matched the American contributions dollar for dollar. Distribution was handled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). It provided arms and training to the seven major resistance factions headquartered in the frontier town of Peshawar. From the border areas of Pakistan, which, in the words of an ISI brigadier, “had grown into a vast, sprawling administrative base for the jihad,” the guns were smuggled into Afghanistan on trucks, horses, and mules or on the backs of the muj along what journalists called the “jihad trail.” The Soviets went to great lengths to interdict this supply line but had no more luck than the Americans had had in disrupting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. There were simply too many mountain passes where columns of fighters could slip through. The muj, in one journalist’s words, “could go long periods of time without food and water, and climb up and down mountains like goats.”

After September 11, 2001, some would argue that the United States had brought these attacks upon itself by arming the very men who now terrorized it. This was not literally true—there is no evidence that CIA or any other American government agency provided aid to Osama bin Laden. But it was true that in the 1980s American aid went to many hard-line Islamists who would one day become America’s enemies. This was a byproduct of Washington’s decision to turn over the disbursement of arms and money to Pakistan’s president, Zia ul-Huq, who was turning increasingly Islamist.

His agents funneled most of the American-supplied weapons to the most extreme groups such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami (Party of Islam). A power-hungry former engineering student, Hekmatyar was widely hated by rival muj who thought, in the words of Robert Kaplan, that “his organization lacked fighting ability and squandered much of its resources attacking other guerrilla factions.” Unlike Ahmed Shah Massoud, he spent little time inside Afghanistan, preferring to politic in Peshawar. But he was ISI’s fair-haired boy and a favorite of Saudi intelligence. Even the CIA was partial to him. He was also close to Osama bin Laden, who had begun visiting Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. The CIA provided some unilateral assistance to Massoud, as did British and French intelligence, but it was a pittance compared with the riches flowing to extremists such as Hekmatyar, who would one day battle American forces in Afghanistan.

This was a particular notable but hardly unique example of “blowback” from the distribution of aid to proxy forces—the European powers had experienced the same phenomenon after World War II when some of the resistance fighters they had equipped to fight the Japanese turned their guns on returning European imperialists.

Initially the American goal was simply to bleed the Soviets. But the Reagan administration shifted the objective from harassing the Soviets to defeating them. Aid increased from $30 million in 1980 to $630 million in 1987, which in effect meant more than $1.2 billion (roughly $3 billion in 2012 dollars) because of the Saudi add-on. In 1986 American officials turned up the pressure still further by dispatching Stinger antiaircraft missiles to the muj. The origins and impact of this decision have been widely misunderstood.

The book and movie Charlie Wilson’s War fostered the impression that a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing Texas congressman was the primary mover behind the Stingers and other aid sent to the muj. Wilson was undoubtedly an influential supporter of the muj but only one of many. And, as even George Crile, author of Charlie Wilson’s War, acknowledged, Wilson was not “directly involved” in the decision to send Stingers. His primary contribution had been to lobby in 1984 for the dispatch of antiaircraft cannons made by the Swiss firm Oerlikon. But since each one weighed 1,200 pounds and required twenty mules to transport, the Oerlikon was not a practical weapon to lug around Afghanistan. By contrast the Stinger weighed only 34 pounds and fired a missile that could lock onto an aircraft’s infrared emissions.

The impetus for sending Stingers came not from Charlie Wilson but from two Defense Department officials—Undersecretary Fred Iklé and his aide Michael Pillsbury, a conservative former Hill staffer. They faced opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and CIA, which feared the consequences of escalating the war by sending high-tech, made-in-America weapons. They succeeded, however, in winning over the State Department official Morton Abramowitz, who in turn brought around Secretary of State George Shultz. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and CIA Director Bill Casey, two other skeptics, were also won over. In March 1986 President Reagan formally approved the dispatch of the Stingers.

Six months later, eight Mi-24 gunships were coming in for a landing at the Jalalabad airport at 3 p.m. on September 29, 1986. The Hind was the most feared Soviet weapon of the war, called Shaitan Arba (Satan’s chariot) by the muj. It was equipped with an automatic Gatling gun, 80-millimeter rockets, and bombs and mines, and its heavy armor made it impervious to most machine-gun fire. But that day a band of mujahideen equipped with three Stingers managed to send three Hinds down in flames. The Russian General Staff later claimed that there was “no appreciable rise in the number of aircraft shot down after the introduction of the Stinger.” Even if this was true, its presence on the battlefield forced Russian pilots to fly whenever possible above 12,500 feet—the Stinger’s maximum range—thereby decreasing their combat effectiveness. The Russians’ best weapon had been neutralized.

While a blow to the occupiers, this was hardly the turning point of the war, as many believe. Even before the deployment of the Stingers, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had concluded that the war was unwinnable. On October 17, 1985, almost a year before the first Stinger was fired, he told the Politburo that he would seek a “withdrawal from Afghanistan in the shortest possible time.” The actual withdrawal would not be completed until 1989, and there would be much hard fighting ahead (including the biggest Soviet offensive of the entire war—Operation Magistral in 1987), but by 1986 the end was in sight.

For the Russians, the nine-year ordeal finally ended on the “chilly winter morning” of February 15, 1989. At 11:55 a.m., Lieutenant General Boris Gromov, commander of the Fortieth Army, walked across the Friendship Bridge from Afghanistan to the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, signaling the end of the Soviet combat role if not the end of the war itself. Russia’s withdrawal represented its first failure after centuries of colonial expansion and showed that even the most brutal counterinsurgency methods will not necessarily succeed if the occupiers lack legitimacy and if their adversaries operate on favorable terrain and receive outside assistance.

The KGB prevented public displays of dissatisfaction with the war at home; there were no antiwar marches as there had been in the United States during the 1960s. By the end of the 1980s, however, there was no way to camouflage this colossal failure, which undermined the already shaky legitimacy of Communist rule and further dispelled the aura of fear among its opponents. It is not entirely a coincidence that the Soviet Union lost control of Eastern Europe the very year it exited Afghanistan. Two years later the whole state collapsed. Afghanistan is said to be the “graveyard of empires,” but, in point of fact, the Soviet empire was the first one to meet its end there, and even the Soviet collapse was mostly the result of factors that had nothing to do with the war. The British Empire, by contrast, had reached the peak of its Victorian glory following its defeat in Afghanistan in 1842.

Ironically the Afghan regime, ruled since 1986 by a former secret police chief named Najibullah, outlived its Soviet sponsor. This was due in no small part to the chronic disunity of its foes. Najibullah was finally toppled in 1992, after Russian aid had ended, by an alliance of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s Tajik guerrillas and Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Uzbek militia. The new government was dominated by Massoud, its army commander, but he was not as adept at politics as at guerrilla warfare—no Tito he. He could not bring the disparate muj factions together; he could not even stop Hekmatyar from shelling Kabul in an attempt to seize power for himself. Chaos reigned across the country as warlords competed for influence and criminals ran wild.

These intolerable conditions led in 1994 to the rise of the Taliban, an ultra-fundamentalist group of Pashtun students riding Toyota pickup trucks who promised to restore order. Most of them were war orphans who had known no peace and had been educated in Saudi-funded madrassas in Pakistani refugee camps where nothing but jihadism was taught. Pakistan switched its support from Hekmatyar to the Taliban, and in 1996, following a ten-month siege, the Taliban entered Kabul as the new rulers of Afghanistan.

One of their first acts was to castrate, shoot, and publicly hang Najibullah. Massoud pulled back to the Panjshir, blowing up the gorges behind him to block pursuit. Along with his allies from the Northern Alliance, he held out against the full might of the Taliban and its new Arab allies from Al Qaeda for the next five years. He finally met his end on September 9, 2001, when he was blown up by two Al Qaeda suicide bombers disguised as TV journalists. Two days later came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which alerted the entire world to the dangers posed by Massoud’s foes.

Actually there had been many warning signs before—not only in 1979 but in subsequent years. Lebanon, in particular, was full of terrible portends if only someone could have read the signs. This was the petri dish where in the 1980s a new style of warfare was developed that utilized suicide bombers to inflict mass casualties—a tactic that Osama bin Laden would later harness with such terrifying ruthlessness.

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