Afghanistan: Great Powers Sinkhole!

Russia emerged as a great power early in the nineteenth century, when Tsar Alexander I, newly confident after helping drive Napoleon’s invading army back into France, resumed Peter the Great’s old push south into the Caucasus Mountains west of the Caspian Sea, and east toward Central Asia. The remnants of Timur’s (Tamerlane’s) empire there consisted of rival khanates, most prominently in Khiva, Bukhara, and Samarkand. General Alexei Yermolov, an ambitious and outspoken artillery officer who had distinguished himself in the Napoleonic wars, led Russia’s expansion into what’s now Chechnya and Dagestan, and over the Caucasus into Georgia. Under the reforming Alexander, the campaign sparked a revival of a lengthy struggle with the dying Ottoman Empire. In 1828, Yermolov’s replacement, General Ivan Paskevich, beat back a Persian thrust, annexed Armenia, and defeated the Turks in a brief conflict the following year.

Britain was foremost among the powers that opposed Russia’s advance. Increasingly disturbed by the Russians’ enduring hunger for a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean, the chief rival for influence in the region watched uneasily from the sidelines. Although myth about Russia’s actual capabilities to threaten India inflated the worry by the world’s leading naval power, it also had real cause. After the East India Company had spearheaded Britain’s subjugation of the Indian subcontinent in the 1830s, the new colony sought protection from the threat of encroachment by Russian forces a few thousand miles to the north. For that purpose, London sent a bright young artillery officer named Alexander Burnes to Kabul in 1837. Burnes had met the Afghan leader, Prince Dost Mohammed, in 1832.

The two got on well, and Burnes reported to the Indian governor-general, George Eden, First Earl of Auckland, that Dost Mohammed would agree to an alliance with the British if they would support him in his conflict in Punjab with the powerful Sikhs. Lord Auckland rejected the offer out of unwillingness to cross the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh, with whom he’d previously forged a treaty.

Burnes reported something else about his visit to Kabul: the arrival there of a tsarist army captain. British concern swelled with the news. Although the Russians would also fail to come to an agreement with Dost Mohammed, Lord Auckland, determined to act, ordered an Anglo-Indian army to invade Afghanistan. Thus began the bloodletting of the Great Game in Central Asia between Russia and Britain: a struggle to control the strategic frontier territory that separated the borders of the burgeoning empires. It would bear many of the hallmarks of previous and later campaigns in Afghanistan, chiefly quick victory followed by a long, grinding opposition, then brutal fighting and terrible carnage.

Britain’s first Afghan War lasted until 1842. The British forces, eager for conquest and laden with servants and camels (sixty of the animals were required to transport one brigadier’s personal belongings), met little resistance at first. Capturing Kandahar and Ghazni in July 1839, they moved on to take Kabul the following month. When Dost Mohammed surrendered, they installed a puppet, Shah Shuja, on the throne, then returned most of their troops to India.

Two years later, the British gains started unraveling. The chain of events began in London. After taking power in August 1841, Robert Peel, the new Tory prime minister, announced cutbacks in the enormous sums required to maintain troops in Afghanistan. In October, the British envoy to Shah Shuja’s court announced that some tribal chiefs’ annual stipends would be cut. Days later, the Ghilzai tribe attacked a caravan from India, severing the vital British supply line.

Dost Mohammed’s son, Akbar Khan, helped lead a revolt against Shah Shuja the following month. After an Afghan mob stormed Alexander Burnes’s house and murdered him, fierce fighting ensued. By December, the Afghans had overwhelmed the British forces and forced William Macnaughten, the senior envoy, to negotiate a treaty that required the British to leave the country. However, Akbar Khan tricked Macnaughten, who was also murdered, together with General William Elphinstone, the incompetent commander of British troops in Afghanistan. The British forces withdrew, repeatedly ambushed and brutally massacred during their retreat to India through freezing, snow-covered mountain passes. One group of around 16,500 British and Indian troops made its way toward Jalalabad. Only one person, a severely injured doctor, survived the ninety-mile journey. When the remnants of the British force had finally left in December 1842, Dost Mohammed reassumed the throne. The debacle, however, did not persuade the losers in the Great Game’s first round to throw in the towel.

Dost Mohammed set about reclaiming territories lost from his former domain. By the time he signed a peace agreement with British India in 1855, Britain was embroiled in the Crimean War. That conflict had begun in 1853, over a dispute between France and Russia about who had jurisdiction over Christian sites in the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. When Russia invaded the Danubian principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, the British joined the French in fear that the Russians would take control of the Dardanelles-the Turkish-controlled entrance to the Mediterranean Sea-and sided with the Ottoman Empire.

Now it was time for Russian prestige to suffer a humiliating blow. It was delivered by the surrender of its port of Sevastopol and the scuttling of its great Black Sea fleet. The defeat followed a British and French siege that exposed the inefficient Russian military’s desperate need for modernization. Nevertheless, Russia soon bounded back under Alexander II, who ascended the throne in 1855, during the war. The tsar revived the push into Central Asia, and his forces took Tashkent in 1865. When Bukhara and Khiva gave way, the British worried again about an invasion of India from Russian Central Asia, called Turkestan.

In Kabul, Dost Mohammed’s death in 1878 set off a power struggle among his sons that ended when the third brother, Sher Ali Khan, emerged as the successor. The same year, Turkestan’s governor-general, General Konstantin Kaufman, sent a mission to Kabul to enlist Afghan support. Angered by the Russian presence, the British demanded the Afghans also accept a British mission. When the message was ignored-most likely because it coincided with the death of Sher Ali’s favorite son-the British issued an ultimatum. Sher Ali accepted, but his notice arrived too late to avert a second invasion of Afghanistan in November.

The British entertained few illusions about involvement in Afghanistan during the Second Afghan War, and their temperamental advance was reinforced by technological and military progress. Rail, steampower, and the telegraph gave their soldiers-who wore khaki and helmets instead of red coats-a huge advantage over the badly equipped Afghan forces. Sher Ali fled when the British retook Kabul in October 1879. In his place, the British installed Abdur Rahman Khan, Dost Mohammed’s grandson, who had lived twelve years in Russian-controlled Tashkent. He soon became known as the “Iron Emir” for his moves to break the tribal system’s hold over most of Afghanistan’s territory.

“It does not disappoint me,” wrote of Kabul Colonel Charles Metcalfe MacGregor, the vainglorious chief of staff to the commander of the British force, “it is just what I expected, mean, filthy like an Afghan’s heart.” Despite their victory, the British were beset by constant attacks from the Ghilzai and other tribes, and controlled only as much territory as their soldiers could defend. Thanks to that, and because they were convinced the Russians would be as unable as they were to conquer Afghanistan, they withdrew from Kabul, retaining control of the country’s foreign policy.

In 1885, Russia and Britain agreed to a line stretching between the Hari Rud and Amu Dar’ya rivers as the delineation of Afghanistan’s northern border. Further demarcation came in 1893, when the Indian government’s foreign secretary, Sir Mortimer Durand, began mapping the country’s eastern border. The Durand Line cut straight through Pashtun territory, splitting it between Afghanistan and India. That separation would profoundly affect the country’s future by prompting a sustained Pashtun drive to unite their territory and, later still, assuring serious conflict with the new state of Pakistan on the other side of the border. Meanwhile, the British also added to Afghanistan a thin buffer sliver in the northeast between the Pamir and Hindu Kush Mountains. The Wakhan Corridor, as it was called, was intended to ensure that no particle of Russian-controlled territory would touch British India.

The British continued subsidizing the Afghan emir until Amanallah-Abdul Rahman’s grandson-launched a jihad in May 1919. Severely drained by World War I and facing a growing Indian national liberation movement, the British nevertheless counterattacked, and a treaty was drawn up at the Indian cantonment town of Rawalpindi. Amanullah lost his British subsidies, but essentially won independence: Britain relinquished control over Afghanistan’s foreign policy and recognized Afghan sovereignty. Many therefore regard 1919 as the birth of the modern Afghan nation. Amanallah changed his title from emir to king six years later.

Thus the British left, but with what they thought was reason to believe they’d won the Great Game, especially after Russia suffered another profoundly humiliating defeat, this time by Japan. After the tsar’s supposedly powerful Baltic Sea Fleet had steamed halfway around the world to reach the Pacific Ocean in 1905, Japanese guns sank or severely damaged virtually every ship. But Russian aspirations didn’t die. Even after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Moscow remained diplomatically engaged with Afghanistan, providing aid and subsidies. Indeed, as mentioned, the Soviet Union became the first country to recognize Afghanistan’s sovereignty in 1919, before the British did that same year. Sixty years later, however, history would add to its abundance of ironies when Moscow, now represented by Leonid Brezhnev’s supremely misguided Politburo, would go far to destroy what little remained of Afghan statehood.

As Soviet forces fought Ahmed Shah Massoud’s fighters in the Panjshir Valley, the military also established direct contact with the rebel commander. An intelligence colonel named Anatoly Tkachev met Massoud in the Panjshir Valley in January 1983. On first seeing the mujahideen leader, Tkachev was surprised to find him modestly dressed in traditional Afghan clothes-and friendly. Nothing about Massoud resembled his Soviet propaganda description as the animal-like, evil face of the enemy. The Soviets offered Massoud a cease-fire in Panjshir. For his part, Massoud appeared surprised by the Soviets’ willingness to negotiate, a new tactic after two years of strict ultimatums to surrender to Karmal’s government. For his part, Tkachev saw in Massoud a serious politician who thought strategically and knew what he was doing. “I’m not an adversary of the Soviet Union or the Soviet people,” Massoud told Tkachev. The real enemy, he said, was the Afghan government.

The negotiations worked. In 1983, the Soviets forged a truce with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley. Both sides promised to withhold from launching major offensives, ushering in a period of low intensity stalemate. The lull served to sharpen mujahideen territorial disputes and other forms of infighting. As rival groups ambushed competitors’ convoys from Pakistan with increasing frequency, resort to one of Afghanistan’s oldest commercial practices-demanding tolls for passage through transport routes-found new favor. Burgeoning new weapons arsenals helped escalate the infighting.

The supply networks enlarging mujahideen weapons stores became increasingly corrupt as they grew in size. The prospect of profit from American and Saudi funds encouraged some countries to dump their obsolete, unwanted arms surpluses on Afghanistan. While Washington paid for a massive Israeli cache of captured Soviet weapons, Egypt sent broken AK-47s and Turkey sold World War II-era weapons. Even the British contributed an outdated, handheld antiaircraft missile called Blowpipe. The corruption magnified at the lower ends of the supply chains. Officers of Pakistan’s ISI were getting rich by selling the mujahideen arms that had been bought by Washington and Riyadh-and some rebels didn’t mind paying because they were reselling the weapons for their own profit. By early 1984, Pakistani dictator General Zia resolved to bring Afghanistan operations under tighter control.

Convening a meeting in Peshawar of the seven main Afghan rebel leaders, Zia called on them to form an alliance. The youngest and toughest of the leaders, fundamentalist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was ruthless, staunchly Islamist, and volatile in temper, but the Pakistanis saw him as an efficient, effective leader and would continue feeding his Party of Islam the lion’s share of the American and Saudi aid they distributed to the mujahideen. Hekmatyar was already disdainful of the United States; he’d soon refuse to meet Ronald Reagan in Washington. Later he would become one of the West’s sworn enemies, and would call for jihad against the United States after the U. S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Hekmatyar and Massoud were bitter rivals. After the Soviet withdrawal, their enmity would help tear Kabul and the rest of the country apart in fierce infighting.

Another fundamentalist, Rasul Sayyaf, had maintained his close ties to Saudi Arabia. Yunis Khalis, an elderly Pashtun mullah from the eastern Nangarhar Region who’d split from Hekmatyar, led a group that included Abdul Haq, the CIA-connected commander who staged daring operations near Kabul. Unlike some of the other leaders, who spent much of their time abroad, Khalis had a reputation for being a fierce fighter.

Apart from Tajik linguist Burhanuddin Rabbani and his Society of Islam, the relatively moderate mujahideen leaders included Mohammed Nabi Mahommedi and Sayed Ahmad Gailani, who came from a wealthy family that had connections to the royal family. Western journalists dubbed Gailani’s group “Gucci muj” for his well-known love of expensive clothes. Another moderate, Sibgatullah Mojaddedi, was leader of Afghanistan’s Naqshbandi order of the mystical Islamic Sufi sect. Mojaddedi’s group had a reputation for being ineffectual on the battlefield. Unlike their more radical Islamist counterparts, the four more moderate mujahideen leaders wanted to institute a constitutional government; Gailani even wanted to restore the monarchy. Despite fierce disagreements and deep mutual suspicion, the mujahideen leaders, who came to be known as the Peshawar Seven, formed a fragile alliance.

Although the CIA had been unhappy from the beginning to funnel all its aid to the mujahideen through Pakistan’s ISI, it was more practical than having to deal directly with dozens of competing rebel groups, besides helping obscure Washington’s role. That role was now taking on a new character under CIA director William Casey. An unrepentant Cold Warrior bent on attacking the Soviet Union, Casey pushed for expanding American aid and other aspects of U. S. involvement in the conflict. One of his operations was smuggling Korans into Soviet Central Asia. The volumes were printed in Uzbek, and their mujahideen smugglers also conducted acts of sabotage on Soviet territory.

Members of Congress enthusiastically supported the jihad in Afghanistan. Chief among them was Texas Democratic Representative Charlie Wilson, an alcoholic former naval officer, who was sometimes accompanied by young models-including a former Miss World USA title winner-when he flew on government-paid junkets, some of them inside Afghanistan.

Trumpeting the Afghan conflict as a crucial fight of good versus evil, Wilson pushed through Congress measures to boost spending on supplying the mujahideen. In time, a growing chorus of conservative voices in Washington joined his criticism of the government for providing insufficient help to the Afghan freedom fighters confronting what President Reagan called “the evil empire.”

Washington’s $50 million funneled to the mujahideen in 1984 ballooned to $250 million the following year, including CIA funds diverted from the Pentagon. In April, the president dramatically boosted American involvement by issuing a directive requiring “all available means” to be used to force the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Despite the propaganda about the American threat in Afghanistan, the Soviets couldn’t know then that U. S.-and Saudi-aid would soon turn the mujahideen into an even more formidable force. The daily struggle simply to get by in Afghanistan’s grueling conditions was already overwhelming for many troops. “Sand in your eyes, sand in your mouth, sand runs through your veins,” went one of the many guitar-accompanied laments Soviet soldiers strummed whiling away time in their barracks when not on training exercises.

The sun was setting when Boris Kuznetsov arrived in his new quarters in southeastern Kandahar in 1982. The surrounding Rigestan desert appeared to him red enough to have been made from crushed bricks. If he’d thought about it, the redness might have seemed a good omen: although Kuznetsov had graduated as an air force pilot two years earlier and volunteered for duty in Afghanistan, he was now a political officer, a politruk, whose job would be to enforce the Party line among the ranks of the 280th Separate Helicopter Regiment.

The lieutenant in his mid-twenties lived with two other officers in a trailer next to a row of helicopter hangars. The heat was almost unbearable. The Soviet air-conditioners that were being installed at last often couldn’t cope with the soaring temperatures, so the officers covered open windows with blankets and mattresses, then regularly doused them with buckets of water. Evaporation cooled rooms better than the Soviet machinery.

Gunfire erupted outside as soon as darkness fell on Kuznetsov’s first night. It came steadily closer until he could make out even the sound of bullet casings hitting the ground. Despite a fenced security perimeter reinforced by sentries and minefields, mujahideen fighters would creep as close as they could before firing their Kalashnikovs and mortars. When the Soviets returned fire, the Afghans would move to new positions and resume their volleys from there, sustaining them for hours on many nights. Since the airfields’ landing lights made perfect targets, night flights by helicopters and planes were strictly forbidden. When planes had to take off for emergencies, most risked the considerable danger of doing so in complete darkness.

Later, when Kuznetsov would be stationed in Bagram, two soldiers who’d left their barracks to use outdoor latrines during the night were found dead, their severed heads impaled on sticks in the ground. Either mujahideen had penetrated the base or sabotage had been committed from within.

In addition to accompanying helicopter missions in several regions of Afghanistan, Kuznetsov traveled to various air bases to discuss their condition with senior officers. He shared some of what he learned in “Political Work in the War in the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan,” a classified pamphlet of his published in 1985. Meanwhile, other problems commanded his attention. When he was transferred to the city of Shindand in the western Herat Region in 1983, he found sex between servicemen and nurses, secretaries, and other female workers so widespread that one of his first tasks there was to help set up separate living quarters for women, surrounded by fences and guarded by sentries. Similar “fortifications” would be constructed on other bases throughout Afghanistan.

As the Party’s eyes and ears in the military, politruki were charged with making certain no one forgot his or her international duty to help the Afghan comrades shore up the Communist Revolution. Kuznetsov believed winning the war was essential for Soviet security too. If the Americans penetrated Afghanistan, they’d be able to set up missile installations in the Hindu Kush Mountains, capable of reaching any part of the Soviet Union (never mind that U. S. intercontinental ballistic missiles could already do the same).

Twenty-five-year-old helicopter pilot Vladimir Kostiuchenko was far less convinced about the rightness of the struggle. The Irkutsk native was in a wave of personnel also dispatched to Kandahar to replace those who’d taken part in the war’s initial phase. When he arrived in June 1981, his first squadron briefing was essentially a declaration that all their previous training counted for little.

“Do you know where you’ve arrived?” barked his battle-scarred squadron commander, an acrid-smelling Soviet Belomor cigarette dangling from his lower lip. “You may be first-class pilots back home, but you’re just kids here! As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as rank! You’re a veteran or a kid. Forget your military manuals. Everything we know here has been written with blood!”

Kostiuchenko’s squadron consisted of four Mi-8s and four Mi-24 gunships. On his first trial flight the following day, his copilot, an “old-timer,” told him his control dials were almost useless for highly risky operations in dangerous mountain territory. Surviving in Afghanistan required reliance on instinct, he said. Distances were to be ascertained by holding a foot out to the chopper’s floor window and using relative size to judge, a method that helped compensate for the lack of a visual horizon and enabled quicker reaction. Aircraft were pushed as hard as possible, to almost 150 miles an hour. Flying to operations sites had to be done high enough to avoid machine-gun and rocket fire from the ground. But helicopters descended when nearing their targets, and approached as low to the ground as possible. Pilots delivering supplies in the field were to break away immediately, tilting their rotors at angles steeper than regulations allowed. Helicopters traveling toward battlegrounds were to fly in from the direction of the sun to blind the enemy, and fire at anything that moved, including witnesses of possible war crimes.

As with weapons and armored personnel carriers, the Soviets improved helicopter designs throughout the war. Standard Mi-8T models that carried twenty-four troops were replaced with modified types, including the Mi-8MT, which were more powerful, boasted more weapons-including the same rocket pods that Mi-24s carried-and performed better in hot and high-altitude conditions. Infrared jammers and “ears”-attachments that redirected exhaust-to confuse heat-seeking missiles were also added. But Kostiuchenko and other pilots preferred flying without the devices, which added weight and hindered maneuverability.

Although violating regulations was strictly forbidden and often punished, rules were regularly broken. Kostiuchenko’s squadron took part in a particularly dangerous mission to evacuate dead and wounded from the Hindu Kush foothills near Shindand in the fall of 1981. Several Mi-8s were shot down. When a doctor on board informed Kostiuchenko one of the wounded would die if the helicopter were to fly at the usual altitude, he violated procedure by flying lower. The soldier survived and Kostiuchenko’s helicopter escaped unscathed. But casualties incurred while regulations were broken, even during difficult combat operations, were highly criticized by the regimental command and classified as “unreasonable.”

One of Kostiuchenko’s first missions was a night bombing raid in the Rigestan desert of southern Helmand Province. While returning to base, the pilots of two Mi-8s spotted a row of headlights below them, moving along the Helmand basin toward Kandahar. Radioing for instructions, the crews were ordered to fire at the vehicles. They unleashed a round of machine-gun fire, noted the position, and continued home. When another pair of Mi-8s flew to the site to inspect the damage the next day, they followed standard procedure by firing at two stationary cars on the flat scrubland below them. As they descended in order to land and investigate, an elderly Afghan emerged from one of the vehicles and fired at the helicopters with an ancient Bora rifle. The helicopters returned fire, but the lone figure below miraculously continued firing and managed to penetrate one chopper’s turboshaft before the craft finally dispatched the man and landed. Cautiously emerging to scour the surrounding bushes, crew members saw a grim picture of civilians, mostly women and children, lying dead. Now the Soviets concluded the old man they’d just killed was probably trying to protect his family. Only one person was found alive: a girl of about three years old with a badly wounded hand.

Soon Kostiuchenko’s helicopter arrived with parts for the chopper that had been hit. Accustomed to viewing the landscape from a distance, he was dismayed to see civilian carnage close up. Trying to calm the terrified girl, he nervously helped bandage her hand to stop its bleeding. Minutes later, a paratrooper who’d flown in on one of the helicopters took her aside, held a Makarov pistol to her head, and fired. Her small frame slumped to the ground, blood oozing onto the dusty earth. Paratroopers picked up her body and put it along with the others inside the bullet-ridden cars, doused them with gasoline, and set them alight. Later, the strict instructions to keep silent about the incident only deepened the effect on Kostiuchenko. Even after having been shot down twice, the sight of the little girl’s murder would haunt him for years as his worst war experience.

Still, Kostiuchenko in time became inured to massacres of civilians. Many took place during looting raids, usually when two Mi-8s would scour roads for vehicles carrying goods. Once a car was spotted, one of the helicopters would stop it while the other circled overhead, providing cover. Drivers and passengers were usually shot before their vehicles were raided for everything that could be pried off and carried away, including radios. On one of Kostiuchenko’s first raids, his job was to stop a car identified for looting by firing rounds nearby. He accidentally hit the car’s gasoline tank, which exploded, killing everyone inside. Back on the ground in Kandahar, he had to stay out of sight for days because furious “old-timers” threatened to beat him senseless for ruining a promising prospect for profit.

On another flight over the Rigestan desert, Kostiuchenko’s crew killed three men on motorcycles, then loaded their bikes through the clamshell back doors of their Mi-8 for sale in Kandahar. “Free hunting,” as the rampantly widespread acts were called, provided Soviet pilots and crews with cash to supplement their meager pay and rations, although much of the money went to prostitutes. With little fear of punishment, killing civilians and taking their property soon seemed almost normal. Army officers had more opportunities for raiding than pilots; Kostiuchenko noticed that even some privates were wealthier than he was. Over the years, the spectacle of so many Afghans killed for their possessions would lead him-like so many other participants-to believe looting turned the war against the Soviets.

The dusty city of Gardez rises from the Shah-i-Kot Valley, sixty miles south of Kabul near the soaring, snow-covered Gardez Mountains that neighbor a series of extensive mujahideen tunnel complexes. Sergei Salabayev arrived there on December 30, 1984, to join the Fifty-sixth Air Assault Brigade. The young private had studied in a technical vocational school in his native Novokuibishevsk-an oilrefinery city in Samara Region on the Volga River-specializing as a machine-tool worker. Soon after he was drafted, a fight between some young men in the town escalated when police showed up. An officer shot and killed one of the men, who turned on the police, setting their car on fire. All recent draftees from Novokuibishevsk were sent to Afghanistan as punishment.

In Gardez, the brigade’s officers were busy scrounging supplies for New Year’s Eve the following day. How to greet a new crop of conscripts was far less important than preparing for the biggest holiday of the year; the thirty draftees were taken to a tent that contained a heater, a small supply of coal, and nothing else. The next day, the men were given some bread and canned beef as a New Year’s present. That evening, drunken horseplay around the base resulted in firing and several deaths.

The new arrivals were soon assembled by a group of soldiers in their second year of service: the dedy, or grandfathers, the Red Army’s main instrument of enforcement among the ranks. This contingent told Salabayev’s group to respect their superiors and obey their every order, one of the first of which was to wash their socks. Salabayev’s refusal earned him a beating. Here, too, the only soldiers exempt from the tyranny of the dedy were the “civilians” who hadn’t yet been demobilized although their time of service had ended. Exempted from missions and neither issuing orders nor doling out punishment, they did little more than sleep and eat.

Salabayev’s first assignment was guarding one of the brigades’ arms depots in a small stone warehouse near his tent, which he shared with three other conscripts. Not having been issued winter coats, the soldiers stood duty for twenty freezing nights in light field jackets. Salabayev managed to sleep only standing up and wedged against a wall, his sleeves pulled over his hands for warmth. He jogged in place when his feet began to go numb. Later, the soldiers improvised foot wrappings, portianki-which Soviet soldiers wore instead of socks-by cutting material from an insulated tent used for political-education lectures. Salabayev’s duty also deprived him of meals. Since leaving one’s post was a court-martial offense with severe punishment, soldiers often ate only by sneaking into the canteen to steal what they could find. Salabayev’s strength diminished until he collapsed from exhaustion. Carried unconscious to his tent, he awoke two days later and found he’d lost his voice.

He was unable to speak for two weeks, but eventually regained his strength. Then he became so bored with life on the base that he dreamed of being sent on a mission into the mountains.

Despite President Babrak Karmal’s ineffectual rule, his government managed to reverse its steady loss of control. The army even began to rebuild its numbers, which may have fallen to as low as twenty thousand by 1983. Stricter conscription was partly responsible, but so was waxing civilian opposition to the often ruthless mujahideen, whose terrorist attacks were wounding and killing innocent people. The KhAD security service, under chief Mohammed Najibullah, swelled to eighteen thousand. Despite the gains, however, when French journalist Edward Girardet visited the Panjshir Valley in mid-1984, he reported seeing ten to fifteen desertions a day by Afghan Army soldiers.

In Kabul, the drive to liberate women from some of their most oppressive restrictions encouraged study and work, even in the military. “Contemporary photos of young women in smart KhAD uniforms performing responsible duties in the capital,” writes historian Stephen Tanner, “reveal a stage in Afghan cultural history unique at the time and which has not since been repeated.”

In the few parts of the country the Soviets controlled, they set up schools and day-care centers. Soviet officials also provided aid to farmers, then paid generously for their produce. But civilian aid of that kind was small compensation for the growing number of atrocities Soviet units committed elsewhere in the countryside. Most Afghans lived in constant fear of attack. In a conflict with no shortage of horror, the din of approaching Soviet Mi-24 helicopter gunships was perhaps most terrifying to the senses. Appearing as distant specks, the aircraft would grow larger and louder until they roared overhead on their way to pound rebel sites with rockets and bombs-or do the same to villages, often laying waste to them.

Although the Soviets launched no major offensives in 1983, they continued attacking civilian settlements and infrastructure. Since some of the people gave the rebels shelter and sustenance, that was an attempt-when it was not pure revenge or sadism- to destroy their support base. (In the Chechen war a decade later, the same scorched-earth strategy would be used against the civilian population, who in that case were citizens of Russia itself.) Wiping out civilians was also a form of ideological warfare used in the past. Joseph Stalin’s policy of collectivization helped create a famine that killed millions in Ukraine in the 1930s. Forcing people from their land appeared preferable to dealing with “reactionaries,” be they prosperous landowners or ancient tribes.

Much of Afghanistan’s rural population was reduced to subsistence farming or utter ruin. By mid-1984, 3.5 million refugees had fled to Pakistan and another million had crossed the border into Iran. Up to 2 million people were internally displaced, most having fled to cities, whose population ballooned. Kabul’s clogged streets and bustling bazaars teemed with provincial newcomers who milled about in the dust, together with rebels, spies, and many varieties of Soviets.