The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"In Country"
Afghanistan: Soviet Vietnam
Vladislav Tamarov (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1992)
Soviet attack helicopters returning from patrol; Soviet troops searching for the enemy

People ask me questions. How was it? What happened in Afghanistan? Why did the war start? What were we doing there, and how did we do it? And even, what kind of weapons did we use to do it? It's much easier for me to answer when I simply give people the information they want. In such conversations I offer the dry numbers and use "official" words. And I try not to think about what lies behind them.

The Afghan government came to power in April 1978 after a military coup. The new government repeatedly asked the Soviet Union for help in supporting its regime. In response, Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979. This decision was made by four members of the Politburo of the Communist party of the Soviet Union, and became known publicly only after the deaths of all four, through official announcements in the Soviet press. If another member of our government dies of old age, it could possibly turn out that he took part in the decision, too. But in this story, it's not important.

The first (and official) reason for sending Soviet troops into Afghanistan was to satisfy the request of the Afghan government.

A second reason: Afghanistan is the Soviet Union's southern neighbor, and placing troops there assured the relative security of our southern borders. The Soviet press didn't write about this reason, but new recruits were told during basic training in boot camp that it was precisely for this reason that they were going to Afghanistan.

Recently, reports are starting to seep out about a third reason, although the information mysteriously keeps disappearing. During the war, there was a constant traffic in drugs, gold and precious stones from Afghanistan into the Soviet Union. There were cases in which zinc coffins were sent to the USSR filled with narcotics instead of soldiers' bodies. To this day, such incidents are covered up, as is the trail of money from this business. Probably, the trail leads too high. But in this story, again, it's not important.

The 40th Army and the 103d Airborne Division were sent to Afghanistan. Border guards took part in some combat missions, operating from the territory of the Soviet Union, but the primary military burden fell on the 103d Airborne Division, which had four regiments in Afghanistan. One regiment, the commanding officers, and the Special Division Battalions were located around the Kabul airfield. A second regiment was stationed near the Afghan government residence in Kabul; one of its duties was to protect the residence. The third, my regiment, was headquartered at the Bala-Hisar fortress on the outskirts of Kabul. A fourth regiment was stationed at the Bagram airport, not far from the capital.

Before being sent to Afghanistan, airborne units were supposed to complete a six-month training course in the Soviet Union. For other kinds of troops, training was just a formality and lasted only a few weeks, except for special troops, the landing storm troops. These units received the same training (and even wore the same uniform) as the airbornes, but their mission was to land inside enemy territory, up to ninety miles from the front lines, and act in the interests of the army to which they were attached.

The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan defined our basic (if not our only) strategy: to always be higher than the enemy. During combat missions special groups were sent ahead, or dropped in advance by helicopters, onto the highest points to cover for the main troops.

Soviet troops carried out four types of military actions in Afghanistan:

1. Major operations were carried out by the 103d Division, with support from the special troops of the 40th Army, using artillery and aircraft. The Afghan government army also participated. The goal of such operations was to destroy large groups of Mujahadeen in specific regions of Afghanistan. Such operations were carried out in stages, and went on for several weeks or sometimes longer.

2. Small operations were usually carried out by one regiment; artillery and aircraft were also used. The goal of these smaller operations was to target and destroy a specific group of Mujahadeen, whose location had been discovered by Afghan intelligence. These missions rarely lasted longer than ten days.

3. "Combing" villages often went on concurrently with the combat missions. The goal was to find hidden weapons or Mujahadeen hospitals.

4. Ambushes were carried out by small groups, usually by a company of scouts, and were organized near the roads, or mountain trails, and near villages. Usually the ambushes were planned from information obtained by Afghan intelligence. But some ambushes were staged as preventive measures, on the roads most frequently used by the Mujahadeen.

Combat missions were carried out frequently in the summertime; they became less frequent as winter approached. When it was cold, the Mujahadeen tried to get back to Pakistan, or they came down from the mountains to the villages. Even in the winter, they sometimes attacked Soviet convoys carrying ammunition, weapons, and food from the Soviet Union.

Near the big cities and busy roads, permanent encampments were set up, where fifteen to forty Soviet soldiers lived. They also guided artillery fire. Their task was to control the area and guard the roads. In case of emergency, they would call for help by radio.


On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen -- the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies -- uncommonly starry -- occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.

And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn't contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights...A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.

The war divided the Afghan people. Some were with us, and others were against us. On our side was the Afghan government, which had come to power in April 1978 (not without our help), and the Afghan Republican Army. Most officers received special training at Afghan military colleges; some even studied in the Soviet Union. An "amusing" example of this kind of training: an Afghan officer named Ahmad Shah. He had graduated from a Soviet military academy, returned to Afghanistan, and went over to the Mujahadeen in Panjsher, where he headed one of the largest groups and put his training to good use. Actually, the only thing an Afghan had to do to enter a military college was apply, and he was in. They chose the soldiers differently: troops went into a village and rounded up men of appropriate age. There were some volunteers, of course -- a few.

The Afghan army often took part in combat missions together with Soviet troops. Frankly, they were lousy soldiers. They tried to stay behind us and were never in a hurry to overtake us. There was nothing surprising about this: many of them, like many of us, were not in this war of their own free will. We had nothing to lose but our lives, but they were fighting their own people on their own land. Our newspapers depicted them as brave and valiant warriors defending their revolution. There were some volunteers who fought on our side to avenge the deaths of their families murdered by the Mujahadeen. Just as there were those who fought on the side of the Mujahadeen to avenge the death of families killed by our shelling. This is what a civil war is about. The only question was, What were we doing there? And why were there more and more unmarked graves in our cemeteries?

At home, in the Soviet Union, they showed only the villages burned by the Mujahadeen and newsreel footage of them shooting down civilian aircraft. From that point of view, our television and newspapers were also partly right. As for me, I can only talk about what I saw.

I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they'd taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there's no time to think about who's there. But for an Afghan, it didn't matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains seeking revenge.

So Afghans became Mujahadeen in different ways. From my point of view, there were three kinds of Mujahadeen.

The first, and the largest number of them, were Afghans who simply went to work to earn money from the war. The majority of these received special training in the Peshawar region of Pakistan. To "do their job" they used American Stingers and M-16 rifles, Italian and English mines, and Chinese automatics (unsuccessful copies of Soviet Kalashnikovs.) In a word, they had no problems obtaining weapons. For their work, they were paid regularly, from 5,000 to 10,000 afghanis for killing a Soviet soldier; from 10,000 to 20,000 for killing a Soviet officer: about 100,000 for destroying a tank or a helicopter or an airplane. An example: once three Mujahadeen were captured in the mountains. They turned out to be Afghan students who were attending Soviet universities. They'd come home for summer vacation and decided to earn some extra money. Among other things, war is a business. Someone sells weapons, someone uses them.

We usually called the Mujahadeen by the less impressive word Dushman ("bandit"). The Dushmans were in the mountains long before the war, only there weren't so many. They stole a bit and dealt in drugs a little, when suddenly the opportunity arose to have a "stable income." There was competition for these jobs. We often heard about fighting between neighboring groups of Mujahadeen; the issue was territorial control.

Journalists don't write about these Mujahadeen in the foreign (and that includes the "free" American) press. But they write about them constantly in the Soviet press.

The second kind of Mujahadeen are the ones who took up arms to defend their country from us. They don't care whether the troops are Soviet, American, or Martian. Any alien who comes into their land bearing weapons is their enemy. I respected these Afghans, although we were on opposite sides of the barricades. The foreign press wrote a lot about them; the Soviet press diligently ignored them.

The third kind were those who went into the mountains nut of their own choosing. Mujahadeen came into their villages, threatening to destroy everything, and took away the men. They needed more men, and if they hadn't taken those men, the Afghan Republican Army would in time have come and taken them.

But it would be untrue to say that all Afghans were involved in the war. Many of them, simple peasants, harvested their crops, herded their sheep, and fed their families. If the war got too close, they were precisely the ones who were in the worst position. Many of them were forced to leave their land -- some fled to the mountains, some to Pakistan, some to Iran. But some of them chose another way. For example, when our troops came to the Bamian region, several elders came out to meet us. In the name of all the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, they gave our troops an ultimatum. It was a simple ultimatum: "We aren't hiding any Mujahadeen. We are peaceful peasants, who have worked on this land all our lives. And if the Mujahadeen come, we can defend ourselves. We won't let them in. And we won't let you in either. We don't want deaths here. But if you come on our land with weapons, we will defend ourselves."

It may sound strange, but we believed them. We believed them, and we left. We knew they were telling the truth, and we didn't want the deaths of our soldiers any more than they wanted the deaths of their people. Somewhere in our subconscious, we understood that the only thing we wanted was to go home. We also knew that if someone invaded our land, we would defend ourselves, just as these Afghans were doing. That's how it was for Napoleon in Russia, for Hitler in the Soviet Union, for the Americans in Vietnam, and for us in Afghanistan.

Panjsher -- its name means "Valley of Five Lions." Panjsher -- one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan...

The explosion rang in my ears with an unexpectedly sharp force. Out of habit, my body reacted to it faster than my mind -- in an instant, I was already lying behind a big rock, against a cliff a few feet from the trail. There was no blood. Thank God for that. They were shooting from somewhere above us. OK, so the Dushmans ("the bandits," as we called the Mujahadeen) had decided to begin launching mines, and it was a strange sort of favor for them to do us -- because had they started with the large-caliber machine gun, the DShK, there would have been nothing left of us but holes when they finished.

Under the rock, something started to rustle -- a young scorpion, with his tail in the air, like a tomcat on the prowl, froze in his attack stance. Behind the rock, someone cursed a blue streak and shot him with a round of fire from an automatic. I recognized the voice of the artillery gun-layer. He wasn't a bad guy, but he was high-strung. In any event, there were now two of us to get out of there. The one in front covers. He attracts the fire while the one in back runs. The situation wasn't particularly pleasant for either person. In this case, the artillery gun-layer was behind me.

Drops of salty sweat slowly crawled down my unshaven cheek and stuck in the corner of my mouth. After arguing a while over whether he should run on a count of three or five, we agreed on seven. There was a smell of lemon in the air. There was no way to tell where it was coming from. I wanted to wake up, and the sooner the better.

A mine crackled close by and exploded about fifteen feet from the artillery gun-layer. We needed to get our asses out of there as fast as we could. There was no time to lose, so I three four smoke bombs onto the trail, all that I had. The artillery gun-layer had started to count. The pungent red smoke spread out like a half-transparent cloud over the incline. On the count of seven my finger pressed the trigger, which was shiny with use. In my heart there was nothing but frenzy and fury. I was ready to destroy every living thing around me, whether it was human or not. A bullet buzzed right by my ear and slapped into the cliff behind my back. "Exploders," I noticed mechanically, while my hand replaced one magazine after another. The next incoming bullet knocked off my hat. THAT'S IT! I was already pressing my back into the cliff and trying to get my finger, which was numb with tension, off the trigger.

Bullets slapped into the cliff a few inches from me. The fragments fell under my legs and rolled toward the trail. OK, now I'm the target and it won't be so easy to get out of here. It was getting pretty noisy -- the Mujahadeen obviously didn't expect this kind of impudence from us, and now they were shooting with whatever was at hand. A shell crackled through the air and exploded somewhere up around where they were shooting from. Then a second, a third. That was a pleasant change -- it meant the artillery gun-layer had made it and now he was directing the artillery fire. He was covering me.

Now came the most difficult part -- like jumping with a parachute -- the first step, a step off a precipice. And it was a long way to run, about 105 feet. But if I really tried I could make it in about ten seconds. I wasn't scared, but for some reason I was stuck to the cliff. The next shell crackled in the air. The Mujahadeen froze. Explosion! Now! Let's go...

ONE! My body went soft after the first step.

TWO! No thought of any kind. There was no place to fall. Eyes--forward...

THREE! Forward...Forward...

FOUR! Why the hell did I bring this backpack?

FIVE! Damn this Panjsher!

SIX! Relax. The guys are already covering me.

SEVEN! Where is the ground? I Fell into emptiness...

EIGHT! A bullet whistled somewhere behind me. If I hadn't fallen, it would have hit me in the head...

NINE! The ground hit me in the back with frightening force. Something blindingly blue cut across my eyes.

TEN! It's the sky. But why is it so bright?

ELEVEN! It's so close that I can reach out and stroke it...

TWELVE! Somebody's hand grabbed me and dragged me behind the rocks.

THIRTEEN! I seem to be coming to. Somebody is taking off my backpack.

I looked up to where the steep descent began. Alas, I hadn't noticed it...but I flew pretty well, about twelve feet. "What are you lying around for?" smiled the tired artillery gun-layer. "This is Panjsher. It's not a place for relaxing.," he said. He was right. Panjsher is definitely not a place for relaxing.