Nowadays I am deeply buried in a new book called Hidden War, a part of my attempts to empty Amazon's stocks of books and DVDs about USSR. It is about the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-89 but mainly an account of the famous Russian journalist Artyom Borovik during his numerous trips to the Afghanistan with the Red Army. Although I am not an avid page turner myself, I have nearly halved the 200ish paged book in 2 days already.
So what is this Hidden War about?
Most of you already know Afghanistan as the lair of the mastermind of September 11 attacks and homeground of the Taliban, who represent a missing link in the human evolution from ape. Now Afghanistan is also a part of your news reels when US and its "coalition" forces drop some heavy charges over some starving people in the sunbaked deserts. But it all started more than 20 years ago when a deeply divided Afghanistan (it was a country then...with a beautiful embassy situated just near our house in Ankara where we used to infiltrate and steal fruits from the garden) of the communist Afghans naturally backed by USSR through many agreements of fraternity (For God's sake, there is an Afghan cosmonaut sent to space in a soviet space ship!...) and a crack coalition of the opposing forces of non-communist Afghan forces naturally backed by USA (watch Charlie Wilson's War). USSR wanted a communist (or at least not anti-communist) Afghanistan under its belly to undermine the american green belt project in which the Soviet Union would be diapered through its southwest to southern borders by a succession of anti-communist states from Turkey to Pakistan and also secure any uprisings that could be caused in central asian soviet republics where the flowering nationalism was brewed with islamic extremist plague coming from their distant-cousins in Iran and Afghanistan.
It was a good plan on the mahogany desks of Kremlin but proved to be a near disaster when communism, promising a new world order through the dictatorship of the proletariat was to be imposed upon the most backward nation on Earth after the lost tribes in Amazon forests. The Afghan people, so unlucky to be born in a country which is so mountainous, arid and inhospitable that it could be called "the Switzerland, Sahara and Ethiopia of Asia" at the same time, were battle hardened and medieval tribal people who were trying to cling on to a simple way of life by growing opium for work, getting high and killing each other as a hobby. Trying to set soviet states out of nomadic tribes of central asia was one happy communist experiment but setting a Democratic People's Republic in Afghanistan where the democracy and equality only works in the distribution of infant death rates across the country, was an experiment gone too far. That's why a so-communist revolution led by some power hungry men backed by Soviets that toppled a king in 1970s was a beginning of the end of the country...the rest is history.
Soviets began by pouring funds that they have been eluding from their own people to settle the coup but ended up being the dedicated armed guards of it. They have ultimately replaced the same military that they have come to advise and modernise and were stuck deep into a hit-and-run guerilla war against one of the most strong-willed nations on the one of the most unwelcoming terrains in the world. (This reminds me of the Vietnam War).
The glorious Red Army, which has the undeniable merits of crushing the Wehrmacht in a meat grinding war ending at 1945, was flexing its muscles during the time by killing unarmed East German workers, Hungarians, Czechs and even its own people and being pumped by the majority of the soviet nations' industrial output for years, so hunting a bunch of barefoot sunburnt militia armed with World War 1 era rifles (which their grandfathers took as spoils of war from the English prisoners after decapitating them in 1890s) would not be a big problem. It proved wrong with a cost of countless innocent young soviet lives. An army that hasn't changed its major battleground tactics from the Operation Bagration in 1944, where an army of millions would run towards the enemy as human wave attacks and thousands of tanks would follow on the carpet of soviet corpses to deliver the finalizing blow, used similar tactics for start and after bodybags with red banners started to arrive to Moscow, Kiev and Leningrad, the soviet press had to abandon its daily dose of heroism and body counts of thousands of afghan mujahideen, and the Red Army had to follow a learning curve that resembled the topography of Panjshir Valley and deployed its legendary Spetznas guys (remember the expression of the Afgans describing them in Rambo 3, the US sponsored Stallone flick where he fought against evils back to back with Bin Ladin lookalikes and taught them how to use Boeing 737s as suicide bombs -this was cut before the screenings of course).
The Spetznas, an eyecandy to Soviet modern warfare, armed to teeth with every modification of AK-47 available from toothpick to anti-aircraft gun and backed by a killer fleet of numerous kinds of helicopters to land them when they were needed and ambush the enemy convoys (actually a bunch of mules and children carrying guns and flour). The airborne tactics proved successful on a landscape where the army had to climb either up or down the rocky mountains and hills to find an enemy that could be under every rock formation.
The superiority they enjoyed with state-of-the art flying weaponry and special forces against strong-willed but drastically outgunned enemy came to a dramatic end when a sinister weapon called Stinger heat seeking missiles appeared from nowhere (actually made in USA and smuggled from Pakistan) and started downing the carefree flying helicopters one by one. It was the magical weapon for the Afghans because it needed no weapons training at all: any mujahideen with two hands and an intact shoulder (which is enough to be a mujahideen after all) and enough will power to trigger it. The heat seeking missile would find its own hot target, a soviet helicopter or a nearby tandury (bread oven).
Adding the discouragement of losing half of its airborne flying force in 2 years, the draining economical effect of the standing army beyond the nations borders and the glasnost (openness) policy of Gorbachev which suddenly revealed that a meaningless war was being lost for more than 5 years in a country that is on the corner of nowhere, there had to be a backup plan for a withdrawal. If it was for Stalin, the public would still read victory notes on the papers and the returnng bodybags would be discharged in the air over Kazakh steppes and their families would be sent to Gulag for some godforsaken reason. (May someone bless Gorbachev and his team for that)
All military tacticians agree that withdrawal is harder than going in and also add a totalitarian state which has only its army left to stand on to its politics of fear both inside and abroad. Losing its military prowess in a battle that it was supposed to win in a month by sending half of the police force of Kiev, Soviet Union is said to be initiating its own dissolution when the last armored troop carriers left Afghanistan in 1989 and you know the rest...
We have seen a lot of films about Vietnam War veterans coming home to find a nation against the war and themselves in particular. I think it will be hard to make a similar statement in Russia and USSR in particular. I have had the opportunity to have a chat with several veterans of Afghanistan in Russia and Ukraine, some of which have seen active duty and eventually taken lives. Now they are living lives as managers, fathers and part of the public. Of course they are a part of the lucky minority. One of them told me that the veterans having mental problems would be directly sent to special institutions so that they wouldn't blend in the public and create further dissidence and many invalids chose to stay in Afghanistan instead of being sent home immediately. Many returned with scars that wouldn't leave them for a lifetime like Boris with whom I have shared a table in a crowded cafe-cum-beerhall in Kiev last month. He was born in London as the child of a Soviet Trade Attaché and returned home after 12 years and just as he had overcome the shock of this reverse-migration he was drafted while he was dreaming about going to Lvov Art School (Ukraine). He told me that he was having difficulty while being taken photos because of the flashes which maybe reminded him about the 3 days when he spent under heavy barrage in a cave in Afghan mountains....the irony is that he still kept is Frontovik (Veteran) badge on his jacket and he was proud of that.
Here are my photos from Afghan War Memorial in Kiev: