1979 Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan

Soviet tanks in front of the Darulaman Palace in Kabul

An interview with a former Soviet army veteran and a member of the Soviet News Agency's Afghan news desk about the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Covers some disturbing subjects, CW: discussion of suicide.


Link https://youtu.be/72-mBdZEfjs

In late December 1979, the world held its breath as thousands of Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan. Moscow said the troops would be there six months, to help bring peace to the country. In fact the Soviet army stayed almost ten years, and Afghanistan came to be seen as the Soviet Union's Vietnam. Louise Hidalgo has been talking to journalist Andrei Ostalski and former soldier Vyacheslav Ismailov about that time.

Transcript

Louise Hidalgo:

Hello and welcome to the Witness podcast here on the BBC World
Service with me Louise Hidalgo, and today I’m taking you back to late December
1979, when the world held its breath as the Soviet Union sent its army into Afghanistan
to prop up the Communist led government. Moscow said the troops would stay six
months, in the end they stayed nearly ten years. And Afghanistan will become
the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.

Vyacheslav Ismailov who served in Afghanistan as a soldier
and journalist Andrei Ostalski have been
remembering that time.

[Music, Black Tulip* performed by Rozenbaum]

lyrics:

In Afghanistan, in the Black Tulip,

With a glass of vodka, we silently fly over the land.

Across the border, the sorrowful bird carries

Our guys home, to Russian summer lightnings.

In the black tulip, the guys who were on a mission

Fly to dear motherland for rest in peace.

Being torn to shreds, they have gone forever,

They can never hug warm shoulders.

When our tulip was falling down at an angle to the oases of
Jellalabad,

We all damned our job.

Again one guy died and failed his company.

In Shindad, Kandagar, and Bagram,

We will again put a heavy stone on our souls,

We will again carry the heroes to motherland

They are 20 years old heroes for which people dig graves,

They are 20 years old heroes for which people dig graves.

But we must climb and find the strength,

If we make an error, we can be shot down here,

The mountains shoot us, a "Stinger" missile takes
off,

If the enemy shoots down us, the guys will die a second
time.

We fly here differently than in our motherland,

Where there is no war, and everything is familiar for a long
time,

Where pilots see bodies of dead soldiers only once a year,

Where nobody shoots down helicopters from the clouds,

And we fly, clenched teeth from the anger,

Wetting our lips with vodka.

Many caravans go here from Pakistan,

It means that there is a job for the tulip,

Yes, there is a job for the tulip.

In Afganistan, in the black tulip,

With a glass of vodka, we silently fly over the land.

Across the border, the sorrowful bird carries

Our brothers home, to Russian summer lightnings.

When our tulip was falling down at an angle to the oases of
Jellalabad,

We all damned our job.

Again one guy died and failed his company.

In Shindad, Kandagar, and Bagram,

We will again put a heavy stone on our souls,

We will again carry the heroes to motherland

They are 20 years old heroes for which people dig graves,

They are 20 years old heroes for which people dig graves.

*Black Tulip is a nickname for the Antonov 12 cargo plane that
was used heavily during the war to transport men and materials.

Andrei Ostalski:

I was taking my things to go home after my evening shift
when I was summoned by the Task Director General Mr. Sergei Losev.

Louise Hidalgo:

It was late on December the 24th Andrei Ostalski was
in the Moscow headquarters of TASS the official Soviet News Agency when his
boss got a call from the Kremlin.

Andrei Ostalski:

And he told me in great confidence that in a few hours’ time
the Soviet troops would enter Afghanistan and then big military operation in
support of the Kabul government would start.

Louise Hidalgo:

And he ordered you to stay at the office that night, didn’t
he? You couldn’t tell anyone, you had to collate all the reaction that was
coming in from abroad. But you were really quite junior at the time weren’t you
to have access to news like that?

Andrei Ostalski:

Yes, so I was astonished to learn much later from the
memoirs of the Chief analyst of the KGB Foreign Intelligence Service that even
he was taken totally by surprise.

Louise Hidalgo:

That night, the next day and the following day December the
26th thousands of Soviet troops entered Afghanistan.

[American archive news report from 1979]

For the past two days some 200 Soviet air transports, the
large Antonov 22 and the smaller Antonov 12 literally poured into Kabul.

Louise Hidalgo:

Far away in the Soviet Republic of Dagestan a young teacher
heard the short official announcement. His name was Vyacheslav Ismailov.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

The Soviet Army always seemed to be fighting somewhere and
there was so little information. I just remember we were told we were helping
these people, the Afghans, and our soldiers would be defending them against
bandits – that’s what we called them. And they were going to rebuild schools
and hospitals, and roads. There was no mention of military operations.

Louise Hidalgo:

Back in Moscow meanwhile at TASS Andrei Ostalski had been
temporarily put in charge of the Afghan news desk as the agency scrambled to
find experts who spoke the Afghan languages Dari and Pashto.

And you had this hierarchy of information didn’t you at TASS?
There was the uncensored news that wasn’t for public consumption of course but
you’d send it to the Politburo and other senior officials. And one day they
asked you to go and brief these local party officials, didn’t they?

Andrei Ostalski:

Yes, yes I was telling them that Hafizullah Amin the
Afghanistan’s President who was murdered by the Soviet commanders, and then the
Soviet Union started supporting the minority faction inside this minority. Led by
an alcoholic KGB agent called Babrak Karmal, so the USSR was relying on this minority
in one of the most troublesome countries in the world.

Louise Hidalgo:

So, you told the party officials this, and their reaction
wasn’t quite what you expected was it?

The audience was totally shocked. Because it contradicted
everything they were reading in the Soviet newspapers. So, they started jeering
and heckling and I had to cut my talk short, and I was scared. I ran, I physically
ran back to TASS to ask to see my bosses and said I am afraid they will
denounce me and you will sack me or maybe I will be arrested, well I was
totally panicking. But they said ok we’ll try to do what we can and they did.

But they didn’t want to know the truth, the Soviet leader also
didn’t want to know it. That was a learning curve I must say.

Louise Hidalgo:

The war ground on. Six months turned into a year, then two,
then four. Afghanistan had become a Cold War battleground with Moscow and
America fighting through their proxies, flooding the country with weaponry. By 1985
the Soviet Union had a new leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was beginning to
realise it was a lost cause. And it was getting harder to hide the body bags
bringing home dead Soviet soldiers.

That year Vyacheslav Ismailov who joined the army a few
years earlier was sent to Afghanistan.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

We flew to Kabul which I remember being very dirty and then
to Shindad Air base in the west where we were based. When we arrived we were
given a lecture by one of the senior officers and afterwards when we were
having a smoke he said `You know, the way we’re fighting, this war is going to
be going on when our children, our grandchildren are old enough to fight.`

That was when I began to understand it was going badly and
it was so different from everything we’ve been told.

Louise Hidalgo:

The next day Vyacheslav was travelling in a military convoy
when they passed an Afghan driving a truck loaded with watermelons.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

One of our officers stopped the man and commandeered the van
and started throwing all the watermelons out to our soldiers, ten, twenty, thirty.
And the Afghan was sitting there shaking saying `Please, please, this is my
livelihood, that’s enough`.

And I remember thinking we’re not bringing peace to this
place we’re occupiers, this is how occupiers behave.

Louise Hidalgo:

Your Battalion wasn’t in a combat role, it’s job was to take
supplies from the airbase at Shindad down through the mountains and the desert 400
Kilometres to Afghanistan’s second city Kandahar. Tell me about that Journey.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

We’d set off at first light, we weren’t allowed to travel by
night although sometimes we had too. The hardest was the third day going into
Kandahar, that was the most treacherous part, they were waiting for us. There was
a grain store and once you got past that the gunfire started, it was like a
firing zone.

Our forces in Kandahar tried to cover us but sometimes we got
hit, then we’d have a day’s rest and we’d set off again.

Louise Hidlago:

What was the most difficult thing?

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

Oh, it’s hard to say, it was on top of you all the time, I
was in charge of four hundred men; young 18, 19-year olds you have to feed
them, you have to look after them when they’re wounded, make sure their weapons
are working properly. You’re just thinking about them all the time.

Louise Hidalgo:

But you knew what was going on didn’t you? Villages were
being bombed, civilians killed, you know fields and valleys were being mined.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

Of course, I knew. I knew when our forces hit a column of
Afghans, it was like when the Americans hit the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia.
You know, we did the same, our planes dropped bombs on hospitals, on villages
it was collateral damage. Some days they wouldn’t let us out of Kandahar for
two or three days and all the roads were closed because the planes were
bombing. But what can you do? It’s a war, we started it we had to see it through.

Louise Hidalgo:

The hardest thing he had to bear was the fact that one in
four of the Soviet soldiers killed in Afghanistan weren’t killed by enemy fire,
the were killed by their own side. Or they took their own life.

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

Or it was fights that ended badly, or it was pilots going
out drunk and crashing their planes or colliding with another plane. Our leaders
were always talking about our achievements and our heroism but really, we were
our own worst enemy.

Louise Hidalgo:

And suicide, you mention the high rate of suicides. Did any
of your men take their own life?

Vyacheslav Ismailov:

There was one instance of suicide under my watch. We were on
our way to Kandahar and a young lad was with us and he went AWOL. We found his
weapon, he’d left it behind but he’d taken a few grenades, and the following
morning we found his body, ripped apart. And a note, I still remember every
word, and it’s more than 30 years ago.

“I’m a coward, people like me don’t deserve to live. Please tell
my mother that I died a hero.”
He was 18.

Louise Hidalgo:

The last Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in February
1989. 15,000 Soviet soldiers and 1 Million Afghans had died. Two years later
the Soviet Union dissolved. Vyacheslav Ismailov is today a military analyst for
the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Andrei Ostalski went on to work for the
newspaper Izvestia and then the BBC, to day he lives in the south of England.

Both were talking to me Louise Hidalgo for Witness.

Posted By

Reddebrek
Dec 31 2018 08:40

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  • I remember thinking we’re not bringing peace to this place we’re occupiers, this is how occupiers behave

    Vyacheslav Ismailov

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