Security

40 years on, veterans still grapple with Soviet-Afghan war

AFP

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An Afghan boy plays on the wreckage of a Soviet-era tank alongside a road on the outskirts of Kabul on November 28. [NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP]

KABUL -- At his home in the mountains north of Kabul, former mujahid Shah Sulaiman closed his damaged eyes, took a sip of green tea and thought bitterly of Afghanistan's war against the Soviet Union that started four decades ago.

"When we fought against the Soviets, we were expecting a good future," said the 62-year-old father, who was blinded in one eye and suffered a leg wound when he stepped on a land mine during the conflict in 1985.

"Unfortunately, things turned out for the worst," he said.

December 25 marks the 40th anniversary of the Soviet Union's "intervention" -- or invasion -- of Afghanistan, the beginning of a decade-long guerrilla war that killed as many as 2 million Afghans, forced 7 million more from their homes and led to the deaths of more than 14,000 Soviet troops.

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Former mujahid Shah Sulaiman on December 5 shows his wounded leg from the Soviet–Afghan War, in Kabul. [NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / AFP]

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Afghan labourers melt down the wreckage of Soviet-era machines in an iron factory on the outskirts of Herat Province on December 3. [HOSHANG HASHIMI / AFP]

"[It] brought only misery and destruction to Afghans and Afghanistan," recalled Sulaiman, who commanded a unit of 12 men in the Panjshir Valley, a heartland of mujahideen resistance north of the capital.

In the decades since 1989 when the war ended, Afghan veterans like Sulaiman and former Soviet soldiers have had to grapple with the physical and emotional wounds of a bloody conflict whose purpose and consequences remain angrily contested.

While the war was a mujahideen victory, what came next saw Afghanistan plunge deeper into misery and fighting, with veterans blaming the conflict for the rise of the Taliban and the violence that besets the country to this day.

In Russia, former Soviet soldiers are still trying to make sense of a war the public condemned at the time and that observers say hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Regular Soviet soldiers began arriving in Afghanistan after Moscow's deployment order on December 24, 1979, to support a pro-Soviet regime in Kabul and quell a nationalist Islamist insurgency that was pushing back against the atheist communists and their reforms.

More than 600,000 troops from the USSR would eventually cycle through Afghanistan.

The conflict was extremely unpopular with the Soviet public at the time and was officially condemned in 1989 at the height of leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of "glasnost", or transparency.

But as part of an overall re-evaluation of the war's legacy, Russia's parliamentary defence committee has -- under pressure from veterans -- backed a draft resolution saying Soviet troops helped Afghan authorities fight "terrorist and extremist groups" and curbed the growing security threat facing the USSR.

Left with 'nothing'

Sidiqque Rasulzai was a teenager when the Red Army arrived in Kabul, and he had no idea what was coming.

"I didn't know it was war. My parents told me that was something that happened in Palestine; I would never have thought that it could happen to us, that it would last 40 years," recalled Rasulzai.

To this day, signs of the Soviet war abound. Defunct tanks and abandoned helicopters and personnel carriers still dot parts of the countryside, and in cities such as Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, huge Soviet structures still dominate the skyline.

After the Soviets left in February 1989, the communist government was unable to sustain itself and civil war broke out. By the mid-1990s, the Taliban -- rooted in the mujahideen movement -- were sweeping to power.

Rasulzai ultimately fled Afghanistan for India in 2015 as the international military presence began to rapidly dwindle.

He worries Afghanistan is headed for a new civil war should the United States withdraw under a deal with the Taliban.

Rasulzai now has a small shop in New Delhi and barely manages to pay the bills.

"In Afghanistan, I had everything," he said. "Now I have nothing except for security."

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