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Afghanistan war: Russian vets look back on their experience

On the 30th anniversary of Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, Russian vets talk about losing more than 14,000 lives in their Afghanistan war that ended in retreat.

By Tom LasseterMcClatchy Newspapers / December 22, 2009

In this April 1988 photo, Soviet soldiers observe the highlands, while fighting Islamic guerrillas at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan.

Estate of Alexander Sekretarev/AP/File



Thirty years ago this week, the Red Army began its invasion of Afghanistan, a move that sank the Soviet Union in a decade of guerrilla war and hastened the collapse of the Cold War empire.

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Today, as former Soviet soldiers watch American troops trying to pacify the same stretches of Afghan land they once fought for, aging Soviet generals and grunts alike are reminded of a war they’d rather forget.

While Russians are willing, and often eager, to predict utter defeat for US efforts based on their own failure in Afghanistan, they’re much less comfortable talking about the pain of reportedly having lost more than 14,000 lives in a war that ended in retreat.

Comparing wars is a process riddled with inconsistency – the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was far different from the American presence today – but on the eve of the anniversary of the Soviet war, the somber and at times anguished way that veterans in Russia spoke of their time in Afghanistan was a disturbing reminder of the hurdles that American forces now face.

The retired soldiers talk about Afghanistan in terms that echo the American experience in Vietnam: of winning battles but losing the campaign, watching the local population throw its support behind an insurgency and, finally, coming home to a country that no longer understood or supported their war.

As the Obama administration sends in 30,000 to 35,000 more troops by next summer – raising the total of US and coalition forces in Afghanistan to at least 140,000 – men such as Alexander Tsalko say they can’t fathom why anyone would want to fight in that land of sharp mountain ridges and hot desert sands.
“Nothing was achieved while I was there. … There wasn’t anything good there; they fired at us, we fired at them,” said Tsalko, who commanded a helicopter unit in Kandahar from 1982 to 1983.

Tsalko was later the deputy head of a Soviet state defense committee and then a member of a Russian government commission for veterans affairs. He’s spent the last several years working for an organization that helps disabled veterans.

What are his thoughts in late December, the period when the Soviets thrust into Afghanistan with a troop buildup on Dec. 24 and Dec. 25 and then the overthrow of the government on Dec. 27?

“Bitterness and regret that we were drawn into this war,” Tsalko replied. In short, he said, “those who fought there do not want to talk about it when they’re not drunk.”

No anniversary celebrations

Unlike Russia’s springtime celebration of its World War II victory over Nazi Germany, a national holiday that includes a triumphant, sparkling military parade in Red Square, the anniversary of the Soviet war in Afghanistan is hardly mentioned in the cold, dark days of December.

“It’s especially difficult to remember those episodes that so many would like to leave behind,” said Vladimir Kostyuchenko, a helicopter pilot for three tours in Afghanistan who’s now active with an Afghan veterans group in Russia. “These generals at the top, they had no sense of reality. They gave us murderous orders. I still bear a cross because I fulfilled those orders.”

Kostyuchenko, a slightly pudgy man with a friendly face whose helicopter was shot down in 1988, continued the thought: “Later we saw the results, and they were terrible.”

Igor Rodionov, who from 1985 to 1986 commanded the Soviet 40th Army, its main military force, said it wasn’t just the troops who were conflicted.
“On one hand, I was indignant when I understood what this decision to invade Afghanistan would result in. I could say that to my friends, but I could not say it out loud because I was a general,” said Rodionov, who retired as a four-star general and later was a Russian defense minister and then a parliament deputy. “Our sacrifices were not needed.”