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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.

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Rodionov, who’s now 73, looked down at a table in front of him and arranged a pen, plate of crackers and a napkin to demonstrate the flanks of a troop position. He gazed at them for a moment with a bemused expression, as if to recognize the absurdity of talking about the violence of war while pointing at a napkin.
Pushing the items forward, Rodionov said that commanders often sent their men to hunt for the enemy in villages on either side of mountain gorges near vital transport routes.

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“We could fight for two weeks in this gorge, killing the Afghans,” he said in a gravelly voice. “In return they kill our guys. We have used all our water, ammunition and food, and then we must go back to our rear position.”

Rodionov pulled the pen, crackers and napkin back to their starting places: “Then the mujahedeen” _ meaning holy warriors, the term used by Afghan fighters _ “would return to the gorge, and the whole thing continues.”

US and Soviet experience different

The Soviet experience, of course, isn’t proof that the same fate will befall the United States, which is now more than eight years into its Afghan war.
While the Soviet invasion in 1979 was widely seen across the world as an act of wanton aggression, a broad coalition of countries supported the US decision in the aftermath of 9/11 to topple the Taliban government in Kabul and hunt down Al Qaeda.

The Soviets were badly hobbled by Western and Arab financial and arms support for the Afghan fighters, especially US Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, which American pilots haven’t had to face.

The current collection of insurgents and terrorists – though they include some of the same men the US backed against the Soviets – aren’t thought to receive anywhere close to that level of foreign help.

Still, the men who took part in the Soviet fight for Afghanistan say that no matter how smart the Obama administration’s plans are for turning the tide, they stand little chance in a country that’s known as the graveyard of empires.

“Afghans will fight foreign troops as long as foreign troops are there,” said Lev Serebrov, whose time there was bookended by the Soviet invasion and retreat. He arrived in 1979 and stayed through 1981 as a lieutenant colonel and deputy division commander, and returned from 1987 to 1989 as a major general and deputy to the Soviet operations commander for the Afghan war.

“No one should go there armed,” said Serebrov, who’s now a deputy in Russia’s lower house of parliament.

Kostyuchenko, the helicopter pilot, hosts a neighborhood remembrance of the war on Dec. 27, the date that Soviet forces murdered Afghan President Hafizullah Amin in order to replace him with a more loyal pawn. Killing Amin was the point of no turning back, Kostyuchenko explained.

On Sunday night, a group of old women, some of them wearing black scarves, will shuffle into a drab apartment on Mikhailov Street and light candles for their dead sons. The candles, from a nearby church, are thin so that they’ll fit into the spent bullet cartridges that Kostyuchenko lines up in a row at a small exhibit about the war that he tends.

Tsalko, the veterans’ issues advocate, didn’t say whether he’d be attending any memorial services.
After speaking of the bad dreams and drinking that come after a war ends, Tsalko thanked a reporter for his time and headed toward the door. Putting on his scarf, long winter coat and thick brown fur hat, he had one last thought: “It’s very hard to fight in Afghanistan. Your leadership will have to find a way out.”
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(e-mail: tlasseter(at)