The ugly mood of Moscow’s troops

Peter Niesewand January 28 1980

The ugly mood of Moscow’s troops

Peter Niesewand January 28 1980

The ugly mood of Moscow’s troops


As President Jimmy Carter prepared to underscore American foreign policy changes after the events in Afghanistan in his State of the Union address this week, the fate of the Moscow Olympics seemed increasingly in doubt (see box page 28). In Afghanistan, meanwhile, American journalists were expelled for what the Soviet news agency, TASS, speaking apparently for the government of Babrak Karmal, with accidental irony termed “gross interference with a sovereign state. ” Patience was wearing thin on both sides, as shown in this exclusive Maclean’s report from Kabul.

Peter Niesewand

The mood of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan is swiftly turning ugly. Two weeks ago, they greeted Western journalists cheerfully and showed them T-62 tanks which had been paradropped during the year-end invasion, when Moscow installed its own nominee, Babrak Karmal, as president. Today, they fire machine-gun bullets at the feet, or over the heads, of newsmen, or force them to stand in the snow for hours during interrogation about their movements. They seize television film when they can, and now even prevent cameramen from taking shots of the notorious Pol E Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul, from which more than 2,000 political prisoners have been released by the Karmal regime.

The second stage of the invasion seems about to end—in failure. It was a public relations attempt to persuade the Western media that the Soviets had not really taken over, but that the bloody regime of Hafizullah Amin had merely been supplanted by a popular, independent-minded Afghan administration, with just a little temporary comradely help from the socialist neighbor.*

The facade is easily dismantled. Kabul is built on a flat plain surrounded by snow-covered mountains. You have to look hard to see a Soviet soldier. But they are there: a cast of thousands out of sight. I needed an exit visa and got caught up in the Afghan bureaucracy. By mistake, someone sent me to the ministry of the interior.

From the outside, everything seems normal. Afghan soldiers guard the gates and the building itself is set back from the road. But just inside the foyer, the scene changes. Armed Soviet soldiers are everywhere—on duty at the entrance, walking in their scores out of offices and along corridors, going about their daily business.

These Soviet troops are not the highcheekboned Mongol types who might be mistaken for Afghans were they in other uniforms. They are stocky, fairhaired European Russians who, in their off-duty hours, would not be able to walk alone on the streets of the capital in safety. Afghans hate them, as they have hated all invaders, including the British. “Khali” they hiss if they mistake you for a Russian. It means “donkey,” and it’s not an epithet to be disregarded. The people here have a habit of skinning alive captured Soviet invaders and, failing that, they might shoot or knife you before discovering your nationality. Fifteen Soviets are reported to have been murdered in Kabul since the invasion so far. Out in the country a British woman saved her life by screaming “BBC! BBC!” when tribesmen were about to cut her throat.

If they think you’re from the BBC, you’re a hero, although not to Babrak Karmal. At his first press conference with Western journalists, he called the British network “the most famous propagandist liar in the world.” Karmal himself, however, is low in his country’s popularity stakes. “He has sold us to the Russians,” an Afghan man told me angrily before walking quickly on. Pol E Charkhi prison may have lost a couple of thousand of Amin’s political prisoners, but it is generally believed it will soon fill up with Karmal’s. The people talk briefly, afraid of spies.

* The way Soviets tell it, Chinese, U.S. and Pakistani agents have been training the Afghan guerrillas. In support of this claim, Ambassador Oleg Troyanovsky cited Maclean’s (April 30, 1979) in defending his country before the United Nations General Assembly on Jan. 11. Peter Niesewand, in an article about the effects of the outlawing of opium in Pakistan under General Zia ul-Haq’s Islamic state, mentioned that U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials had happened across some Chinese whom they at first mistook for drug traffickers, but who turned out to be Chinese instructors helping to train and equip Afghan rebels inside Pakistan.

While acknowledging Ambassador Troyanovsky’s tribute to the depth of its foreign reporting, Maclean’s does not accept that the presence of some Chinese instructors among the Afghan rebels in any way justifies a Soviet invasion designed to suppress a popular rebellion which otherwise would have ousted a Soviet-imposed government.

The growing sullenness of Soviet troops may be due in part to the realization that they are among a brutal and warlike people who hate them with religious fervor. In one area, on the main road north from Kabul to the Soviet Union, it has now reached the point where Soviet soldiers have begun looting the cars of Afghans who are stopped at their checkpoints.

A group of 10 Soviet soldiers from the 16th Motorized Rifles—one of the five divisions that invaded Afghanistan at the end of December—forced my taxi to halt near the entrance to the Salang Pass. The three of us—two other Western journalists were travelling with me—first thought the Soviets were carrying out a routine search for arms. The Salang Pass is a particularly dangerous area. Rising in the Hindu Kush to 10,000 feet, it is the principal supply lifeline for the 85,000 Soviet combat troops now in Afghanistan.

Moslem rebels are active in the region. Three bridges are understood to have been blown up there. A huge convoy of about 200 supply vehicles was trapped in the pass at the end of last week until a military bridge could be erected to allow them to cross a river. Guerrillas also regularly open fire on passing vehicles from the commanding heights of snow, ice and rock.

But it turned out that arms were not uppermost on our soldiers’ minds. They body-searched us on the roadside and then, as we waited in the sub-zero temperatures, they began going through the car. First they turned up two maps of Afghanistan which a colleague and I had bought at our Kabul hotel. Other journalists had warned us to expect to lose these. Soviet maps of Afghanistan are said to be of inferior quality but one of the Soviets’ first acts was to order 4,000 maps from a local cartographer and, sure enough, the leader of the squad, a tall, burly, grim-faced man in a greatcoat and boots, with a Red Star on his cap, appropriated them.

We showed him our official Afghan press accreditation cards signed by the chief of security, the minister of information and culture, and the president of publications. These “earnestly request all civil and security authorities of the country to give every possible aid to the holder of this card.” The soldier appeared unimpressed. But he left alone our other belongings—including a camera and a tape recorder.

The Afghan driver did not fare as well. The soldiers took from him three tape cassettes of Afghan music and, from the glove compartment of the car, which they made him unlock, they stole 2,870 afghanis ($78). Then, with brusque gesticulations, they ordered us to turn the car around and get out. As the driver stood silently, we argued with the soldiers, demanding the return of our goods. But they were clearly in no mood to be challenged. Also, another carload of Afghans was approaching,

with dr considerable amount of baggage in the back, and the troops were in a hurry to have at them. As we drove away, we could see them beginning to sort through the belongings.

Our driver cursed the Soviets violently for much of the return journey to Kabul. He was obviously shaken and refused to venture along any other roads. “Do not speak of this back at the hotel,” he implored. “There are many spies there. Do not tell them which taxi it was or they will want to know why I took you to the Salang Pass.”

The Soviet looters had judged him well. Whereas we Westerners might complain officially if they were too

greedy with our belongings, an Afghan would feel powerless. And for all the hatred that burned inside the driver— “f-----Russians,” he swore as we passed the tanks and large military encampments of the Soviet army along the road, “f......Russians” —in the end fear would silence him.

The Soviets chose the right time for their invasion of Afghanistan. Snow and ice blanket much of the çountry. The mountaintops, which for eight months of the year are occupied by Moslem rebels, have mostly been vacated for the winter. The war between rebels and the Soviet-backed regime is at low ebb. This is reflected both in intelligence reports reaching diplomats in Kabul and in the small number of casualties being brought in to the rebel clinics and hospitals across the border in Pakistan.

The Soviet forces have a two-month lull in which to dig in because, with the thaw, the war is likely to restart bloodily. Already Afghan men have begun leaving refugee camps in Pakistan to begin the journey back to their homelands to join the rebels. “Twelve hundred men are leaving tonight,” said the white-bearded leader of a refugee camp near Peshawar. “They are from here and from other camps. They will get their weapons in Afghanistan and then they will fight in Kabul.”

It will be an unequal contest in which the rebels are certain to lose every setpiece battle. The Soviets are now as strong numerically as the Afghan army ever was, but infinitely better equipped and trained. If Moscow feels the need to increase Soviet strength, many more divisions could be sent in without overstraining Soviet resources, Western sources believe. Soviet air support is, at the moment, unchallenged.

The Afghan army is believed to be in a demoralized state. Desertions continue and some units are reported to have been disarmed. But the Soviets appear to have secured much of their first objective—control of towns and cities and lines of communication. Kabul is ringed with about 200 tanks and on the eastern approach to the city—from the Khyber Pass—artillery pieces have been dug in and camouflaged by tents erected over them.

In contrast, the rebels are disunited and disorderly. But military sources believe the Soviets will face serious problems. As the United States discovered in Vietnam, there is a swift and natural military progression between the point at which an army secures a base and establishes perimeter security, and the moment it sends its forces out on search-and-destroy operations against attackers or those who harass convoys on roads.

In Pakistan, fresh efforts are being made, reportedly backed by Saudi Arabia, to force the rival guerrilla bands into an alliance, with the promise of significant financial aid. Previous attempts have foundered both on interpretations of Islamic ideology and on disagreements over leadership. But the climate might improve after the rebels have had their first taste of conflict with the Soviet army and realize that the latest stage of the Afghan war calls for expensive new weapons. Already the guerrilla groups have made shopping lists of anti-tank rockets and anti-aircraft guns, and they are unlikely to be able to afford those in any quantities until they do what their Middle Eastern backers want.