Perched atop an armored personnel carrier decked with flowers, 21-year-old Nikolai Novikov grinned broadly as cheering villagers in the sunbaked town of Termez welcomed him home. The young soldier was the first Soviet to cross the Friendship Bridge over the Amu-Darya River which links war-ravaged Afghanistan with the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan. Behind him, a convoy of 229 tanks and armored vehicles rumbled in, carrying about 1,300 more weary soldiers—the first of an estimated 115,000 Soviet troops scheduled to depart Afghanistan by next February. Relief written on their dust-encrusted faces, they greeted Uzbek children, wearing the bright red scarves of the Communist Young Pioneers, who rushed out of the crowd waving flowers. Along the road, makeshift stands were piled with fresh fruit and meat, while banners hailed the “soldier internationalists who have courageously fulfilled their duty.”
More than eight years after the Soviet Union embarked upon its ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan, its forgotten soldiers were finally going
home. They had abandoned a conflict they could not win in a country they could not subdue. But they were the lucky ones. As many as 15,000 Soviet soldiers lost their lives in the vicious Afghan war. The withdrawing troops left behind a country still torn by religious and ideological strife—and still caught up in the maelstrom of a bitter civil war. As well, they left behind a Marxist government under siege by Moslem Mujahedeen guerrillas intent on establishing an Islamic state.
Under the terms of a historic April accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the official Soviet exodus began on May 15 in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The next day in the capital, Kabul, some members of the United Nations Good Offices Mission in Afghanistan and Pakistan—the 10-nation, 50-man UN observer force appointed to oversee the withdrawal—were among the crowd who listened as Afghan President Najibullah thanked the Soviet soldiers for their assistance since the Kremlin dispatched troops to the country in 1979. They also heard Soviet military officials insist that the withdrawal was neither a retreat nor a defeat. One official had
earlier warned Mujahedeen rebels fighting the Afghan government to expect “quick and severe” retribution if they tried to harass the departing Soviet troops on the 640-km leg to the northern border.
The unarmed UN observers, including five Canadians, took up their assignments in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad, and Kabul early this month amid some fears for their safety in a tense and volatile situation (see box). On May 14 a truck bomb exploded in central Kabul, killing 16 people near the reviewing stand where Najibullah and senior Soviet officials were to watch the departing troops. Shortly after that attack three rockets slammed into the village of Baraki Chahrara on the edge of the Afghan capital, killing four people and wounding several more.
After the farewell ceremonies, with the sound of rebel gunfire ringing from the snowcapped mountains to the north, the convoy continued on its journey to the border. Soviet soldiers paused only for a meal break, stopping inside the strategic Salang Tunnel 130 km north of Kabul to avoid the risk of bombardment from rebel rockets. Although Mujahedeen guerrillas had said that they would allow the Soviet troops to withdraw without incident, Soviet television reported three unsuccessful attempts to fire on the convoy.
Of greater concern to the UN observers, however, is what will happen after the Soviet troops have left. From the outset, the rebels have made it clear that the Soviet withdrawal is only the first step to victory. “We are fighting against an idea, not just against people,” said rebel commander Mahmood last week, adding that victory would be complete only when Najibullah’s government fell.
The seven guerrilla groups that make up a rough-hewn military alliance are based in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, near the rugged Khyber Pass. The alliance, which rotates its leadership every three months, is itself deeply divided, and many of its leaders are not popular among the more than three million war-weary Afghan refugees who have fled to the safety of Pakistan. Disputes over military tactics are common. Indeed, alliance members argue bitterly over the
question of whether to launch an allout attack on departing Soviet troops.
Still, even before the highly orchestrated first phase of the Soviet withdrawal, resistance fighters had begun to expand their control of the countryside. In the previous month 17 districts and 50 garrisons and posts held by Soviet and Afghan troops had fallen to the Mujahedeen. Now, observers are waiting to see where the rebels will strike next in their attempt to gain definitive control of the country.
Alliance leaders last week downplayed persistent rumors that their first major offensive would be against the strategic eastern city of Jalalabad. Sandwiched between a river and a canal, it is surrounded by mines and perimeter posts manned by the Afghan government’s elite Sarandoy troops. The current spokesman for the alliance, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, said that the rebels would choose their next major target according to how likely they would be able to take it. “We will be sure enough we can occupy and the enemy cannot resist,” said Hekmatyar,
whose three-month tenure as alliance spokesman ends this month.
Still, there are differing opinions among Mujahedeen groups on the timetable for a possible takeover of Kabul itself. Hekmatyar said that the rebels will continue attacks on the capital, but that he would prefer “liberating one of the country’s main cities, which would be easier to occupy than Kabul.” Abdul Haq, another leading resistance commander, disagrees. He argues that the capture of Kabul would lead to popular support and make it easier to seize other major centres throughout the country. Haq, on a recent clandestine trip into the capital, circulated notices to Kabul residents that said: ‘To gain the last victory, only another step remains and that is the fall of the Russians’ puppet regime. What the Mujahedeen expect of you is to help us in completing the freedom and achieving the last goal.”
Meanwhile, alliance leaders have formed an interim government, which they hope to move from Pakistan to Afghanistan. Resistance groups are now laying the groundwork for the
move, which Hekmatyar said could come within weeks. He added that the Peshawar headquarters would remain open to serve the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees clustered in warren-like camps around the town.
Many observers say that the Soviet occupation—and the trauma of one million war dead in a country whose total population is no more than 15 million— has marked a turning point in Afghanistan’s history. The bloodshed, they say, could bind Afghans together in an Islamic holy war against the Soviet superpower. Others predict that the country will return inexorably to its fragmented tribal past. But there is little disagreement about the coming months. As the Soviets themselves embark on a post-mortem of the occupation-reminiscent of the bitter divisions in the United States after the Vietnam War—there will be no quick and easy solutions to the bloody conflict they have left behind.
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