Afghanistan is no stranger to war. In 1839 it was the centre of a tussle between the British and Russian Empires. Nothing much had changed by 1979 when the Soviet regime decided to prove its domination in the region sending troops to help stabilise the situation and keep the socialist President Babrak Karmal in power. When the Soviet’s chosen man was found to have little support among the people of the country, however, this political gamble led to a 10-year occupation of Afghanistan by Soviet troops, and subsequently an animosity against the current regime tangible today.
The Military Business
An eyewitness to the events that took place back in 1979 is Valeriy Ablazov, retired colonel, and deputy chairman of the Ukrainian UNI0N of Afghanistan Veterans. For Ablazov, the reasons for the war are pretty simple. He says Afghanistan, just like Ukraine, has always been in the middle of things, connecting east with central Asia, as well as being rich in natural resources. According to him, countries like this have always been, and always will be, strategically interesting to invaders.
Prior to the invasion, Afghanistan and the Soviet UNI0N were on friendly terms, and it was Soviet rather than American military hardware that supplied the country’s armed forces. Supplying equipment was not enough however: educated instructors and advisors were necessary to teach how to use the equipment and vehicles provided. That’s how Soviet officers, many of whom were Ukrainians training in Kyiv and Odesa, were in Afghanistan long before the conflict started in 1979, says Ablazov. “I personally started working with Afghani officers in 1974 – it was typical for a Soviet officer to go there. It was for this reason we weren’t really surprised when the events of 1979 kicked off. For us, it was just another development. Political instability in any country usually leads to an intrusion from the outside – all five wars in Afghanistan are good proof of that,” Ablazov recalls.
Ablazov trained pilots in Afghanistan from 1979 until 1981 as an advisor to the Afghan Air Forces, and although at first they didn’t have the right to go on military missions, the instructors would go with their Afghanistan students into battle anyway. Ablazov explains: “How could we let those soldiers go out there alone? We felt responsible for them, and although we were often punished for it, advisors usually piloted the leading planes, and no one thought of stepping out of line.”
Soviet advisors were in control of almost all divisions of Afghanistan’s Army. Ablazov jokes: “It was a very good situation for the Afghanistan Army, as they would credit themselves with any victory and blame their advisors for any defeats.” There he discovered how Soviet life differed from life in Afghanistan: “Soviet citizens were used to a well-planned routine, basically knowing what to expect from birth until death. Here, we would look at the flag hoisted at the entrance every morning as we went to work, wondering if the powers that be had changed over night.”
Battle Lines Are Drawn
In 1979, head advisor of the Soviet mission Lev Gorelov was sure Afghanistan’s army could cope with the situation on its own, however because there were so many departments like the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and others involved, the Party made the decision to invade. “Of course, you can’t compare Afghanistan’s army to the Soviet army. Still, it represented a specific force that could be properly managed, regardless of the decision to send in Soviet troops being one politically as opposed to militarily based,” Ablazov says.
The task for the troops was simple – provide stability within the new regime subsequent to the revolution. The operation was supposed to be quick so that other countries wouldn’t have time to react. It was planned to send forces back home in a year. But the Afghan army started falling apart, and the new leader lost the support of the people. In addition, due to the deaths of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and general secretaries Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, there was no one in the Soviet UNI0N to take a proper decision. And one year turned into 10.
In 1985, Gorbachev came to power, promising he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan. But it took him another four years to finally do so. Fortunately, for Ablazov, his tour of duty ended before the bloodiest part of the war, and he went home feeling as though he had accomplished his mission. Despite the Afghans asking him to stay and continue working with them, Ablazov had little desire to spend any more time there.
On 20 June 1981, Ablazov celebrated his last day of service. He thought it would be an easy one, however fate played a trick on him. The order came telling him to go and check on the situation in a near-by fortress thought to be captured by rebels. He and his unit had to walk through local villages, and for the Slavic-featured Ablazov, it was a tense order – no one knew what to expect from the locals.
He was relived when they found the fortress crowded with women and children, and no rebels. But Ablazov felt a responsibility to the people there, and had to keep an eye on keyed-up Soviet blue berets – special airborne troops, who came in a little later to clear the territory. “Those guys are tough and hard to calm down when they are ready for a mission. To them, an order is an order. I told them we had sorted things out ourselves, not daring to tell them they had been called in for no particular reason,” he laughs.
Protecting Their Rights
Nowadays, Ablazov works for the Ukrainian UNI0N of Afghanistan Veterans protecting their rights and freedoms by representing their interests in government. “We have the best standard for veterans in the CIS, however it’s hard to make the authorities fulfil their responsibilities,” he admits. “The UNI0N has never fought against the authority of the country, but we have always fought for the interests of veterans... for standards to be carried out.”
When talks about the EU’s Association Agreement (AA) arose, the UNI0N was worried about how veterans might be affected, which was posed in a question to the Minister of Social Policy. “We got no official response,” Ablazov explains. “The Minister of Social Policy said ‘this question wasn’t discussed at all’. It’s an important issue for us, however, as those countries that have since joined the European UNI0N out of the Soviet UNI0N, such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, have no bonuses or special status for veterans at all. We wanted guaranties from the authorities that the level of social protection wouldn’t decrease if Ukraine were to join the EU. In response there was only silence.”
It’s one of the reasons the collapse in negotiations of the AA wasn’t one mourned by the veterans – it gave them time to figure out what would become of them when it did get signed. Unfortunately, the AA is among many regulatory documents and agencies that does not include Ukrainian veterans in their programmes. In trying to procure financial aid from various governmental organisations, these veterans of war are often told things like “Ukraine didn’t go to war with Afghanistan, the Soviet UNI0N did. Address your request to its heir – the Russian Federation”.
Afghanistan Veterans On Euromaidan
Despite this, when demonstrations started at the end of November and the country’s special forces were deployed, the Ukrainian UNI0N of Afghanistan Veterans were quick to act, stating: “As military officers, we know that Special Forces are trained for active fight – they are a very dangerous weapon, which should be applied carefully and deliberately and their actions should be documented. They should be under strict control and orders need to be given responsibly. Those engaged in those orders need also remember that the old rule applies: violence should not be doled out on anyone who has ceased resisting. ‘Never kick a fallen man’, we are taught this rule in childhood. Unfortunately cruelty in our society runs high these days. But there are a number of Afghani veterans who have taken a stand on Maidan, who will protect the citizens there, and who are ready to stand between the authorities’ forces and peaceful protestors if need be.”
by Vadym Mishkoriz