Soviet Vets Warn US of Perils in Afghanistan
Soldiers who fought there warn the
U.S. to expect daily deliveries of coffins and few targets other than villages.
by MAURA REYNOLDS, LA Times Staff Writer
September 19 2001
MOSCOW -- When Igor Lisinenko entered what he was told was an Afghan rebel base in 1982, he wasn't sure what to expect. It was, after all, his first assignment as a member of a Soviet army reconnaissance team sent to confirm that airstrikes a few hours before had destroyed the base.
But the young lieutenant saw no ruined fortifications in the village near the Afghan city of Kandahar. No rebel corpses. All he saw was a handful of crumbly clay huts. And two old men carrying a little girl, no more than 3 years old.
Her foot had been blown off. She was white from the loss of blood.
The patrol loaded her into a helicopter to take her to a hospital. In those few minutes, Lisinenko said Tuesday, he understood two things: The girl was doomed to die and the Soviet military campaign was doomed to fail.
"I didn't doubt for a second that her father would take a gun and come after me or any other Russian soldier he could find," Lisinenko recalled. "And he or some other father or brother or son 'found' many of my friends before it was over."
As the United States prepares for possible military action in Afghanistan, Lisinenko and other Soviet veterans watch with trepidation. They know better than anyone what U.S. troops might be getting into.
"Can it be that America is nostalgic for the times it was getting daily deliveries of zinc coffins from Vietnam?" asked Andrei Logunov, chairman of Moscow Afghan Veterans Assn. "This time it will be even worse."
Soviet forces occupied Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a shaky Communist regime. They spent 10 years trying to wipe out U.S.-financed moujahedeen, or holy warriors, one of whom was a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden. The Soviet Union lost 15,000 soldiers in the process and withdrew in disgrace.
The Soviets weren't the first defeated by Afghanistan's determined fighters and mountainous terrain. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the British fought three wars and suffered heavy casualties trying to control the land and its people. In 1842, about 4,500 British and Indian troops and thousands of their dependents were killed during a retreat from Kabul. Only one survivor reached India.
Veterans from the former Soviet Union say that what would await U.S. troops sent into Afghanistan's mountains would be unlike anything American forces have encountered, whether in the fields of Europe in World War II, in the jungles of Southeast Asia or the deserts of the Persian Gulf region.
First, there are no real "bases" for terrorists, they say. Fighters live in ordinary villages. Air or artillery strikes against them will invariably kill civilians.
"When I hear people talk about terrorist 'bases' I have to laugh," said Vyacheslav Izmailov, who commanded a battalion in Afghanistan. "Terrorists don't sit in bases waiting for bombs to drop. They live in houses. They live with families. . . . If America begins to drop bombs, all they will do is convince the anti-Taliban population that the United States is their enemy."
Moreover, there are few targets other than villages, the veterans warn. There are few bridges, no factories. Most of the country's infrastructure has been destroyed in decades of civil war.
"Even in Iraq you had something to bomb," Lisinenko said. "But there are no targets in Afghanistan. There's nothing there to bomb."
Bin Laden may be holed up in Afghanistan's formidable mountains, which are riddled with caves whose entrances are small, hidden and remote. Soviet veterans say they are impervious to bombing.
"The Soviet air force tried hard to smoke fighters out of their hide-outs using various methods and weapons," said Col. Alexander Akimenkov, who piloted bombers and helicopters during the Afghan conflict and is Russia's top civilian test pilot. "The Soviet military dropped vacuum bombs [that pull oxygen from underground sites]. They even dropped 3-ton bombs designed to cause local earthquakes that would bury moujahedeen in their caves. But we still were unable to wipe out the rebels."
The reason, Akimenkov said, is that the caves in the Kandahar gorge are actually deep tunnels.
"In Soviet times, these caves could accommodate thousands of people, which rendered most of air raids meaningless," Akimenkov said. "The people sitting at the far end of such a cave would not even notice that you dropped a bomb that exploded at the entrance."
Only Special Forces teams could rout Bin Laden from such lairs, the veterans said. But that requires good local intelligence, including reliable informants.
Lisinenko worked firsthand with such intelligence--he has a degree in Persian languages and he was the reconnaissance unit's translator. Some informants were paid, others were not, he recalled. Either way, the information was mostly inaccurate.
"They would take our money and then lie," Lisinenko recalled.
Lisinenko said that to understand the Afghan mind-set, you have to set aside Western values.
He learned this his first day in Afghanistan when he entered a family's hut. The poverty was more than he could fathom. There was no furniture. No light. The only object inside was a copy of the Koran, tucked into an alcove.
"I asked an old man, 'Why do you live in such conditions? Don't you want to do something to improve your lot?' " Lisinenko said. "But the man replied, 'Don't you understand that the worse we live in this world, the better our lives will be in paradise? We don't want the same things in life that you want.' "
That's when Lisinenko said he began to understand that Western ideas of warfare might not succeed in Afghanistan. How do you battle a foe who has so little to protect in this world? A person who may believe a greater good will come from sacrificing himself, his home, his family? How do you vanquish an enemy for whom categories of defeat and victory, life and death do not match yours?
"Nothing we know works in their world," he said.
Lisinenko left Afghanistan two years later with a wounded leg and a shattered spirit. These days, the 39-year-old runs a tea bag company and represents a district of Moscow in Russia's lower house of parliament.
The lesson they learned in Afghanistan, the veterans said, is that actions to stop terrorism more often have the opposite effect.
They urged the United States to accompany military action with economic aid and forswear a bombing campaign.
"The Afghans will stop fighting each other and join together to fight you," said Izmailov, former battalion commander. "You need courage, but not to drop bombs. What you need courage for is to not drop bombs. Otherwise, your war will be endless."
And though veterans of the Afghan conflict point out that the U.S. bought the bullets for the moujahedeen who killed their comrades, Lisinenko said most wouldn't wish an Afghan war on their worst enemy.
"Don't do it like we did. Don't do it like you did in Vietnam,"
he said. "Don't listen to me if you don't want. Listen to your own people,
those who fought in Vietnam. . . . They'll tell you the same things."
Sergei Loiko and Alexei Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow bureau contributed to this story.