oDR

The Russians in Afghanistan: part I

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The Russian experience in Afghanistan is not a simple story. Far from being the imperialist expansion it is sometimes caricatured to be, the Russians stumbled into Afghanistan reluctantly, beset by ideological neuroses, incomplete intelligence, conflicting advice and the pressure of events. oDR is pleased to present the first part of exclusive extracts from Rodric Braithwaite’s “Afgantsy”

Rodric Braithwaite
29 April 2011

The Backdrop

The explosion of violence which erupted in Herat in March 1979 was beyond anything that had happened since the bloody Communist coup a year earlier. Resistance to the Communists was already spreading throughout the country. But this was a full-scale revolt in a provincial capital, one of Afghanistan’s most important cities, an ancient centre of islamic learning, music, art, and poetry. Power fell entirely into the hand of the insurgents, and it was a week before Afghan government forces finally regained control after the spilling of much blood.

The Communists had promised much: ‘Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world of how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society ... our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would ... [our] very first proclamation declared that food and shelter are the basic needs and rights of a human being ... our programme was clear: land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all. We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay ... For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education ... we told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets.’

But the Communists knew that such ideas would not be welcome to the pious and conservative people of Afghanistan, and they were not prepared to wait. They had expected resistance and acted ruthlessly to put it down: ‘[I]t was not the time to put on kid gloves. First and foremost we had to hold on to power. The alternative was to be liquidated and for Afghanistan to revert to darkness.’ So they started a massive reign of terror: landowners, mullahs, dissident officers, professional people, even members of the Communist Party itself, were arrested, tortured, and shot in large numbers. When their friends in Moscow protested, they replied that what had worked for Stalin would work for them too.

There are various accounts of what triggered off the violence in Herat. Sher Ahmad Maladani was there at the time and later commanded a local band of mujahedin – Muslim fighters against the Communists and the Russians. He said that the peasants in an outlying village, incensed by a decision of the local Communists to force their daughters to school, rose up, killed the Communists, killed the girls for good measure, and marched on the city. Others said that the rising took place on orders from émigrés in Pakistan, who had planned for a countrywide rebellion. Some said that the rising was led by mutinous soldiers from the 17th division, the local Afghan army garrison. Still others said it was stirred up by agents from Iran. 

Nur Mohamed Taraki - the first Communist
president of Afghanistan. His murder, in 1979, by
colleague Hafizullah Amin shocked the Moscow
leadership, and was probably the trigger for
Soviet invasion. Photo: Although Aziz Jorat

Whatever the basis for these stories, the peasants of the neighbouring villages gathered at their mosques on the morning of Thursday, 15 March, and moved towards the city carrying religious slogans and brandishing ancient rifles, knives, and other improvised weapons, destroying the symbols of Communism and the state as they marched. They were rapidly joined by the people of Herat itself. The mob flooded down the pine-tree avenues that led to the city, past the great citadel and the four ancient minarets in the north-western corner, through the Maliki Gate, and into the new suburbs to the north and east where the provincial governor’s office was situated. They stormed the prison, sacked and torched banks, post offices, newspaper offices, and government buildings, and looted the bazaars. They tore down the red flags and the portraits of the Communist leaders. They beat people not wearing traditional Muslim clothes. Party officials, including the governor himself, were hunted down and killed. So were some of the Soviet advisers who were working in the city and were unable to make their escape. By noon most of the city was in rebel hands. That evening there was dancing in the bazaars.

In the months and years that followed, the story of what happened in Herat on those March days grew mightily in the telling, fanned by the reports of courageous but uncritical western journalists who had no way of checking what they were told. The mutilated bodies of a hundred Soviet advisers, their wives and children, were said to have been paraded through the streets. It was confidently asserted that Soviet long-range bombers had pounded the city for two days. Up to twenty thousand people were said to have died in the rebellion and its aftermath.

As so often during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, facts were hard to establish, and hard to distinguish from myth-making. Most of the figures about the Herat rising have been much exaggerated. But whatever the truth of the matter, the immediate reaction of the Communist government in Kabul was to panic, and to ask Moscow to send military forces to put the rising down. The Soviet Politburo debated the question for four whole days and then came to a very sensible conclusion. They would not send troops, though they would supply the Afghan government with additional military and economic aid. As the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin (1904–80), told the Afghan President, Nur Mohamed Taraki (1913–79), ‘If we sent in our troops, the situation in your country would not improve. On the contrary, it would get worse. Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a part of your own people. And people do not forgive that kind of thing.’

In the event, the Afghan government was able to put down the Herat rising on its own. But a slow-burning fuse had been lit. Unrest and armed resistance continued to spread throughout the country. infighting within the Communist Party grew increasingly bloody, until it culminated in September with Taraki’s murder by the Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin (1929–79). 

For the Russians this was the last straw. Driven step by step, mostly against their will, they tried to get a grip. Their decisions were bedevilled  by  ignorance,  ideological  prejudice,  muddled  thinking,  inadequate  intelligence,  divided  counsel,  and  the  sheer  pressure  of  events. Needless to say, the experts who actually knew about Afghanistan – and there were many of them in the Soviet Union in those days  – were neither consulted nor informed.

In December 1979 Soviet troops poured into Afghanistan. Soviet special forces seized key  objectives  in  Kabul,  stormed  Amin’s  palace,  and killed him. The intentions of the Soviet government were modest:  they aimed to secure the main towns and the roads, stabilise the government, train up the Afghan army and police, and withdraw within  six  months  or  a  year.  Instead  they  found  themselves  in  a  bloody  war  from  which  it  took  them  nine  years  and  fifty-two  days  to  extricate  themselves.

The Afgantsy, the soldiers who did the actual fighting, came from  all  parts  of  the  Soviet  Union:  from  Russia,  Ukraine,  Belarus,  Central  Asia,  the  Caucasus,  the  Baltic  states.  Despite  the  great  differences  between  them,  most  thought  of  themselves  as  Soviet  citizens.  That  changed  towards  the  end,  as  the  Soviet  Union  began  to  disintegrate,  and men who had been comrades in arms found themselves living in  different  and  sometimes  hostile  countries.  Many  took  years  to  find  their feet again in civilian life. some never did. None shook free of the memories of their common war.

[ ... ]

The Soviet Leaders Devise a Policy

The shocking news of the Herat rising on 15 March 1979 reached the embassy in Kabul and the Soviet leadership in Moscow in a fragmentary form, and was further confused by the self-interested accounts they were fed by the Afghan authorities. Valeri Ivanov, a senior Soviet economic advisor in Kabul, spent most of that day trying to get through to the Soviet experts in Herat. He managed to speak to the boss of the twenty-five Soviet construction workers there, a Georgian whose name was something like Magradze. The telephone kept on breaking down, but Ivanov could get a clear enough idea of what was happening. The mob was on the rampage, armed with pikes, staves, and knives. They were out for blood and, as they got closer, Magradze kept repeating, ‘help us!’

There was little enough that Ivanov could do. But the men and their families were rescued by the senior Soviet military adviser in Kabul, Stanislav Katichev, and Shah Navaz Tanai, an Afghan officer who later became Minister of Defence. They sent an Afghan special forces unit with an old T-34 tank, a lorry, and a bus to evacuate the specialists and their families. The tank broke down on the way to the airport. By then, however, the crowd had been left behind and the refugees were flown to Kabul, wearing only what they stood up in. They were housed in the embassy school until they could be sent home. Ivanov’s wife, Galina, helped collect clothes for them.

Although the West continued to maintain up to a hundred Soviet citizens were massacred, the total number of Soviet casualties in Herat seems to have been no more than three. They appear to have had no influence on the decisions which the Soviet government then took.

Not everyone was so lucky. A Soviet wool buyer called Yuri Bogdanov lived with his pregnant wife, Alevtina, in a villa. when the crowd attacked, Bogdanov threw his wife over the wall to his Afghan neighbours. She broke her leg, but was hidden by the Afghans and survived. Bogdanov was butchered. A military adviser with the 17th Afghan division, Major Nikolai Bizyukov, was also torn to pieces when part of the division mutinied. A Soviet oil expert was killed by a stray bullet when he went out into the street to see what was going on. Although the Western press and some Western historians continued to maintain that up to a hundred Soviet citizens were massacred, the total number of Soviet casualties in  Herat seems to have been no more than three. They appear to have had no influence on the decisions which the Soviet government then took.

On hearing the news of the rising Andrei Gromyko (1909–89), the elderly Soviet Foreign Minister (he was seventy and had been in the job since 1957), telephoned Amin to find out what was going on. Amin claimed that the situation in Afghanistan was normal, that the army was in control, and that all the governors were loyal. Soviet help would be useful, he said, but the regime was in no danger. Gromyko found his ‘olympian calm’ irritating. A mere three hours later, the chargé d’affaires in Kabul and the chief Soviet Military adviser, General Gorelov, rang through with a quite different and much less optimistic picture. The government forces in  Herat, they said, had evidently collapsed or gone over to the rebels, who were now said to be backed by thousands of Muslim fanatics, and by saboteurs and terrorists trained and armed by the Pakistanis, the Iranians, the Chinese, and the Americans. 

The Politburo met on 17 March. Neither the Soviet Union nor its elderly leadership were in a good shape to cope with the crisis that was now thrust upon them. By the 1970s the Soviet Union was already decaying from within. Its institutions were essentially the same as those which Stalin had forged, but they were ill-adapted to an increasingly complex world. Perceptive observers, even inside the Soviet government, could see the extent of the decline only too clearly. But few people drew any far-reaching conclusions. in 1979 the Soviet Union looked to the west as though it would remain a serious military and ideological threat for a long time to come.

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Hafizullah Amin. Moscow was worried about
Amin's supposed links with the CIA. It is
impossible to verify how real these fears were

The leaders were gloomy, cautious, and hampered by the fact that they had little idea what was actually happening. The main opinions were voiced by Gromyko, by the Prime Minister, Aleksei Kosygin, by the Defence Minister, Dmitri Ustinov (1908–84), and by the chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov (1914–84). These were all able men. But they were of Gromyko’s generation, they too had begun their careers under Stalin, and their thinking was still locked in the orthodox Marxist-Leninist stereotypes of the day. They were not to be looked to for innovative solutions.

Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, did not join in the initial discussions, although several of the participants consulted him individually. He had been in power for fifteen years and more. his health was already failing, and towards the end he became a figure of fun, in private of course, to the wits of the Moscow intelligentsia. But whatever the state of his health in the last year or two of his life, at this stage he still retained his authority and his word was in the end decisive.

For four long days the leaders worried away at some almost intractable problems. What was the real Soviet interest in Afghanistan? What could the Russians do about the deviousness, brutality, and incompetence of their Communist allies in Kabul? How should they react to Kabul’s increasingly desperate pleas for Soviet troops to help put down the insurgency?

The logic of the Cold War meant they bound to react to American moves on their sensitive southern border, just as the Americans reacted when the Russians put offensive missiles in Cuba. The Russians could no more abandon Afghanistan than the Americans had felt able to abandon Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. These painful parallels did not make it any easier for the Russian leaders.

And all the time they had in their minds the Cold War background which in so many ways underlay and distorted the policymaking process in Moscow, just as it did in the capitals of the west. Brezhnev had hoped that détente, the relaxation of tension with the West, would figure as one of the great achievements in his historical legacy. Things had started well enough. The Helsinki treaty of 1975 seemed to offer a way of reducing tension and regulating the East–West relationship in Europe. The SALT II negotiations for further limitations on US and Soviet stocks of intercontinental ballistic missiles were moving towards completion. But then things had started to go wrong. The likelihood that the Senate would ratify SALT II was receding. The row over the deployment by the Russians of SS-20 medium-range missiles in Europe was growing, as the Americans sought with increasing success to persuade their European allies to allow the matching deployment of their Pershing II missiles.

More pertinently, the Americans would surely not take lying down their humiliation in Iran, where their close ally the Shah had been ousted. Might they not see Afghanistan as some kind of substitute for Iran as a base from which to threaten the Soviet Union? Might they not move into Afghanistan if the Soviets moved out? They had sent a carrier battle group into the Western Indian ocean, ostensibly in case of more trouble in Iran; but might the ships not be equally useful to further American intentions in Afghanistan as well? The Russians did not of course know that the Americans had been considering how to support the Afghan rebellion against the Communists even before the Herat rising. But the logic of the Cold War meant they were in any case bound to react to American moves on their sensitive southern border, just as the Americans had been bound to react when the Russians put offensive missiles in Cuba. The Russians could no more abandon Afghanistan than the Americans had felt able to abandon Vietnam in the 1950s and 1960s. These painful parallels did not make it any easier for the Russian leaders to reach decisions in a situation which risked ending badly whatever they did.

The men in the Politburo were in no doubt that the Soviet Union would have to stick with Afghanistan come what may. The two countries had been close for sixty years and it would be a major blow to Soviet policy if Afghanistan was now lost. The trouble was that, as they started their discussions on that March day, they still had little idea what was happening on the ground. The Afghan leaders were not being frank about the true state of affairs, complained Kosygin. He demanded that Ambassador Puzanov should be sacked, and suggested that Ustinov or General Ogarkov, the Chief of Staff, should go to Kabul immediately to discover exactly what was happening.

Ustinov sidestepped the proposal. Amin, he said, had abandoned his earlier optimism and was now demanding that the Soviet Union should save the regime. But why had it come to that? Most of the soldiers in the Afghan army were devout Muslims and that was why they were deserting to the rebels. Why had the Afghan government not taken sufficient account of the religious factor earlier?

Andropov added a devastatingly bleak analysis. The main problem was the weakness of the Afghan leadership. They were still busy shooting their opponents and then had the cheek to argue that in Lenin’s day the Soviets had also shot people. They had no idea what forces they could rely on. They had failed to explain their position either to the army or to the people at large. It was perfectly clear that Afghanistan was not ripe for socialism: religion was a tremendous force, the peasants were almost completely illiterate, the economy was backward. Lenin had set out the necessary elements of a revolutionary situation. None were present in Afghanistan. Tanks could not solve what was essentially a political problem. If the revolution in Afghanistan could only be sustained with Soviet bayonets, that was a route down which the Soviet Union should not go.

Gromyko was beginning to boil over. The lack of seriousness with which the Afghan leaders treated complicated matters was like something out of a detective story. The mood of the Afghan army was still unclear. Suppose the Afghan army came out against the legitimate government and against any forces the Soviet Union might send in? Then, as he delicately put it, ‘the situation would become extremely complex’. Even if the Afghan army remained neutral, the Soviet forces would have to occupy the country. The impact on Soviet foreign policy would be disastrous. everything the Soviet Union had done in recent years to reduce international tension and promote arms control would be undermined. It would be a splendid present for the Chinese. all the non-aligned countries would come out against the Soviet Union. The hoped-for meeting between Brezhnev and President Carter (1924–) and the forthcoming visit of the French President, Giscard D’Estaing, would be put in question. And all the Soviet Union would get in exchange was Afghanistan, with its inadequate and unpopular government, its backward economy, and its insignificant weight in international affairs.

Moreover, Gromyko confessed, the legal basis for any Soviet military intervention was shaky. Under the UN charter, a country could ask for external assistance if it had been the victim of aggression. But there had been no such aggression. what was going on was an internal struggle, a fight within the revolution, of one group of the population against another.

Andropov weighed in forcefully. If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people, suppressing the people, firing upon the people. The Soviet Union would look like aggressors. That was unacceptable. Kosygin and Ustinov agreed. Ustinov went on to report that the Soviet military were already doing some prudent contingency planning. two divisions were being formed in the turkestan Military district and another in the Central Asian Military district. Three regiments could be sent into Afghanistan at short notice. The 105th airborne division and a regiment of motorised infantry could be sent at twenty-four hours’ notice. Ustinov asked for permission to deploy troops to the Afghan frontier and carry out tactical exercises there to underline that Soviet forces were at high readiness. He was, he nevertheless reassured his listeners, as much against the idea of sending troops into Afghanistan as everyone else. Anyway, the Afghans had ten divisions of troops, and that should be quite enough to deal with the rebels.

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The Communists promised much, for example in relation
to educating girls. But they predictably encountered
resistance to their plans and were ruthless in suppressing it

As for the Afghans’ demand for Soviet troops, the more the Soviet leaders thought about it, the less they liked it. No one had entirely ruled it out. But when they put the arguments to Brezhnev, he made it clear that he was opposed to intervention, remarking sourly that the Afghan army was falling to bits and that the Afghans expected the Soviets to fight their war for them.

And so the final conclusion was that the Soviet Union should send military supplies and some small units to ‘assist the Afghan army to overcome its difficulties’. Five hundred specialists from the Ministry of Defence and the KGB would reinforce the five hundred and fifty who were already in Afghanistan. The Russians would supply 100,000 tons of grain, increase the price paid for Afghan gas, and waive interest payments on existing loans. They would protest to the Pakistani government about its interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Two divisions should go down to the border. But no Soviet troops should be sent to Afghanistan itself.

[...]

The Storming of the Palace 

The time for the assault was altered several times during the day. But at about 6 p.m. General Magometov ordered Colonel Kolesnik to begin the operation as soon as possible, without waiting for the explosion that was to destroy the communications centre. Twenty minutes later an assault group under Captain Satarov quietly moved out to neutralise the three entrenched Afghan tanks commanding the approaches to the palace. The men covered the last part of the approach on foot through snow up to their waists. The Afghan sentries were rapidly killed by snipers. The tank crews were in their barracks, too far away to get to their vehicles, and the tanks were soon secured.

Now two red rockets were fired to signal the beginning of the assault. it was by then about 7.15 p.m. The palace was fully illuminated inside and out, and the Afghans were sweeping the surroundings with their searchlights. The Soviet Shilka anti-aircraft guns opened fire. The palace walls were so solid that most of the shells simply bounced off, scattering splinters of granite but causing little serious damage.

The 1st company of the Muslim Battalion then moved forward in their armoured fighting vehicles. The KGB special forces groups under the command of Colonel Boyarinov travelled with them. They had orders to take no prisoners, and not to stop to aid wounded comrades: their task was to secure the building whatever the odds.

Almost as soon as they started, one of the BMPs [infantry fighting vehicles] from the Muslim Battalion stopped. The driver had lost his nerve, jumped out of the vehicle, and fled. He returned almost immediately: things were even more frightening outside the vehicle. The vehicles crashed through the first barrier, crushing the Afghan sentry. They continued under heavy fire, and for the first time the crews heard the unfamiliar, almost unreal, sound of bullets rattling against the armour of their vehicles. They fired back with everything they had and soon the gun smoke inside the vehicles made it almost impossible for the crews to breathe. The safety glass in the vehicles was shot out. A vehicle was hit and caught fire; some of the crew were wounded when they bailed out. One man slipped as he jumped and his legs were crushed under the vehicle. Another vehicle fell off the bridge which the Russians had constructed across the irrigation ditch and the crew were trapped inside. Their commander called for help by radio, and in doing so managed to block the radio link, paralysing the communications of the whole battalion.

The assault force drove as near as they could to the palace walls, disembarked, and threw themselves at the doors and windows of the ground floor. They burst into the palace in ones and twos. Boyarinov was among them. The entrance hall was brightly lit, and the defenders were shooting and lobbing grenades from the first-floor gallery. The Russians shot out all the light bulbs they could, but some remained burning. They fought their way up the staircase and began to clear the rooms on the first floor with automatic fire and grenades. They heard the crying of women and children. One woman was calling out for Amin. A grenade cut the power supply and the remaining lights went out. Many Russians had already been wounded, including Boyarinov.

In the excitement, the Russians were swearing horribly, using the choicest works in the Russian lexicon; and it was only this that enabled them to identify one another in the darkness.

The Russians’ distinctive white armbands were by now barely visible under a layer of grime and soot. To make matters worse, Amin’s personal guards were also wearing white armbands. But in the excitement, the Russians were swearing horribly, using the choicest works in the Russian lexicon; and it was this that enabled them to identify one another in the darkness. It also meant that the defenders, many of whom had trained in the Soviet airborne school in Ryazan, now realised for the first time that they were fighting Soviet troops, not Afghan mutineers as they had thought. They began to surrender, and despite the order not to take prisoners, most of them were spared.

‘Suddenly the shooting stopped,’ one Zenit officer remembered. ‘I reported to General Drozdov by radio that the palace had been taken, that there were many dead and wounded, and that the main thing was ended.’

Amin still not realise what was happening. He told his adjutant to telephone the Soviet military advisers: ‘The Soviets will help.’ The adjutant said that it was the Soviets who were doing the firing. Amin threw an ashtray at him in a fury and accused him of lying. But after he himself had tried and failed to get through to the chief of the Afghan General Staff he quietly muttered, ‘I guessed it. It’s all true.’

There are various accounts of how he died. Possibly he was killed deliberately, possibly he was caught by a random burst of fire. One story is that he was killed by Gulabzoi, who had been given that specific task. When the gun smoke cleared, his body was lying by the bar. His small son had been fatally wounded in the chest. His daughter was wounded in the leg. Watanjar and Gulabzoi certified that he was dead. The men from Grom left, their boots squelching as they walked across the blood-soaked carpets. Later that night Amin’s body was rolled up in a carpet and taken out to be buried in a secret grave.

The battle had lasted forty-three minutes from start to finish, apart from some brutal skirmishes with elements of the Presidential Guard stationed nearby, who were rapidly dealt with. Five members of the Muslim Battalion and the 9th company of paratroopers were killed and some thirty-five suffered serious wounds. The KGB special forces groups also lost five dead. Among them was Colonel Boyarinov, who was killed by friendly fire right at the end of the battle. He seems to have been cut down by Soviet soldiers who had orders to shoot anyone who emerged from the palace before it was properly secured. 

The victorious Soviets took a hundred and fifty prisoners from Amin’s personal guard. They did not count the dead. Perhaps two hundred and fifty of the Afghans guarding the palace had been killed by their erstwhile Soviet comrades in arms.

On 27 December 1979, Soviet special forces lead an attack to kill Hafizullah Amin in the Taj Bek palace. The Soviet Army later used the palace as the headquarters during the Afghanistan campaign. Photo: Tracy Hunter

The Soviet soldiers who had been wounded during the storming of the palace were taken to the polyclinic at the nearby Soviet embassy. Galina Ivanov, the wife of the Soviet economic adviser Valeri Ivanov, had of course known nothing of what was happening until a terrible sound of shooting broke out down the road and vehicles started bringing in the dead and wounded. One of the vehicles was shot up by the embassy guards, who also had no idea what was going on.

All the embassy doctors lived in one of the microrayons, the Soviet-built suburbs on the other side of town, and were unable to get to the embassy. Galina had taken courses in nursing while she was at university and she was called in to help. She worked from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. Apart from Galina, the only other helpers available were the embassy dentist, a woman who had been a nurse in the Second World War, and a couple of other women. There was another medically qualified person around: the wife of one of the orientalist advisers. She was a neurosurgeon, but when she saw what was going on she spun on her heels and walked off.

First the little team sorted out the living from the dead. Then the dentist had to use his barely relevant skills to operate as best he could, while Galina and the others bound up the wounds. Galina found it an absolutely horrible experience. When she went back to Moscow soon afterwards she could not understand how people could walk around the streets as if nothing had happened.

Meanwhile the Russians, triggered by the explosion at the communications centre, had moved with brutal speed and carefully focused violence to take over their other objectives in the city.

The most important and difficult target was the General Staff building. Fourteen special forces troops, accompanied by Abdul Wakil, a future foreign minister of Afghanistan, were assigned to deal with it. A deception plan was devised to ease the odds. That evening General Kostenko, the Soviet adviser to Colonel Yakub, the chief of Staff, took a number of Soviet officers to pay a formal call, including General Ryabchenko, the commander of the newly arrived 103rd Guards Air Assault Division. They discussed questions of mutual interest with the unsuspecting Yakub, a powerful man who had trained in the Ryazan airborne School and spoke good Russian. Ryabchenko had no difficulty in behaving naturally, since he knew nothing of what was about to take place. Meanwhile other Soviet special forces officers were spreading through the building, handing out cigarettes and chatting to the Afghan officers working there. when the explosion went off, they burst into Yakub’s office. Yakub fled to another room after a scuffle in which his assistant was killed, but then surrendered and was tied up and placed under guard. Ryabchenko, taken wholly by surprise, sat immobile throughout. Kostenko was nearly killed by the Soviet troops.

The fighting lasted an hour. as it died away, Abdul Wakil appeared in Yakub’s office. he talked in Pushtu to the general for a long time, and then shot him. Twenty Afghans were killed. A hundred were taken prisoner, and as they so heavily outnumbered the attackers, they were herded into a large room and tied up with electric cable.

There was an unpleasant moment when a company of Soviet para-troopers, who had arrived forty minutes late, advanced on the General Staff building in armoured personnel carriers and opened up a heavy fire, forcing the Zenit troops inside to take cover as tracer bullets flew across the room glowing like red fireflies. Order was restored and the paratroopers helped to secure the building.

The Russians needed the radio and television centre to broadcast Karmal’s appeal to the people at the earliest moment. They reconnoitred it very carefully throughout 27 December, some of them posing as automation experts to get inside the building. In the assault seven Afghans were killed, twenty-nine wounded, and over a hundred taken prisoner. One Soviet soldier received a minor wound.

No one was killed on either side in the telegraph building, and the defenders in the Central Army Headquarters and the Military Counter-Intelligence building surrendered without a fight. There was no serious resistance at the Interior Ministry building either, though one Russian soldier was wounded and subsequently died. The attackers had orders to arrest the Interior Minister, S. Payman, but he had fled in his underwear and sought refuge with his Soviet advisers.

By the morning the firing had more or less died down. But not quite. As they drove into town in their Mercedes, the senior officers who had directed the attack on the palace were fired on by a nervous and trigger-happy young paratrooper. The bullets hit the car but not the occupants. A colonel jumped out and gave the soldier a sharp clip round the ear. General Drozdov asked the young lieutenant in charge, ‘Was that your soldier? Thank you for not teaching him to shoot straight.’ once the fighting in the Taj Bek Palace had stopped, Colonel Kolesnik set up his command post there. The victorious Soviet soldiers were dropping with fatigue. Since it was possible that Afghan troops in the area might try to retake the palace, they set up a perimeter defence, their nerves still at full stretch. When they heard rustling in the lift shaft, they assumed that Amin’s people were launching a counter-attack through the passages which led into the palace from outside. They sprang to arms, fired their automatic weapons, and hurled grenades.

It was the palace cat.

Afgantsy.jpg

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, by Rodric Braithwaite (Profile, £25).

Credit for synopsis picture: Mikhail Evstafiev

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