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The Tragic Red Sacrifice in AfghanistanPhoto Journal by Tim King Salem-News.com
Britain lost their wars here two centuries ago, Russia was defeated in the 80's; is there hope or are patterns simply repeating?
(SALEM, Ore.) - Whether we like it or not, Americans in Afghanistan are walking in the footsteps of Russian soldiers who fought a long recent war on this ground, that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and lasted roughly ten years, ending in a massive Soviet defeat and withdrawal.
The Afghan government had been under a Communist political system for many years by the late 1970's.
The people lived generally in peace, but were not allowed to worship freely and this was part of a growing discontent. But women had rights in Communist Afghanistan; they were allowed to participate in society, and they had a voice. This obviously changed greatly in later years when the Taliban finally took control.
The Moscow controlled government in Kabul had received substantial allotments of newer Soviet military hardware, but Mother Russia feared the Afghans were going to give Communism the boot, and that led to the war itself. The Soviets felt like they had to protect their interests.
There are many parallels with the current conflict in Afghanistan, though not necessarily in motive or reasoning. One war had a clear purpose, right or wrong; the other not necessarily.
It seems fair that investing serious money in a close ally and then fearing that the country is going to break free from a shared political system and ideology, right or wrong, is indeed a clear purpose. This is a place where the parallel disappears. Another point is that Russia didn't send a small military force in, and then start a second war in another country with no clear objective, which the U.S. did, and Russia was still sent packing in ten years.
The Afghan people have it so bad, almost across the board, that those who make it to adulthood have a high level of endurance for terrible weather and very mountainous terrain. They live on little, and in spite of all of the hardship, most are surprisingly motivated. They are a nation of people who truly want peace. It is important to remember that the majority of the Taliban fighters are from Pakistan, not Afghanistan. I was told this time and time again and it connects back to the Soviet War.
This conflict sent many Afghans fleeing to Iran and Pakistan. Today young men from these families, Afghan by blood only, comprise many of the anti-Coalition militias, or ACM, the general term for the enemy.
This event often referred to as "Russia's Vietnam", was one of the dominoes in the pending collapse of the entire Soviet Union.
The Afghan fighters who defeated the Soviets with mostly U.S. money, known as 'Mujahideen', are essentially the same people our forces are fighting now. The Taliban are one aspect of the multi-faceted group of warlords and fighters known as Mujahideen. In addition to the Taliban, the U.S. government, in a pact with Israel and Pakistan, also supplied other Mujahideen like Usama bin Laden and the man who would have been able to lead Afghanistan to peaceful years but was murdered: Ahmad Shah Massoud.
The Taliban, and Wahhabi religious zealots like bin Laden, didn't like this university student-turned military and political leader; he was murdered by a pair of people posing as a TV news crew. The camera was a bomb.
At any rate, the Soviets looked at all of these fighters as terrorists essentially, and the Afghan Army was Communist, so naturally it was on the side of the Russians.
There were many Afghan interpreters like today, only they needed to speak Russian then, English obviously now. The 'terps as they are called, always have their loyalty called into account by local militants.
Most believe a 'terp 'works for the occupation' and of course they do-making far more than any Afghan who doesn't. This makes life especially hard in places like Helmand Province.
Afghan officers I met in one particular battalion or kandak, as they are known in the Afghan National Army, had a fascinating array of leaders. One was former Taliban who had switched his loyalty back to the ANA, one was an officer in the pre-1989 Communist Afghan Army, and the other was a former Mujahideen fighter.
Nobody was missing the point; the assembly of these men as the top officers of a single kandak was a sign of hope.
These images are all from my time covering the war in Afghanistan during the winter of 2006 and 2007.
Old Soviet military hardware is extremely common in Afghanistan today, only it is in most cases, just a relic, like this old tank located several hundred meters from a passing highway.
Sometimes the leftover signs of the Soviet War in Afghanistan are in the people, who lost loved ones, and limbs, like this man, due to the incredibly large number of hidden, unexploded land mines that the Russians placed in the ground and left behind. Today countless Afghans are crippled from these.
This old Afghan Air Force airplane is sitting exactly where it was left, in a row of other Russian MiG-21 jet fighters that haven't moved since the Russian war here. When I photographed this plane in the winter of 2007, it was still surrounded by a land mine field, I think this plane and the others are probably gone now; bulldozed into a ditch like many here at Bagram Airfield.
This is a gun emplacement that the Mujahideen used when attacking the Soviet forces at what today, is known at the Kabul Military Training Center, or KMTC. The Russians at bases in the Kabul area were very sick toward the end of the war; there were poor hygiene practices in food preparation and many died of hepatitis. The weakened state of health and an even more strained sense of morale, led to many Soviets dying in the final stages of the war as the bases were overrun.
This is a Soviet APC, an armored personnel carrier. Along with old tanks, they absolutely litter the region outside of KMTC but each tells a story, without a doubt, and once carried troops who probably believed they had every chance of winning a war with modern technology and military hardware. Perhaps these vehicles aren't the cutting edge of high tech, but they were, like all Russian vehicles, versatile and highly useful.
An Afghan National Army soldier in a convoy I was traveling in, poses with another old Russian MiG-21 jet fighter that had once been part of the Afghan Communist Air Force. These planes are sometimes left where they were taxied and parked, others like this old plane at Jalalabad Air Field have been towed to locations where they are out of the way.
This particular armored personnel carrier was in really decent shape, though the tires were flat. Parked at an old fort in Kabul actually built by the British in the 1800's, I got the impression that this was probably complete and perhaps would even run with some work. I did not hear of anyone trying to start or operate any of the old Russian equipment like this however.
Old Russian tank barrels are backed by a scene of destruction; the buildings in the distance were occupied by the Taliban when the U.S. initially struck Afghanistan in 2001. This is outside the Kabul Military Training Center, presently basic training or 'boot camp' for Afghan soldiers just entering the Army. Most of these recruits today were small children when the U.S. Air Force attacked these buildings.
This wider shot outside of Kabul where acres of old Soviet tanks and APC's occupy the countryside, gives you some idea of what type of investment Russia made in their war here. Interestingly, many of the buildings used by U.S. and Coalition forces today were built by the Russians for their war here.
Another one of the MiG-21 fighters at Bagram. This is a plane that is still used today by different countries for front line defense. There are many accounts of Afghan pilots flying harassment missions against Pakistan, which obviously symbolize an extremely different time in this country's history. Russia had set the Afghan Air Force up with not just jets, but transport planes and helicopters, in the years preceding the 1979 invasion.
Not a tank or an APC, this armored truck resting on its roof is another testimony to the Russian investment and loss that Afghanistan represents. These vehicles are all extremely heavy and I was told they are constructed of metals that are not simple to simply melt down and recycle. Afghanistan lacks this type of technology anyway, but hopefully won't always.
There is no way of knowing exactly who or what left this intense carnage, or whether it happened during the war or sometime after. Many of the tanks have signs of obvious damage and some look like they were simply abandoned.
It is hard to say exactly, but this vehicle at an old British military base in Kabul that today is an industrial center and part time military base for Coalition and ANA forces, shows the lingering attempts of Russia to remain somewhat friendly to Afghanistan. I was told this was provided at the end of the conflict, I'd hate to call it a consolation prize. Perhaps someone reading this will add to the explanation.
This shot of a Russian plane landing at the Kabul International Airport is another sign of the continuing relations between Russia and Afghanistan. I saw these planes taking off and landing every day from a base near the airport where I spent several weeks covering the war in 2006 and 2007.
This tank barrel is also damaged but not as severely as the one shown above. It seems likely that the tanks were simply disabled when Mujahideen as soon as they had a chance, to make sure these beasts would never kill Afghan people again.
Another MiG-21 at Bagram that had been sitting in state for a very long time, with land mine signs surrounding the immediate area. I had to photograph them through a cyclone fence, and I know there are or at least were many old planes at this base when the war started in 2001.
These images are why I wrote this article and assembled these photos. I was watching the Russian program above out of general interest, when I saw a shot that looked very much like an image I have. So what you are seeing are two Soviet Mi-24 helicopters during the war in Afghanistan, compared with my image of two American helicopters, a Blackhawk and a Chinook, during the current war in Afghanistan.
I wish there was a high degree of contrast when I look at Russian images of their war and current images of ours. In my humble opinion, images of these two wars appear all too close. The people of both Afghanistan and Russia paid a high price, but again the objective was clear then.
Today the challenges are different and the very worst part of it, easy to absorb by watching the movie, Charlie Wilson's War, is the fact that a window of opportunity to bring a lasting peace to Afghanistan opened after the Soviet withdrawal.
Had western powers continued working with the Afghan tribal leaders, so much could possibly have been avoided. It is a fact that an occupation breeds an insurgency.
I hope that the right answers are put into play, though I fear that we are going to see a repeat of the failed tactics of the Iraq surge which divided Iraqi people against each other. Paying enemies is not the answer, yet the answers do exist, and they lie in tribal leadership and the clan system.
The Coalition needs to work more closely with the people who could likely lead the Afghan people to unity, and they need to ask the right questions and take the direction of the local people, it is the only answer.
Tim King is a former U.S. Marine with twenty years of experience on the west coast as a television news producer, photojournalist, reporter and assignment editor. In addition to his role as a war correspondent, this Los Angeles native serves as Salem-News.com's Executive News Editor. Tim spent the winter of 2006/07 covering the war in Afghanistan, and he was in Iraq over the summer of 2008, reporting from the war while embedded with both the U.S. Army and the Marines.
Tim holds numerous awards for reporting, photography, writing and editing, including the Oregon AP Award for Spot News Photographer of the Year (2004), first place Electronic Media Award in Spot News, Las Vegas, (1998), Oregon AP Cooperation Award (1991); and several others including the 2005 Red Cross Good Neighborhood Award for reporting. Serving the community in very real terms, Salem-News.com is the nation's only truly independent high traffic news Website. You can send Tim an email at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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