View Full Version : Soviet Vets Warn U.S. of What to Expect

09-19-2001, 09:37 PM
September 19, 2001

Soviet Vets Warn U.S. of Perils in Afghanistan

Strategy: Soldiers who fought there warn the U.S. to expect daily deliveries of coffins and few targets other than villages.

By MAURA REYNOLDS , Times Staff Writer

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.

09-19-2001, 10:53 PM
I don't doubt there will be challenges if it comes to war with Afghanistan. But one thing I think people are forgetting is that Vietnam while long in duration, was a sort of half hearted war. Our national agenda was vague. Few (including the soldiers on the front lines), understood what they were fighting for. Moral was low. The country's collective heart just wasn't in it. This time will be different. Our resolve has never been stronger. Pity anyone who underestimates the awesome might of the US Armed Forces.

09-19-2001, 11:46 PM
Very interesting. It certainly seems as though an air campgaign directed at the terrorists would serve no good purpose.

If we could eliminate most of the foreign aid being received by the Taliban, would they lose their civil war in short order? Might our goals be served by actively facilitating the victory of the Taliban's native enemy (and providing subsequent aid) in exchange for them delivering the terrorists?

09-20-2001, 01:00 AM

The Taliban already control most of Afganistan. They also have strong support inside Pakistan (especially in the border region). Pakistan has nuclear bombs.



09-20-2001, 02:02 AM

This situation *could* escalate beyond what we might now expect.

In that light, it scares me to note a big difference between WWII and now. Until the very end, WWII was fought before anyone had nuclear weapons.

09-20-2001, 03:50 AM
It's hard for me to conceive of a "half-hearted" effort that resulted in the death of 1.7 million (U.S. Army estimate). But since this view is widely shared it might provide some insight into what we'd be willing to do in a more deliberate affair.

09-20-2001, 12:09 PM
Thank you so much for this post. The information was excellent and surly will give all concerned something additional to consider. Maybe will just have to send Rambo there, he has some experience. Bad joke.

SPM,...play long and prosper...

09-20-2001, 04:45 PM
It's important to remember that there is a huge difference between an army largely made up of of conscripts occupying a land they don't care much about and a highly motivated elite force conducting clearly defined missions. Hopefully, we'll have learned the lessons of the former and apply them to the latter.

Re the nuke issue, that's a huge problem, we can't allow Pakistan to become destabilized by pushing them too far on this score but we also need thier territory logistically to fly over and stage operations from. Afganistan is quite literally in the middle of fu**ing nowhere.

09-21-2001, 06:23 AM
That effort lasted over 15 years. It was half-hearted not only in the sense of a vague agenda, etc, but also int he sense that we were fighting a defensive, counter-insurgency war against an enemy based in a country we couldn't enter, and supplied by countries who wanted us to fail. The Russians fought a counter-insurgency war in a foreign country against an enemy funded and supplied by the US.

If the world is behind us, both in words and in action, then we will be fighting a counter-insurgency war in a country we will have some decent intelligence on (from Pakistan), against an enemy with no military production capabilities and no foreign supplies (assuming that the other countries actually refrain from selling them weapons). This will not be another Gulf War, if we fight Afghanistan we will suffer casualties, but with complete air superiority and an enemy under seige, they will not be able to hide in their holes, and we will eventually be triumphant if we want to be. And we do want to be.

09-22-2001, 01:39 AM
The United States chose to bomb the Yugoslavs (ALL of them, not just any "terrorists") to punish them for having voted in Milosevic by a small margin and for "bullying the Kosovars", and just when Milosevic's regime was about to topple over, bringing about the easily-predictable consequences that (a) all Yugoslavians united against the attack on their country, (b) the ousting of the country's leader, i.e. Milosevic, was, naturally, shelved, (c) the Kosovars' fate became much worse than before, and (d) Americans were once more the "clumsy bullies" for anyone who could look beyond the daily NATO "briefings".

I think the objective of all American Presidents post-Vietnam is to avoid at all costs the spectacle of body-bags containing American bodies, on TV . This is understandable politically but very constraining militarily. If the United States really do want to be the world's super power and super policeman, loss of American lives will be unavoidable. But the only strategy currently being made available for consideration is bombing. SAC and the Air Force pretty much define America's options. The question is not about anything else but how "smart" the bombs will be! This is not good.

"It's worse than a morally bad thing to do. It's a mistake."