Veteran warns of Afghan fight

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MOSCOW - Dmitri Popov was standing guard over a Soviet Army camp in the cold, rugged mountains of northeast Afghanistan one night when he spotted a boy with a metal rod approaching.

Twice before, he says, children had surprised sleeping sentries in Popov's unit and jammed rifle-cleaning rods in their ears, killing them. When the boy realized Popov was awake, he dropped his rod and ran for the camp's perimeter fence. Popov, a 19-year-old draftee, snapped off the safety on his weapon and raised it.

"I had a choice, either to shoot him with my AK-47, which I had in my hand, or let him go," says Popov, casting his eyes down and taking a drag on a filtered cigarette. "But I could not shoot and kill a child."

For Popov, who had believed in the Soviet cause when he first came to Afghanistan, the incident signaled that the war was lost. "When even children fought against us, killing our soldiers, then we realized that we would be defeated," he says.

This is the enemy U.S. ground troops might face in Afghanistan, veterans of Russia's decade-long war say: Children playing in the road, wizened men trudging behind wooden plows, teen-agers tending a few scrawny cattle. American troops could wipe out the Afghan army and seize major cities, Popov and others say. But in every village and narrow mountain gorge, an invisible army would wait to attack.

Popov was one of more than half a million Soviet soldiers to serve in that brutal conflict. The fighting began in December 1979, when the Kremlin sent 80,000 troops rolling across Afghanistan's northern border and installed a Marxist regime in Kabul. A decade later Communist Party leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev decided the war had been a costly mistake and on Feb. 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldiers roared north in a column of tanks. The Soviet Union collapsed 2 1/2 years later. Afghanistan's communist government soon followed.

Officially, the Soviets said that about 15,000 of their troops died and 37,000 were wounded during the decade-long war. Some estimates put the death toll four times higher.

Not all the casualties came from combat. Many Soviets were stricken by malaria, dysentery, typhoid or hepatitis. One of Popov's friends died of an infected leg wound. Soldiers blundered into old minefields. Young recruits, subject to brutal hazing by embittered veterans, sometimes went berserk, shooting all their comrades.

When Popov arrived in Afghanistan in the fall of 1987 for his 18-month tour, the amateur boxer was ready to fight. Although he was a second-year student in an automobile mechanic training institute in Moscow, he did not try to evade the draft. He wanted to do his duty, and defend a neighboring socialist state against the rebels, backed by the United States and other nations. But when he arrived, he found he was regarded as part of an occupying army, hated by most of those he thought he had come to defend.

Popov traveled all over Afghanistan, but spent most of his time stationed in a garrison north of Kabul, in the lower Panjshir Valley, a deep gash in Afghanistan's northeast mountains. His detachment stood guard on the main road over the snow-capped Salang Heights, the key to controlling the lower Panjshir and the route to the Soviet Union's main supply bases in Uzbekistan.

It was an eerie and unsettling landscape, Popov says, a land of deserts and mountains and sun-baked clay huts. Much of the year, the mountains are whipped by hot, dry winds off the deserts, carrying a chalky dust that covers buildings, animals and people, turning everything a ghostly white. But the most disturbing part of the war, he says, was the nagging feeling that any of the Afghans might attack, at any time, from unseen positions high in the mountains or in the middle of a village.

He was driving down a road one day past a file of native Afghan troops - supposedly Soviet allies - when one man lifted a bazooka and aimed directly at him. After a second or so, the Afghan lowered the weapon. Popov took a breath, shrugged and drove on. Was it a grim joke? He has no idea. He learned not to trust anyone. "It was impossible to say whose side someone was on," he says.

By the time Popov arrived, the war was winding down and there were few major battles. But the Afghans continued to harass the Soviets with a guerrilla campaign, shooting down aircraft, planting explosives, sniping and making hit-and-run attacks.

His unit was repeatedly hit by the forces of Ahmed Shah Masoud, then the leader of one of several CIA-backed factions.

The Soviets retaliated with air and artillery attacks, with little effect. They tried to hunt down Masoud, but failed. Afghanistan's mountains are riddled with granite caves; lightly armed forces shift easily from village to village. The country's roads, twisting through narrow passes, are ideal for ambushes. Soviet officers were so terrified of traveling by road, Popov says, they made a practice of sending enlisted men ahead of them.

In this land of shifting political landscapes, Masoud went on to become a Russian ally. He was one of many warlords who fought for power in the past decade, one of those the Taliban rose up to vanquish. Eventually, he commanded the Northern Alliance, the main rebel group fighting the Taliban. He died a week ago, killed by assassins who infiltrated the sliver of Afghanistan the rebels control.

Popov's camp was infested with mice, rats and lice. Fresh water was scarce. Popov contracted hepatitis, and spent 10 days in a hospital where sick or injured soldiers sometimes had to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

He returned to camp just in time for the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. It was a holiday, and Popov was playing the camp physician for the chess championship while an officer stood watching the game. A mortar shell landed just outside, sending metal shards screaming through the flimsy barracks wall. The explosion gravely wounded the officer, who toppled onto the chessboard.

The barrage lasted a week. The Soviets tried to return fire, but the shells were coming from over the mountain ridges. Some were set to fire by timers. Not once during the assault, Popov said, did he see one of the attackers. "It was as if they were not there," he says.

At night, Popov and the other soldiers huddled in a shallow trench roofed with timber and stones, feeling the ground shake from explosions outside. Popov slept wearing his bulletproof vest, and used his helmet as a pillow. It was freezing. Rats scuttled and squeaked in the wooden rafters holding the stones overhead, sometimes scurrying across his chest.

The happiest day he spent in Afghanistan, he says, was the day he left, Feb. 8, 1989, a week before the final pullout.

Today, the 33-year-old Popov has a wife and two children, and works for an auditing firm in northwest Moscow. Twelve years after he was forced to quit mechanic's school because of the draft, he says, he has decided to finish his studies. On his walls are a map of Afghanistan, and a calendar to which he has pinned his campaign medals and ribbons.

He feels deep sympathy and sorrow for the people of the United States, Popov says, for the suffering and death caused by last week's terrorist attacks. But he cautions that America should not be too quick to fight in the name of justice, as he had done.

"I just hope that my story will help persuade America not to make the same mistake," he says.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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