Soviets’ Afghan Pullout Begins : Armored Convoy Departing as Moscow Winds Down 8-Year War

Times Staff Writers

The Soviet Red Army, after failing for more than eight years to overcome a determined Afghan guerrilla force aided by the United States, began its painful withdrawal from this mountainous Central Asian country Sunday.

At 7 a.m., an armored division of 1,000 Soviet troops and 300 vehicles left its garrison at Jalalabad, 80 miles east of Kabul. The convoy included tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery units, communications and radar vehicles and supply trucks.

Although Afghan rebel groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan, had threatened to disrupt Soviet columns as they departed, Soviet soldiers and reporters accompanying the convoy reported no attacks Sunday. Occasionally, during the nine-hour journey, the convoy was escorted by helicopter gunships. Soviet tank nests flanked the road at regular intervals.

‘It Was an Easy Ride’

“It was an easy ride on a good road,” said Vladimir, 20, riding atop a BTR-80 armored vehicle. The young soldier, who asked that his last name not be used, reported that not all of the troops in the convoy will go back to the Soviet Union immediately. He, a native of Minsk, and his fellow rifleman, Karif, 20, from Baku on the Caspian Sea, are due to return in five months, he said.

Asked if he had seen any combat in the war, he said, “Enough.”


Soviet officers told Eastern European reporters that the first part of the convoy would reach the Soviet border by Thursday, traveling north through the Salang tunnel, then to the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif and finally crossing the Amu Darya River into the Soviet Union at Termez.

The last stage of the same convoy will not reach the border until May 28.

Quarter to Go in May

At a press conference Saturday, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, said that the pace of withdrawal will be slowed somewhat by the country’s bad road conditions after eight years of war. Nevertheless, he said that one-quarter of all Soviet troops will be gone by May 29, the opening day of the Moscow summit meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The lead vehicles in the convoy Sunday zipped along the highway at a fast clip, not even stopping for the men to eat along the way. In fact, they were early and were forced to stop about 10 miles outside Kabul so that 300 foreign journalists could be there to witness the event.

A U.N. observer team, here to monitor the withdrawal, was 40 minutes late getting to the site.

As the convoy neared Kabul, it was greeted by several hundred Afghan soldiers and militiamen who waved Soviet flags and threw flowers at the passing troops. The Soviet troops appeared to be in good spirits, smiling at the Afghan soldiers, a bedraggled bunch in contrast with the regular Soviet units. The Soviets saluted them with clenched fists raised in the air.

No Air of Victory

It did not have the air of a victory parade, however. Only a few Afghan villagers from the colonies of mud dwellings surrounding this capital bothered to come to the roadside, and only a few of these waved. But Afghan secret policemen in civilian clothes drove alongside the convoy in Soviet automobiles and shouted greetings in Russian.

It was clear that the ceremony honoring the departing Soviet troops was being conducted by the men who will be responsible for protecting the Afghan regime of President Najibullah after the Soviets leave.

Occasionally the Afghan soldiers would hand their Soviet counterparts garlands of flowers and greeting cards inscribed in Russian and Dari, the Afghan dialect of Farsi. “Dear Afghan Soviet friends,” said one, “thank you for your friendship.”

By Sunday afternoon here in the capital, several of the main bazaars, including the famous Shazada money exchange on the banks of the Kabul River, had closed for business. Money merchants at Shazada, a center of intrigue and wild gossip, reported two days ago that moujahedeen rebels had asked them to shut down on the day of the Soviet withdrawal.

Put in Positive Light

The Soviet-backed Afghan regime must cope with the guerrillas on its own after all of the Soviet troops are gone nine months from now under the timetable set in a peace accord signed in Geneva last month. And both the Soviets and the local authorities have attempted to portray in a positive light the initial pullout of at least two divisions of the estimated 115,000 troops in this country.

“A limited contingent of Soviet soldiers is returning to their peace-loving homeland,” President Najibullah said during a press conference Saturday.

Red cloth banners in Pushtunistan Square and other central Kabul areas praised the Soviet forces.

“The heroic memory of the Soviet soldiers will live forever,” said one.

Denies Pullout a Defeat

At his press conference, Gen. Gromov, the Soviet commander, insisted that his country’s withdrawal is not a defeat.

But the spectacle of the proud Red Army, undefeated in any previous war, pulling up stakes after 8 1/2 years of frustrating combat against unsophisticated tribal warriors, was grim and obvious in the Afghan capital, where the Soviet forces are concentrated.

The withdrawal was the military price that the Soviets decided to pay for the political and economic reforms of Soviet leader Gorbachev, who has described his country’s involvement in the war as a “bleeding wound.”

Western military analysts calculate that Soviet forces suffered 30,000 to 50,000 casualties here. At least 12,000 Soviet soldiers have died in the bleak rocky defiles of this Texas-sized country that once was held up as the very symbol of remoteness and obscurity.

Fresh Soviet Tombstones

Cemeteries in the Soviet Union are now marked with fresh tombstones, inscribed--without mention of Afghanistan--with the soldier’s tribute: “Died while fulfilling his international duty.”

Today, several thousand Afghans, many of them members of the Soviet-styled People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, will gather in Kabul’s streets to bid the Soviets a formal farewell.

These first Soviet troop withdrawals are relatively small--only 1,000 troops from Jalalabad and a few thousand more later in the week.

Meanwhile, Soviet military defenses in Kabul will be maintained and perhaps even bolstered. The mile-high capital, nestled in the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains, will be one of the last places the Soviet troops leave. Nevertheless, commercial airline flights from Kabul to the Soviet Union were crowded during the past week with spouses and children of Soviet diplomats and civilian advisers.

Nine-Month Timetable

Under terms of last month’s Geneva agreement, the Soviets have pledged to withdraw all their forces within nine months from Sunday. Fifty percent of the Soviet troops, who like the British imperial army more than 140 years before them were unable to subdue the fierce Afghan warriors, are supposed to be withdrawn by Aug. 15.

Because it marks the first major military failure for the Soviets, the Afghanistan venture may have eventual implications in the East European bloc.

The withdrawal also reflects the new style of Soviet policy engendered by Gorbachev, who has pushed for a rapid solution to the conflict, even if it means abandoning the Najibullah regime.

The withdrawal policy has left Kabul in an eerie state of uncertainty, which some of the veteran correspondents here have compared to the atmosphere in Saigon before it fell to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in 1975.

$2 Billion in U.S. Aid

The Saigon and Vietnam themes are strongly felt in the American diplomatic and intelligence communities, whose members predict that the Najibullah regime will fall soon after most of the Soviet troops are gone. In its largest covert operation since the Vietnam War, the CIA has directed more than $2 billion in aid to the Afghan guerrillas since 1979.

Many believe it was the CIA’s introduction of the shoulder-fired, ground-to-air Stinger missile to the guerrillas nearly two years ago that changed the course of the war and led directly to the Soviet decision to give up. A State Department report estimated that in 1987, the moujahedeen using Stingers shot down 150 to 200 aircraft.

With the introduction of the Stinger, Soviet units could no longer safely use helicopter gunships near guerrilla positions without fear of attack. After the Stingers’ introduction, every takeoff and landing of Soviet aircraft, even here in Kabul, was accompanied by the release of phosphorous flares to divert the heat-seeking missiles.

Uncertainty Raises Tension

The uncertainty of the future has heightened tensions in the Kabul populace. Members of the ruling party, many of whom who were educated in the Soviet Union and speak Russian, expect to be helped out of the country by the Soviets if conditions deteriorate here.

But non-party members fear that the fall of the government will lead to a takeover by Muslim fundamentalists of the moujahedeen-- holy warriors.

A professor at Kabul University said: “People are afraid of the chaos that will come after the Soviets leave.”

When the Soviets marched into Afghanistan in December, 1979, it was thought that it would be only a brief expedition to shore up a crumbling Communist government.

Took Power in 1978 Coup

The Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party had taken power in a coup in April, 1978. Nur Mohammed Taraki was installed in power. There were only 350 Soviet advisers in the country at the time.

But in September, 1979, Taraki was pushed out by Premier Hafizullah Amin. A popular insurgency, led by Muslim fundamentalist groups, had already spread through the countryside.

With the Amin government falling apart and his party caught in a bitter feud between factions, the Soviets intervened militarily Dec. 27, 1979. At least 300 Soviet transport planes carrying 5,000 troops landed in Kabul.

Soviet troops led an attack on the presidential palace in which Amin was killed. Babrak Karmal, a leader of the Parcham (Banner) faction of the party who had been in the Soviet Union, was named president under conditions clearly dictated by the Soviet Union.

Carter Announced Sanctions

The United States, under President Jimmy Carter, announced sanctions against the Soviet Union for its “invasion” of Afghanistan. In March, 1980, Carter announced a boycott of the summer Olympic Games in Moscow.