‘Sick of This War’ : ‘What Was It All For?’ a Soldier Asks

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Times Staff Writer

“What was it all for?” the battle-hardened Soviet army captain said, turning the question over in his mind.

“That’s not something we are really supposed to ask. But, of course, we do ask ourselves, and unfortunately, I cannot say that it was all worthwhile.”

The 29-year-old captain, who asked to be identified only as Pavel Nikolayevich, has served nearly four years in Afghanistan, and he is happy to be going home this month when his unit pulls out in the first phase of the Soviet withdrawal from this war-torn country.


‘An Important Task’

“Frankly, I am sick of this place and sick of this war,” he continued. “When I first came in 1980, I accepted that we had an important task here, a duty to perform as Communists, in helping the Afghan people.

“Today, I cannot say that we have helped or that they wanted our help. And, for me, that is a very great pity.”

Officially, the Soviet soldiers, estimated to number 115,000, say they are leaving Afghanistan after more than eight years of fighting because they have completed their “internationalist duty” of aiding the embattled Marxist regime here.

“The mission given us by the Central Committee (of the Soviet Communist Party) and the Soviet government has been completed, and we are returning to the Soviet Union in accordance with the agreement signed in Geneva last month,” Col. Konstantin Belov told journalists visiting the communications base he commands outside Kabul, the Afghan capital.

“We are happy to be going home, of course. We believe that we have served well here. We wish our comrades in Afghanistan all the best, all success. And, well, that’s all there is to say--we’re going home.”

Troubled by Doubts

But some soldiers, like Pavel, confess that they are going home troubled by doubts about why they were sent here, about the mission they were given and about the way they carried it out.


“I would not like to say that this was all for nothing,” Pavel, a career officer, continued. “I really can’t judge--I don’t have the whole picture. Also, the future of this country is up to the Afghan people.

“But, to my mind, there is more fighting, more terror, more bloodshed, more death now than there was when the first Soviet troops arrived in December, 1979, to help the government here combat a serious counterrevolutionary threat to the country. I don’t really know whether the government here is stronger or weaker now, but I do know that our presence has greatly undercut its popular support.

“So, how do we weigh the results--the achievements against the failures, the good against the bad, our hopes against the realities? That’s what many of us are asking ourselves as we leave, because the answers are important for our own country and its future.”

Only in the last two years or so have Soviet soldiers begun to ask such critical questions. Until then, they say now, the party’s order was enough.

Disillusionment Set In

“The longer this war went on, the more people wondered, both in Afghanistan and at home, how much longer it would last,” a former engineering officer, also a two-tour veteran of Afghanistan, said in Moscow earlier this month. “That led to other questions about how we were fighting the war, whom we were fighting and, in the end, why we were fighting in this place called Afghanistan.

“And, when there were just no real answers, disillusionment began to set in, both among the officers and among the soldiers. . . . As a result, there may be no more alienated group in Soviet society than the Afghantsi , our Afghan veterans.”

But Soviet commanders, and their superiors in Moscow, rejected such suggestions, although the official Soviet press has written recently of the declining morale among the troops here and of the anger of the Afghan veterans and their problems in readjusting to civilian life after a year or two in battle.


“Our soldiers are the cream of Soviet youth,” Col. Grigorii Bondaryev, another officer at the Kabul communications command, maintained. “They are strong, they are trained, they are motivated, they are disciplined--exceptional men doing what is demanded of them by our party and state. . . .

‘Proud to Have Come Here’

“From time to time, there may be an infraction of military or political discipline, a transgression of one regulation or another, but one cannot see even the beginnings of this so-called alienation, not among our men. Their morale is very high, and we are proud to have come here.”

Pyotr, 20, a cobbler from the Ukraine, speaking while on an errand in town and away from his officers and political commissar, expressed similar sentiments with great conviction.

“The Afghans can live decent lives now because of Soviet help,” he said. “Before, they had nothing, absolutely nothing, and then their revolution, their effort to improve their lives, was threatened by reactionary, counterrevolutionary forces supported by Western imperialism.

“We formed the shield behind which they could build a new life for the country. Now they are strong enough to manage on their own, and we in the Soviet army can return to our motherland. I am proud to have served here.”

There is little question, however, that most Soviet soldiers will be even more pleased to leave.


“Eight more days, and we’re out, across the border and home,” a 22-year-old Ukrainian farm worker named Misha said as he drove a T-62 tank from the outlying city of Jalalabad into Kabul on Sunday afternoon. “Then maybe just a couple of more months for me, and I’ll be out of the army and really back home.”

‘Came So Close to Death’

Misha had thought the army, even with the prospect of combat in Afghanistan, would be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, something not to be missed, and he was not disappointed.

“We came so, so close to death often enough,” he continued, recalling attacks by the moujahedeen guerrillas on convoys he was protecting, “and that made me appreciate life all the more. . . .

“But what was it all for--that’s not for me to say, is it? I am a farmer and, now for just a couple of years, a soldier. That sort of political question should be put to the big guys in Moscow, the ones who sent us here.”

But Sergei, Misha’s partner on the dusty tank, looked at the signs along the road thanking the Soviet army for its assistance and laughed mockingly.

“What is this ‘internationalist duty’ we are supposed to have done?” Sergei, 21, asked. “I am not sure what we accomplished--maybe nothing. But I am sure that when someone starts talking about ‘internationalist duty,’ he doesn’t know the struggle and the blood and the pain and the grief it means.”


Worried at Rebel Threats

Volodya, another soldier arriving here in the convoy from Jalalabad, was equally happy to leave but worried about the repeated moujahedeen threats to attack the retreating Soviet forces.

“We could have left a lot more quickly--just packed up and left,” Volodya said. “But the opposition forces, those bandits, don’t want peace despite the Geneva accord. So, it’s almost as if we will have to fight our way out.”

But not all Soviet personnel are happy to be leaving or certain that the Kremlin decision to withdraw was indeed correct.

“I am not sure that this is right, pulling out this way without things settled,” Leonid, a civil adviser to the Afghan government, said as he strolled around the housing project where many Soviet civilians live. “The war has not been won, and peace is still remote. I am really afraid that the Afghans will start to fight even more fiercely among themselves now and that the bloodshed will be tremendous. . . .

“Mine may not be a popular opinion back in Moscow, but I think we did a great deal here for the Afghan people. . . . They have come to depend on us as they build socialism, and now we are getting out, largely for our own reasons, and leaving them to face a situation even more difficult and complex than that in 1979. Is that fair?”