30 years from leaving Afghanistan

Alar Nigul oli Afganistani luureoperatsioonidel kopteris korduvalt kuulipilduja taga. PHOTO: Erakogu

On February 15, 1989, Lt. Gen. Boris Gromov (45) jumped off the last Soviet armored car to leave Afghanistan and headed for Uzbekistan across the iron “Friendship of Nations” bridge over Amu Darya to report a successful pullout. The last Estonian to leave that foreign war was just a few cars ahead of Gromov.

A few months prior, Gromov had given a press conference where he said that the Soviet troop pullout did not constitute a defeat in the war that had lasted for over nine years. “None of our units, even the smallest, were ever forced to retreat. That is why we cannot talk about a defeat,” the general told journalists in Kabul. Gromov lied.

The Soviet army was handed a painful defeat on the very first day of the invasion on December 25, 1979 when an IL-86 transport plane collided with a mountainside when landing in Kabul. On board the plane was special forces soldier Aarne Vinni who became the first Estonian to die in Afghanistan.

In November of 1982, someone’s “wise leadership” sent a Soviet army convoy into the several-kilometers-long Salang pass tunnel the entry and exit points of which were not secured. Mujahideen resistance fighters blew both openings of the tunnel, leaving the convoy trapped. Because the engines of armored personnel carriers and trucks were running, the battle cost the lives of 176 soldiers without a single shot being fired. They included Estonian Raivo Vaarpuu, as ascertained by historian Küllo Arjakas.

Fear, hunger and cold

Alar Nigul and Heiki Lipand, who served together in a recon unit in 1985-1986 and in special forces later on, remember several situations sporting bewildered commanders and poor decisions that resulted in casualties, accompanied by soldiers going hungry and cold and suffering stifling heat and disease in the summer.

Heiki Lipand.  PHOTO: Konstantin Sednev

Nigul recalls his first mission in the reconnaissance unit in February of 1985. “It was frightfully cold, but we didn’t have any warm attire. I had a light quilted jacket, one of my gloves had been stolen, and I wore a summer panama that did not cover my ears. We spent the entire night lying on cold ground looking at a fixed point. We had no experience and were scared beyond belief,” Nigul describes. He says the squad was never given detailed information on what they were doing or where they were going next.

“On the morning of the first mission, when the sun was coming up, my Estonian partner Andrus and I noticed a group of people approaching our position. The commander had no luck trying to radio in to find out who they might be. I had an RPK machine gun and Andres had his sniper rifle. The group was drawing nearer, and I drew a line in the sand in my mind the crossing of which by them would have caused me to open fire without being ordered to,” Nigul recalls.

Alar Nigul. PHOTO: Konstantin Sednev / Eesti Meedia

At the last second, Nigul’s partner noticed red cutouts on the uniforms of the approaching group through his sniper’s scope. It turned out it was a recon company from their regiment the presence of which scouts lying in wait were totally unaware of.

Armored personnel carrier driver Lipand recalls how they closed in on a kishlak (village – ed.) that was allegedly hiding an armed group of the enemy but ended up taking a beating from Soviets.

“We were on one side of the village, and they had surface-to-surface missile trucks on the other. Peaceful civilians came out of the village after which the trucks opened fire on us. I saw missiles exploding 50 meters in front of our trucks. The next volley was closer, and the commander ordered us to back up 50 meters. But we had scouts in trenches ahead of our position two of whom were hit. One guy took a direct hit,” Lipand says.

Nigul miraculously escaped a downed helicopter and a battle fought in the city of Herat where the mujahideen managed to destroy several Soviet tanks. “That single raid cost the lives of 12 men and a further 38 were injured. We really took a beating there,” Nigul said.

Lipand said that Afghanistan had it all. “It was painful to look at the crew of an armored personnel carrier that had hit a mine. The reality of it all just hit you at one point. Once, we were standing on a mountain, enjoying the view when one of our guys suddenly grabbed his shoulder. He had been shot,” Lipand recalls. The Estonian also hit a landmine in his APV but escaped with a slight concussion.

Lipand claims that as an APV driver he had an easier time than Alar Nigul and others who went on recon missions in the mountains. “I waited for them in the APV, where I always had water for example. There was one time when the recon squad was told they would be picked up by helicopter at 8 a.m. They drank all their water, but the choppers couldn’t fly out and trucks were sent instead that took 12 hours to arrive. They spent the whole day in the sun without a drop of water,” he says.

Nigul never took a hit in Afghanistan but lost more than one good friend. Lipand wasn’t as lucky as he took a bullet to the leg right before the end of his posting, not from an enemy, but a fellow Soviet soldier who had been toying with his rifle.

End of the war dragged on for years

It took General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev years to make the decision to pull out of Afghanistan. On the one hand, he feared an attack by the traditionalists and public opinion as the decision would have been interpreted as defeat. He was also a hostage of corrupt generals and other high-ranking officers who made millions trading in guns and drugs in Afghanistan. On the other hand, the collapsing empire needed the West’s support, and it was USA that was most insistent on the Soviet Union ending the war.

Former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze writes in his memoirs that Gorbachev talked about a troop pullout with Afghan leaders Babrak Karmal and Mohammad Najibullah in December of 1985. “Our army will withdraw, we will give you all the weapons you want, we will give you everything so you can fight,” the general secretary allegedly promised. Alas, nothing happened.

During the 27nd congress of the Communist Party in early 1986, Gorbachev uttered a single sentence on Afghanistan: “We want our army in Afghanistan to return home in the near future.” Nothing happened.

It was only in 1988 that Western countries managed to achieve an agreement in the UN for a ceasefire signed in Geneva. The Soviet Union started pulling out its troops in May of the same year. Over 100,000 soldiers were brought home over nine months.

Nigul and Lipand say that February 15, 1989 that saw the last armored car pull out of Afghanistan left them feeling nothing.

“I’m being honest when I say that I didn’t lose any sleep or have a nervous breakdown when I returned from Afghanistan. A friend of mine once told me it was unreal. Today, I cannot remember the last convoy leaving Afghanistan to have sparked emotion in me,” Lipand says.

Nigul agrees. “I do not recall being emotional during the troop pullout 30 years ago. I was neither overjoyed nor angry. There was nothing,” he says. Nigul admits he was tense for a while after returning from Afghanistan.

We had a very cold fall in 1986. I remember waiting for the bus to Tartu with my mother one morning when suddenly pales started to go bang. I instinctively hit the ground behind the ramshackle bus stop structure; my mother was in shock. The sound of a pale going bang because of the cold is a kind of sharp crack, exactly like a gunshot in your direction,” Nigul says. “I was also afraid I might instinctively use lethal moves if I had to fight someone. We did learn how to kill people in Afghanistan after all.”

Two different wars

The second time Estonians went to serve in Afghanistan was in 2003, as part of allied operation Enduring Freedom. The first Estonian unit to be sent over was made up of six demolitions experts, while hundreds of Estonian Defense Forces members served in Afghanistan in 2003-2014, mainly working with U.S. and British troops.

The two wars were quite different despite the fact both demanded casualties. The second Afghanistan operation constituted contemporary warfare, characterized by modern arms and proper logistics.

Unlike the young men forced to take part in the Soviet invasion back in the 1980s, modern conscripts do not have to be afraid of being deployed outside Estonia. Foreign missions are only for professional soldiers, both men and women.

One impressive aspect is that a single soldier who served in Afghanistan in 2003-2014 had the support of up to seven logisticians: people who prepared food, did laundry, fixed equipment, administered medical assistance, ensured communications and internet access.

The largest allied military base in Southern Afghanistan Camp Bastion had a massive canteen in the style of a smorgasbord that offered Asian, American and European cuisine.

EDF members had good equipment and could always complement it in shops. Estonians built a Finnish sauna in Camp Bastion that became very popular among soldiers of other countries. While no alcohol was allowed in the base, alcohol-free beer could be enjoyed with the sauna. The base also had several pizza places.

The only thing Afghanistan in 1979-1989 and in 2003-2014 had in common was the fact bullets, mines and shells were equally dangerous.