The First Soviet Expedition in Laghman
The Soviet military expedition in the province of Laghman, with a mixed population of 229,100 living in attached mud houses in 340 villages and a number of towns, is known in some detail. Laghman is a long, fertile river valley of 7,600 square kilometers flanked by mountains. From the middle of the main valley branch off two narrow valleys, Alingar and Alishang, reaching as far as Kawun, a branch of the Hindu Kush. Along the way glens branch off from both valleys, so that their upper parts provide safe sanctuaries. Laghman can be considered typical of the many river valleys that lie between the mountains from the Hindu Kush to the plains of Peshawar. After the invasion mujahideen spread throughout Laghman, as already noted. The exception was Mihtarlam, the provincial capital, which they kept under pressure. The purpose of the Soviet operation now was to clear the region of the mujahideen.
Units of the invading army that had been stationed in Dasht-e-Gambiri at the foot of Laghman set out on 6 April 1980 accompanied by helicopter gunships. On the way they destroyed the two collections of settlements of Qarghaee and Zeranee. The latter settlement, which is still desolate, was destroyed because some of its inhabitants acted against the invaders along the nearby main Kabul-Jalalabad road. Seeing the convoys of tanks, the mujahideen fled into the glens; those who remained behind mixed with the people. Seeing no opposition, the invaders headed toward the upper parts, spreading out in small groups when they entered villages. When they exposed themselves to attack, the mujahideen in some places fired at them. What happened to a group of six Russians in my own village of Deva (also Palwata) and a few nearby hamlets of about a hundred houses in the Alishang Valley was typical.
Having crossed the river by a swinging bridge, the Russians entered the village and appeared before a shop, asking the inhabitants, “Dost ya dushman?” (Friend or enemy?). They had no interpreters and knew only this phrase by which they distinguished friends from enemies of the Soviet Union and the Kabul regime. The villagers naturally replied, “Dost.” At this time a mujahid stationed on a rooftop fired on the Soviets, killing one and injuring another. While retreating, the Russians reciprocated, taking their casualties with them. Meanwhile, they fired a signal shot into the air, after which the village was hit by long-range guns from the other side of the valley where a contingent of artillery had been stationed. The retreating Russians also killed two farmers working in a field.
The calamity descended the next day. Fearing reprisal, the villagers evacuated the village following the encounter, but since nothing happened after the shelling, a number of them returned later the same day. They were mistaken. The next day the village was shelled by long-range guns while a group of low-flying helicopter gunships fired rockets into its surroundings. Then a group of forty Russians in tanks besieged it. When the village was thus isolated, a group of six Russians entered the village, killing everyone in sight. Some were killed in lanes, others in mosques, and still others inside their houses. Women and children were spared.
Gul Mohammad, his newly married son, and two of his guests were killed as if in a game inside his courtyard in front of his womenfolk, apparently because the Russians had found an empty cartridge there. In the courtyard each victim was made to run to a fixed spot; when he reached it, he was shot dead. The wailing of the women of the household and their solicitation by gestures had no effect. Born into a blacksmith family, Gul Mohammad had taken to farming; he also kept a hunting hawk belonging to my father-in-law, Abdul Aziz Kakar. I had joined Gul Mohammad a number of times in hunting expeditions in the nearby hills. Always smiling and dressed in worn clothes, he was one of the finest persons I have ever known. In any case, had it not been for the sagacity of a villager, Sayyed Ahmad, who impressed the word “dost” on the assailants, the total number of those killed would have been higher than the nineteen who were slain that day. Eighteen houses were either completely or partly set on fire, and the rest were searched for weapons. Sweets, transistor radios, cash, and similar objects were looted.
The same thing happened to a few nearby villages and hamlets, which brought the total number of those killed to sixty. The nearby town of Maskura also lost twenty men on that day. As noted, what happened to the village of Deva and a few others may be taken as an example.
It is impossible to outline the events of that day in the whole valley, much less in both valleys. It is estimated that since all the villages up to the upper part of Alishang were searched in the same way as Deva, the invaders killed two thousand men. In Alingar only about sixty men lost their lives, since the mujahideen there had refrained from firing on the intruders. Three mujahideen were said to have been killed, while the loss of the Russians was said only to have been higher. The Soviet military units, after losing a few tanks at the hands of the mujahideen, evacuated Laghman and arrived in Jalalabad. The remaining mujahideen soon descended from the upper parts and spread throughout Laghman.
What can we learn from the expedition in Laghman? First, only Russians soldiers took part in the operation. The Kabul regime army was not seen with them, and the invaders did not have interpreters with them. In some places Parchamis acted as guides, but they were not with the Soviet soldiers all the time. The very appearance of the alien, armed, atheistic invaders in the midst of the rural Afghans was provocative, especially given the absence of the guides or interpreters. It was obviously unwise to send such troops among a people who had driven away government agents and were known to be fanatics. One wonders whether the purpose was to find a pretext for massacre. Still, the people remained quiet, and their militants preferred flight to encounter. Throughout the valley there was no group opposition, only occasional rifle shots. Yet many men were massacred in their own homes. This group homicide was neither made an issue nor lamented. It passed unnoticed, as did so many similar atrocities in the coming years.
The invaders perhaps thought that by eliminating the “dushman” they did their job. The Parchamis were glad that their Soviet comrades had cowed their opponents for them. Strangely, the Parchamis of the village supported the operations even though some lost relatives and one lost his father. In support of the Soviets and of their party, some argued that if the mujahideen had not fired on “the forces of the comrades” (quwwaay dost), their term for the invading army, then the Soviets would not have fired on them. Zuhur Razimjo, a member of the central committee who was also from Laghman, said, “What we do is for the welfare of true toiling people.” The grip of the Soviets over the party and of the party over its members was complete. The operation was one of many that the invading army carried out during its stay. When such were the consequences of an unprovoked expedition, the reader can imagine the consequences of the contested major operations.
The victims of the operation, as noted, were civilians. This was true of all the operations throughout the occupation: hence the killing and displacement of the highest number of Afghans in their history. Except for killing of innocent men, the present operation did nothing else. It did not lead to the pacification of Laghman. Instead, it created problems of major dimensions with dire consequences. It demonstrated the might of the Soviet Union aimed at frightening the Afghans into submission. It was an affirmation of the view that the resistance must be suppressed within weeks or, at most, months if conciliatory measures failed to persuade the people to submit. But its outcome was the opposite of what had been intended. According to Abdul Rahim, a mujahid commander from Dawlat Shah in the upper part of the valley, after this incident his small group of mujahideen, armed with primitive weapons, increased in number as many young men joined him.