Nineteen years ago, former Soviet soldier Nikolai Lanine lost many friends in Afghanistan. Last August, he lost a relative in the Canadian army. Now, he worries that we’re making the same mistakes the Soviets did, and part of the problem, he argues, is our “Sovietized” media.
Nikolai Lanine didn’t know Corporal Andrew Eykelenboom. Nevertheless, at his funeral in Comox, Lanine was overcome with memories and emotions.
Having just moved to Victoria in 2000 with his Canadian wife and two sons, Lanine hadn’t met his young cousin-in-law from Edmonton before he was killed in Afghanistan last August. So while feeling terribly for the family’s loss, the painful memories and emotions being stirred up inside Lanine came mainly from another place and time altogether.
Nineteen years earlier, Lanine had been drafted into the Soviet Union’s army and sent to Afghanistan. Many of his friends died there. Certain he’d long ago left that behind, it was a nightmarish experience of deja vu to be at yet another soldier’s funeral in Canada in 2006.
Some would say no meaningful resemblances exist between the communist “evil empire” invasion and occupation that utterly devastated Afghanistan, and today’s NATO efforts to assist in stabilization and democratization there. But his experiences in Afghanistan lifted a veil of propaganda from Lanine’s eyes, and now he worries that, in fact, we’re making many of the exact same mistakes today that the Soviets did.
Nikolai Lanine was eleven years old when troops of the former Soviet Union marched into Afghanistan in 1979. Far away in Kamchatka, Russia’s north pacific peninsula, only in his teens did he begin noticing the news reports.
“I read some things about it in the newspaper; mainly that we were there to help the Afghan people to build a stable society,” says Lanine. He didn’t pay much heed. “I was interested in going on camping trips with my friends and reading Jack London’s books about Alaska.”
In late high school, however, it struck home. Lanine’s best childhood friend, two years older, had been drafted to Afghanistan. “We were standing outside, in a group. It was dark, it was winter. Somebody walked up to us and said, ‘Sergei was killed’. It was a mix of shock and fear and disbelief.”
Lanine is eager to talk, but I eventually also discern a certain circumspection. He often qualifies his feelings, or recounts emotionally difficult stories in fragments. He’s told me about his best friend’s death and about a ghastly surprise attack on several occasions, before I finally put together that Sergei was in that group of soldiers who’d been ambushed and savagely mutilated, then executed.
“The idea was in my teenage mind that there’s gotta be a good reason he died, and the people who killed him must be very wrong or very bad who did that.”
The next year, like every Russian of eighteen, Lanine was drafted.
“[Sergei] made an ultimate sacrifice,” Lanine thought at the time. “It wouldn’t take much from me just to go do my two years; it was not much to ask.”
After training, he was driven into Afghanistan in 1987, eight years into the Soviet military intervention.
“It was medieval,” remembers Lanine. “Biblical. Mud houses, mud compounds, poor peasants bowing to the local rich guy… And everyone was armed to the teeth.”
At the remote mountain base, for many the army dress had been stripped to jogging pants, t-shirts and flip-flops. But a menacing tension pervaded like the weapons ready-to-hand everywhere.
“Guys who were just one year older than us, their faces looked like they were ten or fifteen years older,” recalls Lanine. “And you could overhear people talking about who got shot, what happened to that guy, what happened to those prisoners, how they were taken away and the Afghan government executed them… The whole background was unbelievable.”
His new platoon commander barked, “What are you doing here?”
“Fulfilling my international duty to help people in other countries,” Lanine replied.
Soon, that reply would not come so automatically.
Once a rich, diverse cultural hub, when ships revolutionized commerce, the landlocked, centrally-located Afghanistan became “less a country than a highway along which armies, peoples, religions and cultures moved” wrote John Fullerton in The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. The legacy of turmoil and unforgiving terrain, he added, created a fierce “fighting tradition”.
Why did the Soviets invade? The Soviets stated they were “invited” by Afghanistan’s “legitimate” government to “suppress terrorists”, and to help “stabilize” and “reconstruct” the country. Soviets themselves had already suffered terrorist attacks, and with 50 million Soviet Muslims near the border, the central government “Politburo” certainly had reason to want to quell growing extremism in Afghanistan.
Ardently committed to understanding his past, Lanine’s library includes 1980s articles from Soviet state newspapers Pravda and Izvestiya. He translates sections to illustrate how the military intervention was presented.
“Working together, Soviet and Afghan government forces this month successfully cleared Kandahar of insurgent activities. Now, driving through the city, one can see reconstruction work resuming.”
“The goals of the new Afghan constitution are to establish peace and guarantee the rights of all Afghans. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what the terrorists are fighting against.”
“Fundamentalist extremists recently burned a new school for girls and executed the teachers. The terrorists don’t spare any means to disrupt the process of stabilization.”
Lanine says these humanitarian perspectives, remarkably like those in contemporary Canadian news and opinions, weren’t just official propaganda; many Soviet citizens genuinely felt them, including him early on.
“We wanted to stabilize the situation through our presence and help the warring parties to reconcile and stop the fighting,” the former Commander of Soviet Forces in Afghanistan would tell CNN even many years later. “We had set ourselves the task of turning Afghanistan into a stable, friendly country.”
That’s another reason Eykelenboom’s funeral brought back so many difficult memories, Lanine adds. The personal eulogies, politicians’ condolences and military tributes “were basically repeating quote after quote things I’d heard before… We said the same kinds of things at our funerals. That it was done for the higher purpose of helping the Afghan people. For establishing a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan, and protecting women’s rights, and having a better future for children.”
Conversely, though Lanine had no access to western media then, he’s since learned what most North Americans over 40 remember: These Soviet claims that they were trying to “help” Afghanistan were ridiculed as twisted propaganda by western leaders, pundits and organizations across the political spectrum. Motives regarded as actually plausible included blatant colonizing, propping up an unpopular pro-Soviet regime, creating a buffer zone, expanding towards a warm water port and, most importantly, reaching for oil.
The Soviets had advanced into “a strategic position that poses a grave threat to the free flow of Middle East oil”, announced U.S. President Carter.
In any case, few believed the Politburo was so naÃ¯ve as to think anyone would actually stabilize and help Afghanistan by sending in combat troops. “The Russians called their operation ‘temporary and limited’,” summarized a 1980 London Times article. “If they believed that were true, their military appraisal and their knowledge of Afghan history and character were seriously awry.”
Western counterspin didn’t stop there. Not unlike what some Arab countries are doing today, anti-communist U.S. President Reagan soon dubbed violent Afghan rebels “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers”, and sent waves of covert aid, including to the early Taliban and Osama bin Laden. This massive U.S. support transformed disparate, ragtag Afghan mercenary bands into major, modernized fighting forces. And though the despotic, misogynist religious beliefs and merciless savagery of many factions was hardly veiled even then, a 1985 state department statement exclaimed, “The Afghan freedomfighters–the mujahidin… are writing a new chapter in the history of freedom.” A typical Los Angeles Times article called for heaping “admiration” and “military hardware” on Bin Laden’s “courageous” ilk.
In retrospect, it’s doubtful if, beneath all these layers of propaganda, many outsiders could still have seen the true perspectives of average Afghans. And this was the quagmire into which eighteen year old Nikolai Lanine stepped.
Soviet forces immediately came under siege while hurriedly buttressing the Afghan government, army and police. Like NATO since 2002, they then launched counter-insurgency operations, relying heavily on air bombings, search-and-destroy operations, and house-to-house invasions to “root out” the “terrorists”. But also like in more recent years, the slapdash governing system faltered, and the hammer-fisted combat operations mainly started converting average Afghans into enemies. Reconstruction slowed, destruction skyrocketed.
By the time Lanine arrived, the Soviets were choosing battles more carefully and primarily trying not to make things worse. “A lot of it was, well, shoot if we have to, but we’re not going to actively seek opportunities to engage,” he describes. “It was a so-called ‘policy of a national truce’, trying to pacify the resistance by one-sidedly stopping active fighting.”
His own unit mainly performed counter-insurgency operations along supply routes. And like NATO’s “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” today, they also tried to win hearts and minds. When not fighting, Lanine’s unit delivered food, firewood, clothing, school books and other supplies to ordinary Afghans, built hydro lines, protected Soviet doctors working in villages, and loaned trucks for home construction. Also like today’s PRTs, they gathered intelligence and forged alliances by giving weapons or training that empowered certain warlords or factions over rivals.
Unfortunately, says Lanine, all of this together principally created widespread distrust and shifting allegiances. “There were some villages around our base which had support for us. But some other villages you wouldn’t even go in their direction, even to help them, because the population was very hostile.”For similar reasons, a coalition of 160 international relief agencies has requested NATO basically shut down PRTs.
And maintaining “stability” amidst all this, explains Lanine, also much like NATO is experiencing today, became an intermittent but never-ending barrage of low-level fighting.
Skirmishes typically erupted between small numbers over weapons shipments or control of small pieces of territory. “I kind of doubt the military value of it, in terms of gaining military advantages.”
Lanine worked a grenade launcher with a 2 km range. “Often, you don’t even know who you’re shooting at. You see fire flares going in a place where they’re not supposed to go, so you open fire. You don’t know who you killed or didn’t kill.”
Didn’t he question the wisdom and morality?
“You’re given orders to go somewhere and hold some patch of land for a few hours, and the way back home lies through that patch of land,” he explains as any soldier would. “You see what’s in front of you, and say, ‘Okay, we better get the job done.’
In addition, he clarifies, whenever he saw someone he knew who’d been injured by the enemy, “it put things in black and white very quickly. And when I was shot at personally… You don’t have much time to have philosophical thoughts.”
Nevertheless, as layers of indoctrination peeled away, philosophical thoughts crept in.
Previously, Lanine had never known much about Afghans. “Like now,” he notes. “Who is the suicide bomber trying to attack Canadian soldiers in Kandahar? You don’t see that side of the story; it was the same in Soviet media. They’re bad guys, terrorists, bandits. Yet their right, the right of people to resist a foreign armed presence, wasn’t even considered. It was taken for granted that whoever resists us must be bad.”
Through interpreters and “on an intuitive level”, he says, he began to see “not everyone was just a political fanatic. They were just regular people; a lot of them who’d lost family members.”
Lanine shows me excerpts from his old journals where he’s struggling with his growing moral doubts after their unit, in an accident tragically similar to a 2002 U.S. airstrike, mortared an Afghan wedding. And after he saw an infant wounded by Soviet shrapnel, and fellow soldiers’ acting abusively towards villagers, he wrote, “I’ve realized this war is not as righteous from our side as I had perceived it to be before.”
One day, these growing sensitivities to Afghan perspectives erupted.
He was mired in malarial fever, slipping in and out of consciousness during a ride back to base.
“I was sick, and I was unarmed, and it was the first time I was on the road in Afghanistan with no weapons,” he recounts.
They passed an Afghan whom Lanine knew as someone who’d implausibly survived such brutal and lengthy torture that he’d attained legendary, holy status. He lived at the entrance to a major valley passageway, yet all sides left him alone. “Only Allah can kill him now,” said the locals.
This time, Lanine’s soul was gripped by the man’s face and body, “broken at every angle you can imagine”.
“I started feeling all that misery he went through, like something you and I cannot even understand…”
Lanine has written a memoir about it: “Inside the hot, dusty truck, I gasp for air like a fish… [The holy man] stares at me with his single, scarred eye, and I feel that I start to fall apart… My will to resist disease and to shut off the brutality of life is gone. I start shaking and crying without tears. My belly contracts in a painful twist and I open my dry mouth, but no sound comes out. My mouth stays frozen open and I don’t understand if I’m wailing or vomiting…my last connection to reality snaps…”
Lanine goes on to describe experiencing an immense, empathetic, almost metaphysical pain for this solitary man.
“There were very few moments when I could let down my guard, let the emotional wall down and allow myself to feel,” he says. “It was one of those days that they say changes your life.”
Arriving at the base’s mud-shack clinic, Lanine maneuvered through bodies of Afghan government soldiers whose helicopter had just crashed.
“People were lying on the ground… they were broken, most of them were unconscious… and there was a lot of blood on the floor, because I remember actually stepping in it, and it was already getting coagulated, sticking like maple syrup or honey… I could hear somebody’s leg being amputated with a manual saw… One guy was putting his hand up towards me…”
Lanine now found himself sympathizing deeply with every Afghan on all sides, understanding them simply as humans, just like him, caught in chaotic, miserable circumstances. “It was very hard to go back to the initial state of emotionally disconnected observer.”
This heart-rending experience reinforced an enduring personal revelation.
To elucidate, Lanine describes once leading a squad which included a new recruit. It was pitch black and roaring with wind. Suddenly, they heard a shot, incomprehensible voices, and screaming. Lanine found the recruit with a gaping bullet wound in his leg, his bone fractured and artery severed.
“He was severely bleeding. And I was literally holding my palm over his pulsing blood. I could feel it between my fingers.”
Lanine called out defensive commands and swung into emergency first aid. Simultaneously, a new sensation emerged out of his deepening moral confusion about his role in Afghanistan. Upon learning later he’d saved the young man’s life, he fully grasped that sensation. “It was that whole, almost indescribable feeling of doing something unequivocally GOOD. There was no doubt. There couldn’t be anything wrong with [saving a life]… And nothing I experienced in my life to that point could compare to that feeling of gratification.”
Lanine later learned that, terrified and seeking a way out of this war, the young man had shot himself.
Yet even after all these revelations, Lanine admits, “I went back to my role as a soldier, behind the emotional walls.”
Today, however, Lanine is studying nursing at the University of Victoria.
Through 1988-89, the Soviets withdrew. “I don’t think anybody questioned why,” comments Lanine.
Estimates say 15,000 Soviets and 1.5 million Afghans had been killed. One-third of Afghans were refugees. And haunting flashbacks to horrified faces told Lanine there’d be still more deaths.
“Some people were crying out, ‘When you leave, it’s going to be the end of us!'” he recalls. Many Afghans had worked with the Soviet-backed government or simply lived peaceably with them; they were now exposed to revenge attacks by resistance groups. “And it was the end for some of them, as I learned later.””I don’t feel good about it,” concludes Lanine. “Would I do it again? No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t go back… The whole decision-making process [of the Politburo] was so incompetent and so flawed, and the consequences of that were devastating.”
The Soviet Commander in Afghanistan himself publicly conceded, “[W]e should have refrained from introducing our troops into Afghanistan.”
But it was the final fall-out which taught Lanine a penultimate lesson. Once Soviet combat troops withdrew, instead of launching coordinated disarmament and together calling for independent peacekeepers, both superpowers left the warlords to battle their differences out over the bodies of the civilian population. To Lanine, this disastrously illustrated that, underlying all the self-aggrandizing bluster from westerners and Soviets alike about their noble intentions in Afghanistan, there lay a basic lack of real concern for the Afghan people themselves.
It upsets Lanine to see it happening all over again. He recognizes the Soviet intervention was orders of magnitude worse, due to its sheer scale. But it wasn’t, he argues, fundamentally different than NATO’s intervention today. They’re both, says Lanine, “acts of aggression”, where foreign armies try to make a nation fit their vision for what it should be. Afghans themselves, he points out, like the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, make the comparison, too.
The other obvious parallel, he adds, is the most insidious: the propaganda. He calls it our “Sovietization”. He points to government gags on reporting the Canadian wounded, for example. After 9/11, he particularly noticed the increasingly self-righteous drumming as Bin Laden, the Taliban and the “failed state” of Afghanistan were portrayed this time as purely tyrannical agents of destruction that arose out of some unknown wellspring of evil, and therefore could only be changed positively through violence.
“Nobody was really seriously discussing the roots of the whole militant Muslim movement in Afghanistan. It was very shocking for me, how wrong the memory was. It wasn’t something I expected to see here,” says Lanine. “I couldn’t believe how much a supposedly democratic society was shifting towards unquestionable acceptance of war.”
Yet since Canadians are freer, and have more access to information than Soviet citizens in the 80s, we have an even greater responsibility, he suggests, to educate ourselves and learn from history. “Unfortunately, I don’t get the sense that people really understand what they’re getting themselves into.”
Indeed, Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls’ new book, Bleeding Afghanistan, contains reams of evidence dispelling many common beliefs about our impacts. The authors describe in detail botched elections, a government riddled with notorious warlords, shocking setbacks to women’s rights, legalized private and religious militias, civilian massacres, and stalled reconstruction, all fueling popular disaffection. As a result, with the U.S. still refusing to allow UN peacekeepers anywhere but Kabul, attacks against NATO forces have increased fourfold this year to 600 monthly and rebels effectively control over half the country.
“I’m not sure what we should be doing,” comments Lanine. “I only know that what we’re doing right now was tried before, and it failed. Are they feeling better about being bombed by NATO than they were under the Soviets?”
For their part, our leaders keep calling for more combat troops. But the Soviets used six times as many as NATO currently, and still described it as “fighting an octopus with one hand”. And it wasn’t confidence-inspiring in September when the Scottish aide-to-camp to the Commander of British forces in Afghanistan quit while describing NATO’s general strategy as “grotesquely clumsy” and “completely barking mad”, with too much “bombing and strafing villages”.
According to Kolhatkar and Ingalls, we should do what surveys show most Afghans want: Bring in peacekeepers under UN control. Stop hunting combat. Make disarming sufficiently lucrative. And direct reconstruction money through grassroots, Afghan-led initiatives that give poor Afghans employment, rather than through multinational contracts.
Lanine agrees, but advises patience: “There’s no quick fix.” Apart from the political conundrums in Afghanistan itself, Lanine believes we foreigners must solve our own tendency to worsen matters by confusing our propaganda for unequivocal fact. “We have that ability, to a certain degree, to believe people who are opposing us must be wrong. It must be us who are right. People are capable of dehumanizing their enemy.”
Though it’s emotionally difficult, and he recognizes some people won’t like his perspectives, Lanine feels compelled to speak out. He says he wouldn’t want to see his boys, both Canadian, sign up for a war “where, again, incompetent decisions are made by incompetent people with huge consequences to everybody else.”
Distraught about yet another death, Lanine recently visited the casket of a local Canadian soldier. He sat for a long time in the empty room, wanting to write something to the family. He couldn’t think of what to say, and departed.
“After so many years of trying to find meaning in my best friend’s death, I failed,” says Lanine. “Sergei was part of something very big and very wrong. Just because he was such a good guy, it doesn’t make it right.”
Originally published in Focus magazine January 2007.