Unease over US exit in Afghan valley where Soviets were routed

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Afghan police gather near the remains of Soviet-era tanks in Panjshir province, north of the capital Kabul, on February 7, 2019. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
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This photo taken on February 7, 2019 shows the wreckage of Soviet-era weapons next to the tomb of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late military and political Afghan leader also known as the "Lion of Panjshir", in Saricha in Panjshir Province, north of the capital Kabul. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
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Afghans walk next to the remains of Soviet-era tanks along a road in Saricha of Bazarak District in Panjshir province, north of the capital Kabul, on February 7, 2019. (AFP / Wakil Kohsar)
Updated 12 February 2019
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Unease over US exit in Afghan valley where Soviets were routed

  • Looming prospect of a US withdrawal and uncertainty as the Taliban takes center stage has stoked worry that history could repeat itself

PANJHIR, Afghanistan: The last time Abdul Karim saw Soviet forces he was a teenage mujahideen fighter shivering on an Afghan mountainside, clutching his Kalashnikov and wondering if winter or the Russians would bring death first.
“But then I heard (mujahideen commander) Ahmad Shah Massoud over the walkie talkie saying the Russians had withdrawn, and we could come down,” Karim told AFP in Afghanistan’s legendary Panjshir Valley, where the Red Army was bled into retreat.
It would be several more years before the Soviets left Afghanistan for good on February 15, 1989 having suffered the loss of 15,000 men — many in the unforgiving mountain passes of Panjshir.
But for Karim, peace was short-lived — Afghanistan fractured into a ruinous civil war, and the young fighter was back on the frontlines.
Thirty years later, Afghans who experienced the bloody aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal fear a repeat of that chaos as another invader — the United States — negotiates an exit from its longest war.
The parallels are not lost on veterans whose dogged resistance brought a superpower to its knees.
It was in the stronghold of Panjshir, north of Kabul, that Massoud lured the Soviets into high, narrow mountain passes where his loyal mujahideen lay in wait.
Massoud, dubbed the “The Lion of Panjshir,” is venerated not just in the valley — where his mujahideen rebuffed nine Soviet offensives — but across Afghanistan, where he is a celebrated national hero.
His death at the hands of Al-Qaeda assassins, two days before September 11, 2001, is mourned every year and is marked by an official holiday.
The road through Panjshir is punctuated by towering images of his likeness and the rusted skeletons of Soviet tanks, helicopters and heavy guns — “a graveyard of empires,” another former mujahideen, Mohammad Mirza, told AFP.
Three decades on, talk of Massoud’s military cunning — outmaneuvring tanks and fighter helicopters through ambush and attrition — still evokes immense pride from his devoted foot soldiers.
“Nine times they tried (to take the valley), and nine times they failed,” boasted another former mujahideen, who asked not to be named because he is now an Afghan police commander.
Flicking open his phone, he scrolled through grainy photographs of his younger self at a feast with fellow mujahideen after the Red Army’s capitulation.
“Of course we celebrated, like all countries celebrate their great victories,” he said, gazing wistfully at the photos.
“But always I remember those we lost. I cannot forget.”
Wali Mohammad was 14 when he joined the mujahideen. He said every anniversary was “a reminder that anyone who invades this country will face the same fate.”
But the victory was bittersweet: it failed to deliver the lasting peace that has eluded Afghanistan for four grinding decades.
“After the Russians left, we were sure peace was coming. But our neighbors, and regional powers, had their own agendas,” the 52-year-old told AFP.
Karim, today burly and with a snowy beard, was also circumspect about the mujahideen’s fabled victory, even before a crowd of admiring young Panjshiris reared on tales of their invincibility.
“We were happy that one enemy had left, but we also knew that war was not over,” Karim said, twirling prayer beads and dressed in a traditional wool ‘pakol’ hat and heavy scarf to shield him from the cold.
Overlooking a sweeping ravine, the corroded hulk of a Russian troop carrier lies semi-submerged in snow, spray-painted with a rousing slogan: “Long live Afghanistan. Death to the Taliban.”
Panjshir, with its fierce warriors and natural defenses, was largely spared the violence that plagued Afghanistan after the Soviet expulsion, and remains one of its most peaceful provinces.
But the looming prospect of a US withdrawal and Kabul riven with infighting and uncertainty as the Taliban takes center stage, has stoked worry that history could repeat itself.
Massoud’s son, Ahmad, said his father “had his doubts” about the haste of the Soviet withdrawal, fearing the country was too divided and the government too weak to keep Afghanistan together.
“He was concerned that this might actually lead Afghanistan into a greater chaos, which is exactly what happened,” 29-year-old Massoud told AFP via WhatsApp.
“He strongly believed that the Russians were leaving Afghanistan too soon.”
Graeme Smith, from the International Crisis Group, said the mujahideen understood that without a solid plan once the enemy leaves “the inferno of violence that follows might be much worse.”
“They remember the brutal civil war of the early 1990s, and they don’t want to repeat that,” he told AFP.
Sitting atop a Russian tank abandoned on the roadside, Mirza bitterly recalled the violent legacy that trailed the vanquished Soviets.
“The day they left was both a sad and happy day for us,” the softly-spoken former mujahideen said.
“Now that the US has decided to leave, we fear the same thing could happen again.”


India holds ‘Super Tuesday’ vote

Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi (C) gestures after laying a wreath to pay tribute on the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs memorial in Amritsar on April 13, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 10 min 33 sec ago
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India holds ‘Super Tuesday’ vote

  • Rahul Gandhi is standing in Wayanad in Kerala state, taking a risk as south India is considered a stronghold of regional parties
  • This election is seen as a referendum on his five-year rule — which has seen impressive economic growth but not the jobs that the BJP promised

NEW DELHI: Indians are voting Tuesday in the third phase of the general elections with campaigning by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party and the opposition marred by bitter accusations and acrimony.
People lined up outside voting station at several places even before the polling started at 7 a.m.
The voting for 117 parliamentary seats in 13 states and two Union Territories on Tuesday means polls are half done for 543 seats in the lower house of Parliament. The voting over seven phases ends May 19, with counting scheduled for May 23.
The election is seen as a referendum on Modi’s five-year rule. He has adopted a nationalist pitch trying to win the majority Hindu votes by projecting a tough stance against Islamic neighbor Pakistan.
The opposition is challenging him for a high unemployment rate of 6.1% and farmers’ distress aggravated by low crop prices.
Modi is scheduled to vote on Tuesday in his western home state of Gujarat, though he is contesting for a parliamentary seat from Varanasi, a city in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
The voting also is taking place in Wayanad constituency in southern Kerala state, one of the two seats from where opposition Congress party president, Rahul Gandhi, is contesting. His home bastion, Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh state will have polling on May 6. He will give up one seat if he wins from both places.
The voting is staggered to facilitate movement of security forces to oversee an orderly election and avoid vote fraud.
India’s autonomous Election Commission intervened last week to block hate speeches by imposing a temporary ban on campaigning by some top politicians across political parties.
Uttar Pradesh state chief minister Yogi Adityanath of Modi’s BJP was barred from campaigning, in the form of public meetings, road shows or media interviews, for three days for making anti-Muslim speeches. He said a Hindu god will ensure the BJP victory in elections, while the opposition was betting on Muslim votes.
Mayawati, a leader of Bahujan Samaj Party, was punished for 48 hours for appealing to Muslims to vote only for her party. India’s top court ordered strict action against politicians for religion and caste-based remarks.
Hindus comprise 80% and Muslims 16% of India’s 1.3 billion people. The opposition accuses the BJP of trying to polarize the Hindu votes in its favor.
Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP leader, filed a contempt of court petition against Rahul Gandhi in the Supreme Court for misrepresenting a court order while accusing Modi of corruption in a deal to buy 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft. Modi denies the charge.
Modi has used Kashmir to pivot away from his economic record, playing up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the suicide bombing of a paramilitary convoy on Feb. 14 that killed 40 soldiers, in a bid to appear a strong, uncompromising leader on national security. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.
Opposition parties have consistently said that Modi and his party leaders are digressing from the main issues such as youth employment and farmers’ suicides.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety. Rebels have been fighting Indian control since 1989. Most Kashmiris support the rebels’ demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian control.