Russia seeks to vindicate Afghan war, 30 years after pullout

Soviet era tanks can still be found in some parts of Afghanistan, 30 years after Russia pulled out its troops from the war-torn country. (File/AFP)
Updated 12 February 2019

Russia seeks to vindicate Afghan war, 30 years after pullout

  • The USSR pulled out its last units from Kabul on Feb.15, 1989
  • The withdrawal, ordered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was a humiliating defeat for the Union and helped lead to its collapse

MOSCOW: Soviet authorities themselves condemned the USSR’s bloody occupation of Afghanistan, but 30 years later some in Vladimir Putin’s Russia are coming to see the operation in a more positive light.
After a decade of military intervention to bolster Kabul’s embattled Communist government against militant fighters, the USSR finally pulled out its last units on February 15, 1989.
The withdrawal, ordered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was a humiliating defeat for the Union and helped lead to its collapse.
Mikhail Kozhukhov, who covered the conflict as a correspondent for the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, remembered how the final Russian troops left without joy or bitterness.
“The soldiers were dreaming only of one thing: getting home safe and sound,” Kozhukhov, now 62, told AFP.
The reporter remembered crossing the “Friendship Bridge” across the Amu Darya river separating Afghanistan from then-Soviet Uzbekistan in the second-last armored vehicle of the last Soviet convoy, flying red flags.
One of the armored vehicles carried the body of 20-year-old Igor Lyakhovich, who was killed a day earlier and is officially the last of more than 14,000 Soviet war dead in a conflict that killed more than one million Afghans.
“Along the route you could see the ‘ghosts’ who had come down from the mountains to watch our retreat from a distance,” said Kozhukhov, using a Russian term for elusive Afghan partisans.
“The eyes of the inhabitants of the snowy village were full of hate or spite because they were being left to the mercy of fate,” Kozhukhov said.
The journalist, who briefly served as Putin’s press secretary in 1999 and 2000, says that “the intervention in Afghanistan was always a tragic and senseless escapade.”
The intervention was extremely unpopular with the Soviet public and was officially condemned in 1989 at the height of Gorbachev’s policy of “glasnost,” or transparency.
But this judgment is now being reassessed, under pressure from veterans.
Putin in 2015 appeared to back the intervention, saying that the Soviet leadership was trying to confront “real threats” even though he acknowledged “there were many mistakes.”
In late January, Russia’s parliamentary defense committee backed a draft resolution saying that “the moral and political condemnation of the decision to send in Soviet troops” was “against the principles of historical justice.”
The Soviet troops helped the Afghan authorities fight “terrorist and extremist groups” and curbed the growing security threat facing the USSR, the draft resolution says.
The draft resolution, however, has yet to be voted on in full session, reflecting the authorities’ reluctance formally to revisit this traumatic episode.
Historian Irina Shcherbakova of Memorial rights group says that amid heightened tensions with Western powers in recent years, “Russia is reviving its Soviet past to justify its new opposition to the West.”
For political analyst Pyotr Akopov from pro-Kremlin site Vzglyad, “the ex-combatants and the whole of Russian society need vindication for this war.”
“We have nothing to apologize for, we didn’t use napalm... and we even managed to leave Afghanistan with our supporters replacing us, which the Americans have never managed to do.”
Alexander Kovalyov, president of the association of ex-combatants for the CIS region including most ex-Soviet countries, insists the invasion of Afghanistan was justified and says Gorbachev “betrayed all the dead” by condemning it.
“Without our troops, the Americans would have installed their missiles to target Moscow,” he said.
“Gorbachev was right to finish this war but we should have kept on supporting Kabul with the necessary arms for it to resist,” said Kovalyov, who served as a deputy commander in charge of political indoctrination of an army regiment sent in to secure the withdrawal.
Konstantin Volkov went to Afghanistan in late 1981 as a conscript at the age of 17, full of enthusiasm after following Soviet media reports.
He was responsible for radio communications, taking part in 70 missions and was decorated for intercepting correspondence between the Mujahideen.
Demobilized in 1983 in good physical health, he says the war haunted his dreams for 15 years.
He was ordained as a Russian Orthodox priest and is now Father Konstantin. At his church in a village outside Moscow, around 30 of his fellow “Afghans” (Soviet veterans) gather every February 15.
“I suggest to my former comrades that they express penitence and don’t think any more about what happened in that war,” he told AFP.

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

Updated 16 February 2019

Trump declares emergency for US-Mexico border wall, House panel launches probe

  • The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall
  • Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday declared a national emergency in a bid to fund his promised wall at the US-Mexico border without congressional approval, an action Democrats vowed to challenge as a violation of the US Constitution.

The Republican president’s move, circumventing Congress, seeks to make good on a 2016 presidential campaign pledge to build a border wall that Trump insists is necessary to curtail illegal immigration he blames for bringing crime and drugs into the United States.

Within hours, the action was challenged in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Texas landowners, saying that Trump’s declaration violates the US Constitution and that the planned wall would infringe on their property rights.

Both California and New York said that they, too, planned to file lawsuits.

Hours after Trump’s announcement, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee said it had launched an investigation into the emergency declaration.

In a letter to Trump, committee Democrats asked him to make available for a hearing White House and Justice Department officials involved in the action. They also requested legal documents on the decision that led to the declaration, setting a deadline of next Friday.

“We believe your declaration of an emergency shows a reckless disregard for the separation of powers and your own responsibilities under our constitutional system,” said the letter, signed by Chairman Jerrold Nadler and other top Democrats on the panel.

Trump has been demanding for a wall on the 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) southern border

Trump on Friday also signed a bipartisan government spending bill that would prevent another partial government shutdown by funding several agencies that otherwise would have closed on Saturday.

The funding bill represented a legislative defeat for him since it contains no money for his proposed wall — the focus of weeks of conflict between Trump and Democrats in Congress.

Trump made no mention of the bill in rambling comments to reporters in the White House’s Rose Garden.

He had demanded that Congress provide him with $5.7 billion in wall funding as part of legislation to fund the agencies. That triggered a historic, 35-day government shutdown in December and January that hurt the US economy and his opinion poll numbers.

By reorienting his quest for wall funding toward a legally uncertain strategy based on declaring a national emergency, Trump risks plunging into a lengthy legislative and legal battle with Democrats and dividing his fellow Republicans — many of whom expressed grave reservations on Friday about the president’s action.

Fifteen Democrats in the Republican-controlled Senate introduced legislation on Thursday to prevent Trump from invoking emergency powers to transfer funds to his wall from accounts Congress has already committed to other projects.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, and top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer swiftly responded to Trump’s declaration.

“The president’s actions clearly violate the Congress’s exclusive power of the purse, which our Founders enshrined in the Constitution,” they said in a statement. “The Congress will defend our constitutional authorities in the Congress, in the courts, and in the public, using every remedy available.”

Members of the migrant caravan that has made its way from central America to the US-Mexico border

The first legal challenge, filed in federal court in Washington, came from three Texas landowners along the Rio Grande river claiming they were informed the US government would seek to build a border wall on their properties if money for the project were available in 2019.

The lawsuit, filed on their behalf by the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, also named the Frontera Audubon Society as a plaintiff whose “members’ ability to observe wildlife will be impaired” by construction of a border wall and resulting habitat damage.

The suit contests Trump’s assertion of a national emergency at the border to justify the president’s action.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, describing the supposed border crisis touted by Trump as “made-up,” and New York state’s Democratic attorney general, Letitia James, both said they planned to challenge Trump in court.

Trump acknowledged his order would face a lengthy court fight.

“I expect to be sued. I shouldn’t be sued. ... We’ll win in the Supreme Court,” he predicted.

Trump may have also undermined his administration’s argument about the urgency of the situation when he told reporters, “I didn’t need to do this. But I’d rather do it much faster.”

In their letter to Trump, House Judiciary Democrats said that language had left them “troubled.”

Both the House and the Senate could pass a resolution terminating the emergency by majority vote. However, any such measure would then go to Trump, who would likely veto it. Overriding the veto would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Although Trump says a wall is needed to curb illegal immigrants and illicit drugs coming across the border, statistics show that illegal immigration via the border is at a 20-year low and that many drug shipments come through legal ports of entry.

Confronted with those statistics by reporters at the Rose Garden event, Trump said they were “wrong.”

Also present were a half-dozen women holding poster-sized pictures of family members killed by illegal immigrants. Trump noted their presence in announcing the emergency declaration.

He estimated his emergency declaration could free up as much as $8 billion to pay for part of the wall. Estimates of its total cost run as high as $23 billion.

As a candidate, Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for the wall. It was one of his biggest applause lines at his campaign rallies. Mexico firmly refused to pay, and now Trump wants US taxpayers to cover the costs.