Missiles Protected Food in Soviet Afghanistan

After daybreak the bombs came. The earth vibrated from the thousand-pounders dropped by the fighter jets overhead. Clouds of dust from exploding earth filled the air. The nearest bomb hit several hundred yards away from us and, as it turned out, nobody was hurt. It had been a useless exercise: the jets had taken off from the military air field at Jalalabad, dropped their bombs from about ten thousand feet, and flew home. The jets were flying so high that from the ground they appeared no larger than specks. Even with television-guided missiles–which these planes were not equipped with–hitting a target as small as a pup tent from that altitude is exceedingly difficult. It was another potent illustration of how the Stingers had changed the face of the war. Weighing only thirty pounds, the heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles were mobile and cost only $75,000 apiece, and in two out of three times that they were fired in Afghanistan, a Stinger destroyed a Soviet jet or helicopter that cost about $4 million each. So the Soviet and Afghan government pilots weren’t taking any chances….

The Kot Valley unrolled like a plush green carpet at the foot of Spinghar, a jungly world in sight of the snows. We alighted under a large plane tree on a raised table of earth about a hundred feet over the valley, providing a prospect from which to espy the terrain we were about to enter. A local farmer laid out a rush mat and Turkoman rug for us. His son, wearing a gold Sindhi cap, brought ceramic cups for tea. I took off my shoes and smelly socks and let the hot sun dry my feet while I drank tea under a blue sky on a rug I would have been proud to have in my living room back in Greece. It was the kind of moment that a traveler files away in his mind in order to impress people later on. But what I also remember about that moment was what the farmer told Wakhil about all the irrigation ditches that had been blown up by fighter jets, and the flooding in the valley and malaria outbreak that followed. Malaria, which on the eve of Taraki’s Communist coup in April 1978 was at the point of being eradicated in Afghanistan, had returned with a vengeance, thanks to the stagnant, mosquito-breeding pools caused by the widespread destruction of irrigation systems. Nangarhar was rife with the disease. This was another relatively minor, tedious side effect of the Soviet invasion that lacked drama and would only have numbed newspaper readers if written about or even mentioned in passing–which it never was.

We crossed rice, grain, and maize fields, walking along rebuilt irrigation embankments and down dusty trails partially shaded by apple and apricot trees. It was hot and, for the first time since I left Peshawar, a bit humid too. Almost every mud brick dwelling we saw had been hit by a bomb. Yet more civilians lived here than elsewhere in the Spinghar region, and women in colorful chadors were ubiquitous in the fields, separating the strands of grain and carrying bundles of it on their heads. Only since the end of 1986 had refugees started to come back to the Kot Valley from Pakistan. The upsurge in cultivation was the result of one thing: Stingers. High-altitude Soviet bombing notwithstanding, the missiles were providing enough air cover to frighten away low-flying gunships, allowing some peasant farmers to return and start growing crops. Relief workers in other parts of Afghanistan where the mujahidin had Stingers had also noticed this phenomenon. The antiaircraft missiles were actually putting food in people’s mouths.

We rested again in an apple orchard, and a farmer brought us the best meal I had eaten so far in Afghanistan: curds, lentils, greasy fried eggs, apples, and green tea. The heat, the greenery, the water slowly trickling in the stagnant canals, and the timelessness of the setting evoked a town in the Nile Delta in Egypt.

SOURCE: Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1990, 2000, 2001), pp. 126-129

Soldiers of God is a thoughtful, insightful, highly readable book. Battlefield smart, rock solid.” –Dan Rather

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