1979: Recalling The Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan As part of a series of conversations marking 1979 as a seminal year in the Muslim world, Afghan-born Amin Tarzi talks about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Tarzi is director of Middle East studies at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. He was 15 when the Soviets attacked the presidential palace in Kabul, which Tarzi witnessed from a short distance away.

1979: Recalling The Soviet Invasion Of Afghanistan

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We've been looking back this week to the events in 1979 that rocked the Muslim world and the impact they still have today. In the final days of that year, Soviet troops flooded into the poor, landlocked and then-obscure nation of Afghanistan.

Here's President Jimmy Carter, speaking shortly after the invasion.

President JIMMY CARTER: The response of the international community to the Soviet attempt to crush Afghanistan must match the gravity of the Soviet action.

INSKEEP: Few thought the fighting there would last so long, but Muslim fighters came from many countries to battle the Soviets. The U.S. supplied weapons. And Afghanistan remains a battleground to this day.

INSKEEP: Of course, American forces are there now, trying to ensure that voting in Thursday's election goes smoothly. To give us some perspective on Afghanistan's history, we called Amin Tarzi. He was a teenager in Kabul when the Soviets invaded. Today, he's a U.S. citizen and a former Marine who teaches at the Marine Corps University in Virginia.

Dr. AMIN TARZI (Teacher, Marine Corps University): When the Soviets invaded, I was 14 years old.

INSKEEP: Fourteen years old.

Dr. TARZI: Fourteen-and-a-half years old.

INSKEEP: You're living in Kabul.

Dr. TARZI: Living in Kabul.

INSKEEP: And who is the first Russian soldier you saw?

Dr. TARZI: I opened the door, and there was this armored personnel carrier, and there was one Soviet soldier on it with a fur hat - those big Soviet's hat that they had - and his vehicle turned right on the spot, and I saw the red star. And that was - it's one of those moments - I actually can remember the smell of the day that day. I can see the clouds. He looked scared. He was very pale white. I remember his face very well. He was definitely not a central Asian. He was very Russian and looked scared, looked so out of place.

INSKEEP: So, the Russians responded to this call, the Soviets responded to this call from Afghanistan's president for help. They brought in some troops. Then they brought in a lot of troops. You hear gunfire?

Dr. TARZI: I can't tell you, was it 21st or 23 December, things began to change. First thing we saw, obviously, were a lot of armored personnel carriers, tanks, Afghans - at least they looked Afghan - Afghan uniform, taking over and all the strategic, and not even so strategic, all the crossroads of the town. So we knew something is going wrong. And then simultaneously was this almost constant sound of these planes, large planes, not...

INSKEEP: Troop carriers or cargo planes.

Dr. TARZI: Yes. They were landing in Bagram and in Kabul in a corkscrew fashion. So, there were several of them at the same time in the air - at least two of them. And then 27th is when we heard gunfire, quite a bit of it.

INSKEEP: Was there a brief period when Afghans seemed to accept the notion that Russians were going to be occupying the country?

Dr. TARZI: I don't think so. Again, I have to tell you, I left Afghanistan in 1980, in March of 1980.


Dr. TARZI: And I was very much involved on the sidelines on the opposition here in the United States, trying to do whatever we could to help the freedom fighters, as President Reagan called the mujahedeen. Mujahedeen basically means warriors of faith, holy warriors.

And at that time, I knew who mujahedeen was. Mujahid was a very, very popular term. I remember things - there was an interview with President Reagan with Frank Reynolds of ABC. I think he's dead now. And Frank Reynolds referred to the Afghans as rebels, and President Reagan just went in a rage. He said they are not rebels. They are fighting for their freedom.

And we - the Afghan community at that time was extremely attached to that, that they were not rebels. Rebels are against a legitimate government. These were people who were fighting for their freedom. So, they were the heroes. They've suddenly become evil.

INSKEEP: When they were on our side, they were heroes, and...

Dr. TARZI: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...when we weren't interested anymore...

Dr. TARZI: They become evils.

INSKEEP: If an American Marine meets and Afghan in a remote village somewhere in Afghanistan today, the American may feel that he's part of a story that has lasted since September 11, 2001. The Afghan feels he's in a different story, doesn't he?

Dr. TARZI: He does.

INSKEEP: What narrative are you talking about?

Dr. TARZI: Like you said with the United - the Soviet Union comes into Afghanistan, and it's the Afghan, it's the Afghan blood. It's the West's war. They owe them something because their countries are free, especially in the Eastern - Central Europe, because of Afghan blood. It was their blood. They were the ones who suffered, and then they got the short end of the stick. Now, everyone in Afghanistan shows that they - first of all, they show that they're invincible. Most Afghans think that their country, they can beat anybody.

INSKEEP: They beat the Soviets...

Dr. TARZI: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...so they say.

Dr. TARZI: And the other thing is that injustice has happened on them time and again, and the culprits - unfortunately, the Afghans do not see the Afghan hand. It's always the outside doing it. So we are coming in with that burden on our shoulders.

INSKEEP: We could talk about the physical damage of 30 years of war, some of which has been repaired over the last several years. But how psychologically damaged is a country by 30 years of war?

Dr. TARZI: I always describe Afghanistan as a sick person. Of course, and if you're in the battlefield, you go - first thing you do is you see whether or not the soldier laying is breathing or not. If he ain't breathing, you pass on and go to the second person.

In Afghanistan, the country breathes. That's the good news. So we have to stay and do something about it. Is it bleeding? Yes. And that's what, you know, the damage, you know, broken bones, we have to fix it. Those are easier, because first you can see them. There's a wound. There's an exit wound. Okay, let's make sure that we patch it up.

But what is most telling, and the whole question comes to that, is the psychological aspect. You can't see it, but the country has suffered psychologically. This country is need of therapy and also maybe need of some medication to calm down.

Imagine a country the size of the state of Texas being bombed more than entire World War II by two of the world's superpowers: Soviet Union, us. So, the pride, the notion of injustice, they all come in as part of the psychological upbringing of this nation. So, it takes time. This is one thing Afghanistan - I think we hear it from a lot of people inside our government, which is great. This is a generational issue - generational. Not one generation, either.

INSKEEP: You can't have a two-year plan (unintelligible)...

Dr. TARZI: You just can't. If you do that, it's going to hurt us. It's going to hurt us in the long run. We think we go there, we come out, it's all over. No. We go there, we come out, their psychological, their history, their narrative keeps that image, and it will come back.

And this is why I think the decision of Afghanistan has an effect on many things in that region that you started your conversation, your introduction -Iran, Pakistan, even Saudi Arabia (unintelligible). This region of the world is so interconnected, and what connects them, '79 - unfortunately, not for the best reasons - Islam attacks against mosques, killing of presidents. Of course, it's Iranian Revolution.

All of that kind of works itself out together. And, again, the question is when you ask - you have one of the more sophisticated audiences in this country. And I say that because, you know, I know it. How many of us are even aware of what happened in '79 in Afghanistan? We need to be aware if we are fighting there. That's the main thing.

INSKEEP: Amin Tarzi, thanks very much for your time.

Dr. TARZI: You're very welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And we'll continue our look at 1979 in the Muslim world tomorrow, when we'll discuss a siege in Mecca that affected a young Osama bin Laden.

Unidentified Man: For him, this was the moment when his loyalty to the Saudi regime - which has done so much for his father and his family - began to crumble.

INSKEEP: That's tomorrow on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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