Kabul, Afghanistan – Mohammad Wazir Razi “Kabuli”, now about 52, was very young when the Soviet Army invaded his country. But his memory of what followed in the years after is impeccable.
“I was in grade six and everything changed overnight, our school, our neighbourhood. The Soviets hadn’t just invaded the country, they invaded our culture and religion too,” he recalled.
“They imposed the national anthem on us, they made young boys forcefully attend pro-Soviet meetings and join national marches. They even tried to stop people from praying and attending religious events,” he told Al Jazeera.
The Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support a communist government that was facing internal threats.
The largely Muslim population did not welcome a Russian intervention in support of an already unpopular regime.
‘They jailed hundreds of people’
Armed Afghan fighters, labelled the mujahideen, launched a rebellion against the superpower that resulted in a decade of bloodshed and destruction.
For Kabuli, the horrors of the invasion came too close to home. As a family of religious scholars, they faced persecution from the Soviet-supported communist regime.
“They targeted not just the young men, but also women, children and the elderly. They tortured religious leaders, removed their nails. They jailed hundreds of people,” he said.
Witnessing the suffering of those around him convinced Kabuli it was his duty to join and fight the Russians, and at a very young age, he left school to help the fighters.
“Being young, I was mostly given logistical responsibilities and in the few battles that I did participate, I was given the role of a nurse to provide first aid to the injured,” he said.
“In the end, after nine years of fighting, we won. We defeated the Soviets, with few resources. And today, we celebrate that victory of Islam against the communists,” he added with pride.
Some of the prominent Mujahideen leaders went on to establish themselves as political actors.
Among them is Atta Mohammad Noor, a prominent leader of the Jamiat-i-Islami party and the former governor of Balkh province.
He celebrates the anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal as a victory not just for Afghans, but also for everyone in the former Soviet bloc.
“We are very proud of our fight and struggle against the Soviet Union. We are proud that we defeated one of the two major superpowers of that time, despite poverty and lack of resources,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The mujahideen victory brought freedom to so many other countries in the eastern bloc which was controlled by Soviet Union. They got freedoms because of the mujahideen. Because we took up weapons in our country, they were able to get freedoms,” he said.
“Militarily the Soviet army was not defeated. They continued to control much of Afghanistan, at least the cities and also part of the countryside – not unlike the current situation,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), drawing a comparison with the potential withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
“But unlike the US now, they really were in an economic crisis,” he added.
The nine-year-long Afghan war was too costly for the Soviet Union. An estimated 15,000 Soviet troops lost their lives, with more than twice that wounded.
The financial burden ran into the billions. A number of historians say the withdrawal of the Soviet army dealt a blow to the national morale that contributed to the breakup of the Soviet Union.
‘The Taliban emerged’
“The victory was so strong that its impact was felt in Germany with the fall of the Berlin wall, and in at least 10 other countries that eventually separated from the Soviet Union control,” Kabuli said.
He said Afghans didn’t get to experience the fruits of their struggle because of the persistent conflict that followed in their country.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the mujahideen descended into factions that fought brutally among themselves and reduced parts of the capital to rubble.
“As a result, the Taliban emerged and gained dominance,” Noor said. “That not only undermined our achievements but also the name of the mujahideen to some extent.”
Thirty years after the withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Kremlin is once again trying to have influence in Afghanistan.
Last summer, US officials began to hold a series of peace talks with the Taliban representatives.
Russia started its own parallel negotiating track, hosting meetings in Moscow in November and earlier in February.
At that gathering, several Afghan politicians, many of whom were former mujahideen fighters, including Noor, represented Afghan interests, in a first of its kind meeting with the Taliban.
“Any country that helps in ensuring security and peace in Afghanistan, we welcome and support it,” Noor told Al Jazeera.
The Russian special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, said on Wednesday that the US had “completely failed” in Afghanistan, and Moscow could be an honest broker.
He urged US troops to leave as quickly as possible.
“They could stay for another few years but in the end, they’ll have to go, and this time in disgrace,” Kabulov said.
Some of the former mujahideen, however, view Russia’s role in the peace talks with suspicion.
“I believe that Russians only want to take revenge from the US, for their defeat in Afghanistan. They want to once again be involved in our regional politics actively,” said Faizullah Jalili, a former mujahideen fighter.
“This is a good opportunity for the Taliban to have such a powerful partner on their side against the US,” he said.
“After the lessons that the Russian learned from their experience in Afghanistan, I don’t think they have the will to do what they did back then,” shared Kabuli.
“But whoever wants to make peace with us, our arms are open for embrace,” he added.