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Top secret Soviet operation was “for the sake of Afghan people”

The storming Afghan president Hafizullah Amin’s palace in 1979 by a group of Soviet special forces was one of history’s most audacious special unit operations.

Although a success, it marked the beginning of a disastrous war for the Soviet Union. RT spoke with a former Alpha commander, Oleg Balashov, who led the assault.

Oleg Balashov: Previously I had worked in a KGB department. After I finished KGB Higher School I was offered a personnel job. I heard that a special unit was being formed. Although that unit was top secret, the information was leaked – when we, colleagues, sit and have tea together, we share information.

Once I entered an office room and saw my friend speaking with an elderly man – well, not elderly but, shall we say, mature. My friend said, “Gennady Nikolayevich, why are you searching for a commander. We have someone working here who is strong and well-trained, just from Higher School. Take him.”

This man, Gennady Nikolayevich Zaytsev, had a word with me and said, “Do you know this job is exposed to the worst kind of danger? It is an anti-terrorist group.” I said, “Gennady Nikolayevich, I am aware it is dangerous, but everything will depend on the professionalism we build through training. That will dictate the ratio between death and victory.”

RT: So, were you the first to be told about the mission? How did you prepare?

OB: The first time we were alerted was on December 22, when we were told to tell our families that we were going for training as usual – to the Caucasus or somewhere. A group commander was appointed who was meant to arrive there, and I was appointed deputy commander. I had been there already and was aware of the situation in Kabul.

After that we were on high alert, as the decision was about to be taken at the very top. So we were sitting on our bags and waiting, the aircraft was ready to take off. When the signal came, we were taken to a military airfield near Moscow, got on board and took off, not knowing where we were going. As we approached the mountains, the pilots instructed us to stop smoking and turn out all the lights. Our aircraft was flying in pitch black, although still making noise – but the Afghans did not have any way of shooting the plane down.

We approached Bagram, near Kabul, and saw the runway lights, when we were just 300 to 400 meters away, all the lights went out. Thanks to skill of our pilots, the plane made a perfect landing. When the aircraft was still, we jumped out and circled the wagons, as we had no idea what would happen next. Eventually, our own colleagues from Alpha approached.

RT: When did you find out what your mission was going to be?

OB: We were taken to some barracks – either half destroyed or half built – just a kind of enclosed building. We had to accommodate ourselves by using mattresses we had taken along. We put our things in place and got our weapons ready.

When we actually saw the palace, the mission was set for us: “So, guys, you are going to storm the palace.” It was to be taken. We were left to wait for the signal to attack. And another unit was supposed to destroy a communications unit, or an international communications cable, rather, in central Kabul. They were going to put a bomb into a manhole, move away and communication between Kabul and the world would be disrupted. We could not envisage everything, of course – there were about 300 guards, while there were only 22 of us. According to all military estimates, it was very reckless, and that is my view also.

RT: What was your psychological state?

OB: Our emotions were under control. No one wavered at all. As commander I had to make sure everything was in order. There was no fear at all.

RT: Can you describe the beginning, when you started storming the palace?

OB: We were commanded to get into the vehicles. There was one odd thing – some members of the future government were part of the crews. When we approached the road that led directly to the palace, we came under fire, but it was only rifles, no match for the armor. As we were winding along, my first armored-personnel carrier broke through, lifting the gate. Two Shilka vehicles backed us up. Those were horrible shooting machines, producing a wall of fire. I suspect that one of our APCs came under friendly fire from the side as it turned and stood in battle position. The commander was gravely wounded.

So I commanded my guys to start the assault. We all jumped out. Covered by the APCs, we opened fire. Civilian vehicles were on fire nearby – those near the Embassy. We came under fire from all the windows, along with grenades.

It is hard when you are far from the building, I mean 20 to 30 meters. It was easy for them to fire at us. But as we got closer to the walls, we were hard targets. I won’t say who succeeded and who failed because all succeeded. Then the battle started indoors, for every floor.

RT: Once you were inside, where did you go?

OB: All of us knew what room was what. Each group had its own mission. It was not like we all rushed in together and then scattered randomly. Not in the least. Everyone knew their mission.

RT: What resistance did you meet?

OB: The guards of the palace were well-trained and devoted to Amin. In terms of professionalism, they were not up to the mark. We knew what we were doing, and we had proper protection, which they lacked. We had bullet-proof jackets and helmets, they did not. And during the fight we could see that 30 to 40% of them were just cowards, hiding in rooms. True, there were some brave guys who were trying to kill us, although without success.

RT: What happened next?

OB: The operation lasted for 30 to 35 minutes. I mean from start to end. We are not ninjas or anything like that. Of course we tried not to be hit. There were many rooms on the second floor and we worked through all of them as we had been trained. First you throw a grenade, then you fire a burst, in case anyone is still alive. You mop the room up making sure there is nothing of interest, and then proceed to another room. As we worked our way along, we approached Amin’s room. One of our guys was the first there and saw him dressed in Adidas trunks standing at the bar. He knew there was no escape. The officer fulfilled his duty – he killed Amin.

Why did the future government go with us? After the operation, in order to prove to them Amin was dead – because they were scared of entering the palace – four of our officers brought out his body to show them. Fourteen women from his harem were also brought out. Some of them wounded, they received our medical help at once. So, we showed the new government members the body. An unexpected thing happened – well, we are Slavs, they are Muslims – they began to dance around the body.

Alpha found a wine-cellar and took some champagne. However, some grey-uniformed guys showed up saying, “Don’t drink it, don’t drink it, it’s all poisoned.” But we poured ourselves a glass of champagne anyway and drank to victory.

RT: Once the operation was finished, did you compare what the unit was like afterwards and before?

OB: Unfortunately, there were losses. I was wounded, too, by a fragment. My helmet literally saved my life. One fragment hit my left shoulder. The doctor who performed surgery on me in Tashkent said to me, “You were born under a lucky star.” The fragment hit my shoulder-blade from the top, exited the body, hit the body armor and entered the body again near the seventh and eighth rib where the heart is located. The other fragment is still in me. Once I was detained at an airport when it set the alarm off. Eighty percent of our officers were wounded – some severely, some lightly.

RT: What was the reaction to the operation from your bosses, from your leadership? Were you congratulated? Were your efforts recognized?

OB: The most important thing was we were alive and had accomplished the mission. As for awards and stuff, after we had been taken to Tashkent, I usually don’t talk about this, but I’ll tell you what our then-leaders used to say. Our commander with all his heart said to us, “All of you are commended with the Order of Lenin [the supreme order in the USSR], or the Red Star Order [for great valor]. You are all valued highly. For us it was all the same. The only thing we worried about was when all of us were taken onboard the aircraft bound for Tashkent, with all those wounded.

We worried, as had happened elsewhere in the world, including the Soviet Union and Germany, and some other countries – people like us would be taken out. Anything could be the pretext – it’s nothing when a hundred personnel are lost – in order to preserve the legend that it was the Afghan people who did it all. There were none of our people there. When we were flown over the mountains we realized we would live. We arrived in Tashkent where they began medical treatment.

RT: Can you tell me how you feel about all these events now, thirty years later?

OB: Even now, as you say – thirty years after – we celebrate this day and commemorate our comrades. Let me give you a simple example. How would you as a professional, were you the only person from any TV company to film a unique story and submit it to your chief editor, be it a crash or anything, you are likely to be thanked by the editor and the company. And you’ll not be interested in the moral aspect of what you’ve done. Likewise, as to what we did in 1979, we had no regrets – I mean in terms of us having worked as professionals.

We fulfilled the mission of the state. It was not us who made the decision. We fulfilled the mission of the state, as any other special forces in any country. They never do it on their own I can’t evaluate the authorities who were in power at that time. I, too, was a member of that party, the Communist Party.

We can talk about whether the then Secretary General of the Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev ruled well or not. The reality proved different, which became apparent in 1993. We lost the Cold War we had been playing with the Americans. They won, we lost.
I have no moral right to condemn anything done there in Kabul. I listened to Putin’s interview – how he assessed Stalin’s role. He said it is not appropriate to assess it one-sidedly, saying there was only terror. Stalin won the War as leader. It was the people who won, but he won as leader. In just two years, he managed to restore the entire economy of the huge country, the Soviet Union.

Likewise, I cannot assess the word of command given then. As the Central Committee mulled over whether to start the war we were not made aware of all that. The tasks were set by two men, Brezhnev and Amin. They were leaders of states. I wouldn’t say we are pawns. We fulfilled the will of the state. We are professionals. Nobody was entrusted with this, only us. And our leaders trusted us to solve this question, and we did. So, I have no regrets.

RT: Thank you very much.