Savik Shuster. Reporter Becomes Peacemaker

Savik Shuster. Reporter Becomes Peacemaker

The original article was posted in a liberal russian newspaper "Novaya Gazeta"

At the same time the Soviet leadership sent a limited contingent to Afghanistan over fears of penetration of Islamic radicalism into Central Asia‘s weak underpinnings, the U.S. invaded Kabul as revenge for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

At the very beginning, during my trips to Afghanistan with the “Doctors of the World” (Médecins du Monde) I saw the confusion and inexperience of Soviet troops. I read "The Afghanistan Papers" which was published on December 9, 2019 in the Washington Post, and saw that the U.S. Government, from the administrations of George W. Bush to Barack Obama and Donald Trump, have been doing the same thing for 18 years, the same thing the Soviets did for 10 years. It lied to its people.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops started on May 15, 1988 and lasted for nine months. It was a part of the Geneva Conventions, signed on April 14 of the same year by the official governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the USA. There were two obvious links; Moscow/Kabul and Washington D.C./Islamabad.

UN headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

UN headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

But the mujahideen didn’t sign the document, although they were one of the main participants in the war; onthe side of Afghan resistance. Actually, they left some words in the conventions, but few people know about it. And I had to become a part of some simultaneous secret negotiations. So, it’s the first time, I’ve spoken about it in public.

The fifth week of the negotiations in Geneva was happening. At the beginning of March 1988, I broadcast a report from Switzerland to the radio station Free Europe/Radio Liberty about endless diplomatic rounds between the delegations of Kabul and Islamabad at the United Nations headquarters. There was no significant news for the past weeks from the official representatives of the delegations. Everyone realized that the actual negotiations were conducted in a completely different place.

Mikhail Gorbachev with his wife during a trip to Vladivostok (1986). Photo: Yuri Lizunov / TASS

Mikhail Gorbachev with his wife during a trip to Vladivostok (1986). Photo: Yuri Lizunov / TASS

But it was rather a long ordeal. Both sides declined to sign any agreement. Not to mention that every delegation had its Big Brother; Kabul had Moscow and Islamabad had Washington. The USSR and the USA were the official mediators in the negotiations, but they didn’t reveal their positions.

One and a half years prior to these events, in July 1986, The New York Times published a significant speech by Michael Gorbachev in Vladivostok. He spoke on the intentions of the USSR to withdraw six Soviet regiments from Afghanistan by the end of the year. My sources in Washington informed me that as soon as Gorbachev became the General Secretary of Central Committee of the CPSU in 1985, he delivered an ultimatum to the generals. They could either suppress the resistance of mujahideen within a year and a half or withdraw the troops.

It’s worth mentioning that by spring 1986 the military situation in the mountains had changed in favor of the Soviet troops. At the beginning of the war they attacked from below, but had switched by then to landing on dominant heights and attacking from above. It made for a drastic change in the war.

Having been in the mountains with mujahadeen – a a force of Muslim guerilla warriors - for 30 days that spring, I witnessed 19 attacks on troops and aircraft in specific areas.. That had never happened before, but the USA decided to supply mujahedeen with state-of-the-art surface-to-air “Stinger” missiles, which could be used to shoot a helicopter out of the air. It shifted the balance towards the side of the resistance again. The war was headed for a bloody and meaningless dead end.

But Gorbachev needed warm relations with the West, particularly with the USA. And he went to the Geneva negotiations against the advice of many generals. During those long negotiations in 1988, Ambassador Diego Cordovez’s assistant was an Italian man named Jan Domenico Pico. I’m also Italian, so we quickly found common ground. But most of the time, it was he asking me, in a café in the Palace of Nations, whether there was any news from any side. He knew that I had sources in the Department of State and the Pentagon, and he read my reports from the Afghan war in Newsweek and leading European publications.

I could tell him only about some responses to the negotiations in Geneva, but there was nothing to tell about the reactions of warlords. They hadn’t been invited to the negotiations. They took offense at it and therefore ignored them.

One spring morning, Jan Domenico swiftly entered the café of the Palace of Nations and headed towards me, saying:

— The Under-Secretary-General wants to see you.

We entered Cordovez’s room. The 53-year-old ambassador looked at me for a second, as if he was judging whether or not he could trust a journalist. He started right off with:

— Savik, you certainly know that Kabul is dependent on Kremlin’s decisions.

I nodded in response.

Cordovez went on:

— We have a serious issue. But you are not to reveal the thing that I’m going to say.

I nodded again.

— Gorbachev has imposed a condition. He is ready to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan. But he wants the UN to guarantee that no Soviet soldier will be killed during the withdrawal. And how can we prevent the shooting of mujahedeen? You know the commanders who can guarantee it, don’t you?

I found this requirement impossible to fulfill. How can we guarantee it in Afghanistan, a place where there had been severe hostilities for 8 years? The major part of the country was under control of dozens of warlords without a single control center.

The only person who I could tell about Gorbachev’s conditions was my friend, the resistance leader in Kabul, Abdul Haq Amiri. He was the only one among the commanders to know that I am from a Jewish family and I came from the Soviet Union. If not for him, I would be dead as I got into trouble many times. He always came to my assistance.

— To be honest, I don’t know how to do it,” I told Cordovez. “But I have some people in the resistance. I will call them and try to solve the issue.

— Try. Pérez de Cuéllar, the Secretary-General of the UN – Red, was to see one of the influential warlords to find out if it was possible to fulfill Gorbachev’s requirement.

I returned to my hotel room and called the headquarters of Abdul Haq in Peshawar. I was lucky enough to get through to him, because he usually went to the mountains in spring. I didn’t tell him about Gorbachev’s requirement. The only thing that I told him was that the Secretary-General wanted to see him in New York, it was very important.Abdul Haq believed me:

Savik Schuster in Afghanistan. Photos from the archive

Savik Schuster in Afghanistan. Photos from the archive

— I will fly in incognito by the UN plane, which they can send to Peshawar or Islamabad. It’s up to them. No visa, and no stamp in the passport he said.

And so, I became a “liaison” in the secret negotiations. I conveyed our conversation with Abdul Haq to Jan Domenico and within several days, the UN plane landed in Peshawar.

Within a week Abdul Haq called me.

— Fly in as soon as possible. I can‘t talk about it on the phone.

So as not to explain why I needed a trip to Pakistan, I told my Radio Liberty authorities that I was going to Peshawar to find out what was going on in the Afghan mountains during the Geneva negotiations.

View of the city of Kabul (1988). Photo: V. Kiselev / RIA Novosti

View of the city of Kabul (1988). Photo: V. Kiselev / RIA Novosti

Abdul Haq told me about his meeting with Pérez de Cuéllar.

My friend was ready to comply Gorbachev’s requirement, but he couldn’t vouch for everyone.

— I’ve sent all the letters to the chief commanders of the seven parties and suggested meeting in the Llogara Pass. I’ll try to talk to them.

The messengers of Abdul Haq set off to the valley on foot, they would reach the commanders in a week at best. The way back would take the same time. I realized that the answer from Pérez de Cuéllar would take three weeks. I went back to Geneva to continue covering the negotiations, which ended not being fruitful at all.

Finally, Abdul Haq called me.

— Come over, a jirga is to be held, he informed me.

I took the hint. He had managed to gather the commanders for a meeting.

It had never happened before. All the leaders of Afghan resistance gathered on the peak of the mountain in Llogara;Ahmad Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Haq and Ismail Khan were the ones I knew well, along with fifteen great warlords. I was the only foreign person at the summit.

Even thirty years later, I still remember my splitting headache. I thought my head was about to break into pieces. We probably climbed the mountains too fast. First, we were driven in Jeeps for a long while. For another two hours, we ascended barely-noticeable mountain trails. Finally, we reached the camp of mujahedeen. I think it was not less than 4,000 meters above sea level.

There was a huge tent in the center of the camp where the commanders gathered together. There were also smaller tents around the camp, where we spent a night.

At the crack of dawn, after praying, mujahedeen gathered in the tent and sat on the carpets. Everyone got a tea pot and a cup.

Abdul Haq whispered to me,

— You have only one minute.

I addressed those present with the help of the interpreter.

— In order to withdraw soviet troops from Afghanistan we need your guarantee that no soviet soldier will be killed. Otherwise, the withdrawal will be aborted.

My speech took 15 seconds. I was asked to leave the tent. My head ached terribly. I had been preparing so quickly that I forgot to grab aspirin. We had taken dozens of kilograms of these pills to Afghanistan during our two-year mission with Doctors of the World.

I asked mujahedeen for aspirin for the first time there, but it didn’t help.

During the breaks in the negotiations I was writing down the interviews with all the great Afghan commanders. I hope they are still kept in the archive of Radio Liberty. I couldn’t write about the reason for the summit that time and I would like to listen to them again one day.

By the end of the second day, Abdul Haq told me the decision of the commanders. He said that they would spare no effort to guarantee the security of soviet soldiers during the withdrawal. They couldn’t fully guarantee it because there were some groups along the road which weren’t under their control, but those present took responsibility to facilitate the withdrawal of soviet troops. They wouldn’t retaliate or fire on anyone, they promised.

— Go back to Geneva and tell Cordovez that we agree, Abdul Haq told me.

— Me?

— Who else? There is no other option

Abdul-Haq Amiri. Photo: wikimedia.org

Abdul-Haq Amiri. Photo: wikimedia.org

— But what can I tell the UN to prove your guarantee?

— Just tell them everything you saw. You had a conversation with us. We trust you. So, tell him that we guarantee and that’s it.

Being stunned by everything that happened, I returned to Geneva. Diego Cordovez greeted me in the same grey suit, blue shirt and a yellow tie. I had a feeling that he hadn’t returned home while I was away. I told him and Jan Domenico Pico the promise of the Afghan commanders.

— For what period of time they are going to stop shooting?

I was asked.

— We didn‘t discuss a certain period. But they guaranteed not to touch any soviet soldier. You can covey it to Gorbachev exactly like that.

I don‘t know the details of the negotiations between the Secretary-General of the UN, Gorbachev and the leaders of Afghan resistance, but one week after the conversation with Cordovez, the official delegations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the USSR and the USA signed a Geneva Convention agreement. It included the timeline of the withdrawal from May 15, 1988 to February 15, 1989, exactly nine months.

Mujahadeen stuck to their promise.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan (1988). Photo: V. Kiselev / RIA Novosti

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan (1988). Photo: V. Kiselev / RIA Novosti

They put security posts along the way from Kabul to Termez. According to the Soviet soldiers, they heard no gunfire when they were leaving Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union broke its promise.

On January 23,1989, the operation “Typhoon” broke out along the road during the withdrawal. It was the last “valiant” operation of the general and the senior officers of the Soviet army. Attacks from the sky and the fire from tanks, Hurricane, Grad. Giatsint and Buratino killed more than a thousand people. The General soviet officers assured that the attacks were triggered by mujahedeen themselve, not soviet soldiers.

Witnesses claimed that the operation had been prepared in advance.

"As a result of the shooting, local people were leaving the war zone, carrying the corpses and placing them along the highway…"

- Alexander Lyakhovsky, a major-general and an assistant to the head of task force of the Ministry of Defense.

I think it was an act of provocation from the side of the commanders who were against admitting defeat and the withdrawal. The commanders of mujahedeen didn’t fall for it.

In February, 2004, Ruslan Aushev gave me a medal in honor of the fifteenth anniversary of the withdrawal of soviet troops from Afghanistan. Maybe I deserved it.

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