Twelve years after Soviet fighters were forced to withdraw in humiliation, armed Russian troops are back in Afghanistan, raising curiosity and some anxiety in the capital over the possible role of international peacekeepers.
Russian newcomers, armed with rifles and in camouflage uniforms, guarded half a dozen Russian military trucks today in a field in Kabul’s affluent Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood.
They were not giving interviews, except to say they were a military medical unit from Moscow’s Ministry of Emergency Situations.
Their trucks were covered in deep green mesh. Soldiers in bulletproof vests and rifles stood guard. Hundreds of Kabul residents poured into the field, and cars and trucks blocked the road as motorists stopped to watch.
One Russian soldier, who refused to give his name, said there were no doctors in the group, only other ‘‘medical personnel.’’ Another soldier, who identified himself only as Leonid, said he was one of 60 Russians now in Kabul.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who supports US-led military action in Afghanistan following the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, said yesterday that emergency ministry staff, construction crews and diplomats had been sent to Kabul for humanitarian work.
British and US troops have been deployed elsewhere in Afghanistan in the fight against forces loyal to prime terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden and his Taliban allies.
However, the arrival of the Russians represents the first visible presence of foreign troops in the war-ravaged capital.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah, foreign minister of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, said the role of international troops was a sensitive issue. He said peacekeepers might be welcome for a short time, but any prolonged presence could incite emotions.
However, Kabul’s residents seemed little more than amused by the sight of the Russian visitors. Groups tried to get a closer look, but the soldiers shooed them away, annoyed by the unwanted attention.
One Afghan tried to strike up a friendly conversation with the little Russian language he had learned during the Soviet presence in the 1980s.
Others stood around laughing, some poked each other. One wide-eyed man asked: ‘‘Are the Soviets back?’’
Ghulam Jan, who owns a shop in Kabul said the coming of the Russians was reminiscent of 1979 when the Soviet military rolled into this poor nation of 21 million people, triggering nearly two decades of war.
At that time, they fought Islamic opposition to Moscow’s communist protege Babrak Karmal, who ruled until 1995 when he was replaced by Najibullah.
Initially, Russian helicopter gunships and bombers could fly low bombing missions and attack Islamic guerrillas with near impunity.
In 1986, the United States gave their Islamic insurgent allies radar-guided anti-aircraft missiles. This effectively turned the war around by forcing Soviet aircraft to resort to often inaccurate high altitude bombing.