February 10, 2008.
About 6 months ago, when few people read Afghanistanica, I wrote an entry titled Captain Zakharov: A COIN All-Star in Afghanistan. The blog entry gave an example of counter insurgency strategy that few thought the Soviets conducted in Afghanistan. Zakharov did everything that contemporary counterinsurgents are now being taught to do. Colonel Sergei Antonenko, however, serves up the stereotype of the brutal and unsuccessful counterinsurgent.
Pic: Colonel Antonenko, growling for the camera.
My analysis of Zakharov and Antonenko are both based on Artyom Borovik’s book The Hidden War. If you are skeptical of an account by a Soviet journalist, just read what I wrote about Borovik in the account of Zakharov.
First I will introduce the man pictured above. Colonel Antonenko served in Afghanistan for two years, with his last assignment being a zone of responsibility on the southern approach to the Salang Pass (Ahmad Shah Massoud area of operations), an area that he “knew like the back of his own hand,” according to Borovik. An admirer in the military said that he was a officer that “the whole army should take after.”
Antonenko spoke of the mujahideen he was up against and had this to say:
“You could say that we’re best friends, but you can’t count on that. The East is a dark and cunning business. They say one thing, think another, and do something else entirely. [...]“
At the time Antonenko was interviewed, the war was winding down and withdrawal was imminent. Antonenko remarked:
“If you can guarantee that we can safely withdraw our troops through the Salang Tunnel, I told them, we won’t fortify the road. I even suggested that we sign a treaty: they would promise to guard the road from other rebel detachments and to let the columns of regular Afghan troops travel through, and we would refrain from combat. But they refused, saying that a Muslim’s spoken word is law. At any rate, we’ll have to see.”
Regarding his main opponent, Antonenko said:
“He’s a wise man, that Basir [Bashir], the local folks love him and respect him, of course. He always wears an American army jacket and dark sunglasses. He knows everything about the Soviet Union.”
At this point, we are given a view of Antonenko as a reasonable man with a healthy respect and skepticism of his enemy. But when Borovik interview other Soviet officers and enlisted men a different picture formed. The story of Antonenko’s falling out with Lieutenant Colonel Ushakov forms this view. After a Soviet operation the two became quite hostile to each other over their different views on tactics, namely the treatment of non-combatants. Antonenko seemed to have no problem killing them all to achieve his objective.
Ushakov’s approach was obviously quite different. Two APC gunners explained that they were under orders from Lieutenant Colonel Ushakov to fire only at mujahideen and not villagers. Adliukov, another officer under Ushakov, explained the falling out between the two. Antonenko paid a visit to Ushakov’s battalion and gave these simple orders to Adliukov regarding civilians who were in the way (certain types of mujahideen used non-combatants as cover regularly):
“Kill them all.”
Adliukov went on:
“During the fighting Antonenko personally shot several dozen civilians, even though he was responsible only for being in charge. Shooting at people with a submachine gun wasn’t part of his job.”
And then numerous witnesses backed up the story of when Antonenko gunned down a group of women, kids and old men who were walking down a road near where Soviet troops were gathering. This was too much even for a political officer, Captain Morozov, who was attached to the unit:
“…Captain Morosov, ran up to him, screaming ‘Comrade Colonel, Why the women and children?’ Antonenko apparently pushed him aside and snapped, ‘What about Urasov? Did they spare Urasov? Why should I spare them now?”
The earlier killing of Major Urasov by mujahideen using villagers as human shields (Urasov had ordered his men not to fire on the villagers who were being pushed in front of a group of mujahideen) seem to have pushed Antonenko to an entirely new level of disdain for civilians. They were now included in a monolithic group with the mujahideen. “They” meant every Afghan, combatant or not.
Pic by Mikhail Evstafiev: Soviet soldier, 1988.
Antonenko eventually confronted Ushakov over his refusal to follow orders:
“Why did you fail to comply with your orders? Why were the kishlaki [villages] barely damaged, not entirely destroyed, in the zone that your battalion was responsible for?”
Ushakov, a stutterer, gave a lengthy reply:
“[...] Yes it’s true that there was no butchery or unnecessary destruction in the zone that my battalion was responsible for. We fired only to the extent that it was called for. We didn’t erase a single kishlak [village] from the face of the earth; we saw n-n-no need for it. We were firing only at the spots where the band leaders were hiding and at the ammunition depots. [...]“
“[...] I tried to avoid unnecessary casualties among the civilian population. [...]“
Pic: Lt. Col. Ushakov.
Antonenko was clearly unimpressed, as you can see by how he replied:
“I’m tired of talking to weak-minded imbeciles.”
Ushakov, then responded in a way that insured he would be formally “written up:”
“And I’m tired of having fools as my superiors.”
Ushakov was later warned by other officers that Antonenko had political connections and there was nothing hat could be done about him. But that did not stop Ushakov from registering complaints with four different political officers and superiors. Ushakov, clearly greatly frustrated, remarked to his friends:
“Antonenko is covered in blood up to his elbows. He won’t be able to get away with it. I w-w-will not allow it. He’s up for a decoration; they’re pushing him into the General Staff Academy. If people like him will be in charge, it would be better to have the whole army disbanded.”
Pic by Mikhail Evstafiev: ANA troops pass Soviet troops.
The relationship continually worsened. Antonenko later showed up in Ushakov’s quarters with some friends, including a lady, laid down on Ushakov’s cot and ordered him to go make tea for him. Ushakov replied by accusing Antonenko of selling weapons to the mujahideen, a common occurrence in the Soviet-Afghan war.
After Ushakov left, Antonenko replied with possibly the worst defense he could think of. He invoked the court marshaled US Army Lieutentant William Calley of My Lai massacre infamy:
“You see, certain crazies, like this battalion commander [Ushakov], are trying to make me into a scapegoat - a kind of Soviet Lieutenant Calley. Calley is no criminal! In wartime you either kill or get killed. Those are the only alternatives.”
Borovik let these exchanges he observed speak for themselves, there was no need for commentary.
Pic: Artyom Borovik, ten years and many pounds later.
Antonenko then freely admitted to killing the civilians, using an incoherent list of justifications. Borovik then wrote:
“I looked deep into Antonenko’s eyes. He was sheltered securely beneath the invincible armor of good intentions.”
Antonenko then showed Borovik a portrait of his family, who Borovik described as “exceptionally beautiful.” Antonenko disappears from the narrative at this point. But the effect he made on his area of control put the final exclamation point on the Soviet-Afghan War.
As the Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan Lt. Col. Ushakov, the last Soviet officer on the Salang Pass, told a soldier to stick the Soviet flag up his ass and then hinted to the Soviet political deputy who objected that he would mount his head on the armored personel carrier so that the Soviet journalists at the border could get a good look at him. So basically, it was an average day for the Soviet army. But then the troops passed through the village of Kalatak, where Antonenko had massacred the civilians.
One of the Soviet vehicles broke down as the troops passed through Kalatak. A soldier by the name of Igor Liakhovich left his armored personnel carrier to assist. He was shot at from a post near the road. A bullet entered his neck and exited the back of his head.
The Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan was a very non-violent affair. The mujahideen generally kept their distance, not wanting to engage a retreating army. But here, in the village of Kalatak, a Soviet officer by the name of Colonel Sergei Antonenko had sown hatred. And so the last Soviet soldier to die in Afghanistan would be killed in Antoneko’s zone of responsibility.
Antonenko had two years in Afghanistan and this is what he had to show for his “efforts.”
Pic: The body of Igor Liakhovich