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Interview: Former Russian VP regards Afghans

WASHINGTON, Sept. 19 (UPI) -- As a man who drew fire and then glory for
the 456 combat missions he flew over the ragged hell that was and is
Afghanistan, Alexander Rutskoi has some considered opinions about the wisdom
of possible U.S. military action to root out suspected terrorist mastermind
Osama bin Laden from that war-scarred land.

He knows about the pitfalls of trying to fight on a terrain only the enemy
knows, and can use to hide, lying in wait for sneak attacks with massive
firepower and an unyielding determination to win. About the patience of a
population so steeped in war that they managed to drag a superpower through
10 years of brutal combat, leaving 15,000 of the invaders' men dead.

And, like many Russians, he is certain that the terrorist network that
President Bush has vowed to eradicate, should it be linked to the Sept. 11
attacks on New York and Washington, has an active counterpart in Chechnya.
The restive, mountainous republic on Russia's southern frontier, where
Moscow has been fighting a second war in seven years against separatists, is
aided, Russia says, by radical Islamists like bin Laden.

An air force officer and fighter pilot, Rutskoi served two tours during
the latter half of the Soviet Union's 1979 to 1989 war to prop up a
communist government in the face of guerrillas intent on independence, a
state free of Afghanistan's centuries-long manipulation by imperialists such
as Russia and Britain. Those guerrillas, the Mujahideen, skilled in
assassinations and masters of ambush, fought with a pride and ferocity that
stunned the Soviets. That tenacity helps explain why the rebels' present
incarnation, the much-winnowed and under-funded Northern Alliance, has
managed to keep the Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that controls
nearly all of Afghanistan, engaged in five more years of Afghanistan's
never-ending state of war.

Rutskoi, flying a Su-25 fighter, was shot down by Mujahideen antiaircraft
fire -- twice. The first time, in 1986, came during his first tour in the
arid country whose historical instability Moscow saw as a threat to the
Soviet republics of Central Asia. Though seriously injured, he escaped
capture that time, but when downed again two years later -- over Pakistan,
Afghanistan's neighbor and the United States' proxy in the war -- the
40-year-old commander was taken prisoner, but soon released in exchange for
a Pakistani officer who was aiding the Afghan rebels.

After gaining his freedom Rutskoi was awarded the state's highest honor,
the Hero of the Soviet Union medal. He brought his hero status and fighter
pilot's mien to an organization intended to foster the birth of multiple
political parties, a daring move in the reformist agenda of Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev. That was followed by a full entry into politics, with
Rutskoi winning a seat in the Russian republic's parliament representing
Kursk, in central Russia.

Boris Yeltsin, the Russian republic's president and an up-and-coming
politician who would one day supplant Gorbachev, hastening the Soviet
Union's collapse, took the war hero under his wing and had him direct the
work of Russian nationalist parties while keeping his parliament seat. When
Rutskoi stood at the side of the reformer Yeltsin and helped convince a
crowd of thousands to stand down a coup against Gorbachev by Communist
hard-liners in 1991, the alliance was sealed. Yeltsin, soon to become
post-Soviet Russia's first president, chose Rutskoi as his vice president.

Less than two years later came the event for which Rutskoi is best known:
the October 1993 armed standoff between Yeltsin and an intransigent
parliament, bitter over what they saw as a presidential power-grab. Rutskoi,
then 46, had turned against Yeltsin and sided with rebel legislators who
holed up in their offices. When Yeltsin ordered tanks to shell the
parliament building, Rutskoi was on the firing line again. This time there
would be no medals, but four months in jail.

Freed again, he resuscitated his political career by forming a more
moderate nationalist party, then won the governorship of his home region in
1996. He was kept off the ballot for re-election last year on a
technicality, and his bid to run for a seat in the national parliament, the
Duma, was denied by election authorities over his misreporting the size of
an apartment he owned, under asset-disclosure laws for political candidates
in Russia. Rutskoi blames both events as the work of political foes in the
central government who disliked his autonomy in governing Kursk. The retired
general, now living in Moscow, does not like to talk about his political
misfortunes but he spoke openly in a telephone interview with United Press
International about his views on the unfolding plan by the Bush
administration -- again, should suspicions prove true -- on how to go after
bin Laden and his terrorist network, harbored by Afghan radicals.

UPI: What do you see as the main challenges to the United States in
leading a coalition into military action in Afghanistan?

Rutskoi: "It's necessary to factor in the geographical position of
Afghanistan. It's located far from the United States, and besides that, the
terrain is mountain and desert together. The second thing is that combat
operations won't be as simple (there) as might appear at first glance. A
blitzkrieg could not be waged in Afghanistan because the land offers natural
hiding places -- caves, crevices, and cracks. Third, there's an absolute
lack of communication facilities - I mean, no railroads, no drivable roads
to speak of -- to the extent they exist. They're in such bad condition they
might as well not exist. Of course you can imagine what roads are like in
the mountains. Fourth, you're fighting not just against people but against
fanatics. Because (fundamentalism) is not really Islam but a movement within
Islam. This is a very serious direction for the Islamic religion -- it's a
movement of fanaticism, orthodoxy. They have a death wish; they believe the
afterlife will be better than this life. You need to keep in mind that
that's the mentality.

Next, before starting a combat operation, you shouldn't be making
politically expedient statements over such matters. Military actions are
determined by military people, not by politicians. It's a military
prerogative. They should stop this political advertising, scoring political
points from such a tragedy. It's just not possible. This is unacceptable.
The question should be left to the military. Let them discuss what they're
going to do and then they can report to the U.S. president. After that, they
can make any kinds of statements they want. That's why today's statements
were ill=suited to the situation. I understand that -- he's a politician,
but this is a serious matter, it's not just a political game.

This is a serious combat operation, a very serious combat operation. So
when you consider the factors -- geography, politics, people's mentality --
(it's clear that) the United States should not start an infantry war in
Afghanistan. That is to say, including any movement of infantry or even
special forces.

Q: What would be required for a U.S.-led ground campaign on Afghan soil to
be successful?

A: Here, you need to make intelligent moves. What kind of plan? There is
the Northern Alliance. It's a shame that (rebel commander Ahmed) Shah Masoud
was killed. I knew him well and I respected him, I respected him as an
enemy, since he was a very smart person. He fought not for power but for the
independence of his country. You must not only hate your enemy but respect
him if he's clever.

Given the fact that the Northern Alliance is a large force, has sufficient
strength, there is a need to provide it with support -- technical, material,
food, firearms, artillery. And with the help of the Northern Alliance then
the Northern Alliance can fight that ground war -- with major help from a
strategic air force. The strikes should be carried out not merely to turn
the mountains into rubble but to select specific targets that have been
verified by three or four sources at least. Then, it can be successful. If
it's to be done the way the American politicians are saying today -- they
talk of covering themselves in talk of a blitzkrieg, with a fast payback,
but that isn't going to happen.

It would be a disgrace for America -- that's why there ought not be any
hasty decision made. I myself flew 456 combat missions as part of an air
battalion -- that's why I know what I'm talking about And when I hear all
these political statements from the mouth of the American president, whom I
deeply respect, I think he's behaving quite rashly. That's my general
overview of the situation and my stance on that question.

Americans do not maintain combat operations, particularly when dealing
with fanatics. America should help the Northern Alliance. ... We need to
give people who don't agree with the (Taliban) regime a chance to confront
these bastards. But of course you can't judge all the people (of
Afghanistan) in the same way; only some of the people support these radical

Q: It has been said that Osama bin Laden, the man the United States
accuses in the terrorist attacks last week, was active in fighting against
the Soviet army in the late 1980s. Did you or your fellow troops have
contact with bin Laden?

A: During my service -- 1985 to 1986, and then in 1988 -- nobody had ever
heard of bin Laden. The leaders of the time were Shah Masoud and Gulbadin
(Hikmatyar, the Afghan prime minister after the Soviet withdrawal, an event
that triggered a civil war from which the Taliban would emerge). That was

Q: Last weekend, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney hinted that there was
activity by bin Laden's al Qaeda organization in Uzbekistan, a former Soviet
republic. What would you say to that, given the fact that Uzbekistan has
been mentioned as a site the United States would like to use for its
military bases to launch a ground war into Afghanistan?

A: I can say that Mr. Cheney is mistaken. There has never been and there
is not now support for the Taliban from Uzbekistan. It is just

Q: What about the other former Soviet republics in the region being used
for training sites by bin Laden?

A: I'll tell you openly, I was in politics 10 years, and I can assure you
as an authority that no one form the former Soviet republics ever, ever
supported the Taliban. But the Taliban have come on the territory of Russia
-- in Chechnya. That is 100 percent true.

Q: How likely is it that the U.S. Army and the Russian military would be
able to work together in a joint operation in Afghanistan?

A: As far as this question is concerned, that's the prerogative of the
Russian president, (Vladimir) Putin. He's the commander in chief of the army
and the head of the government, and it's his decision to make, right?
Personally, it's not my place to state an opinion. Therefore, I won't say
anything on this.

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