The strange odyssey of Irek Hamidullan has taken him from the former Soviet Army, to the Taliban, and now to a U.S. federal courtroom in Virginia. Hamidullan, who U.S. officials describe as a “Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan” is believed to have stayed in the country after the war and joined the Taliban. He is accused of taking part in a 2009 attack on an Afghan and U.S. army border post in Khost Province. Incarcerated at Bagram ever since, Hamidullan is now the latest detainee to be put on trial in the criminal court system. He faces potential life imprisonment in the U.S. as a result of his activities in Afghanistan.
It may sound strange to hear that former Soviet soldiers are still living and fighting in Afghanistan decades after that war ended and the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist, but Hamidullan is only one of many Russians who ended up staying around after the occupation. At the outset of the American invasion in 2001, U.S. officials estimated that somewhere between 300 to 500 former Soviet troops were still living in Afghanistan. Some of these were soldiers who defected due to ethnic ties or sympathy with Afghan mujahideen, while others were former prisoners who converted to Islam and ended up integrating into Afghan society.
Unlike Hamidullan, most of the Russian Afghans (of whom we know) went on to live normal lives in the country and remained largely aloof from conflict during the years of the American occupation.
Bakhretdin Khakimov was a young Russian soldier who was thought to have been killed in the country over thirty years ago. It turns out, however, that after being wounded and separated from his unit, he was discovered by sympathetic locals and nursed back to health. Now known as Sheikh Abdullah, he lives “a semi-nomadic life with the people who sheltered him” and works as an “herbal healer.” Nek Muhammad – once a young Ukrainian conscript named Gennady Tseuma — ended up converting to Islam after straying away from his base and being captured by local mujahideen fighters. He since married and raised children in the country, and says that he has “not shot one bullet since becoming Muslim.”
There is not much we know about Irek Hamidullan (a nom de guerre), including what he did during the interim between the Russian withdrawal from the country and the U.S. invasion. He is the first foreign combatant captured in Afghanistan to be transferred to U.S. soil to face criminal prosecution. Alleged to be connected to an insurgent group affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, he faces terrorism charges for his role in an assault against a U.S-Afghan military post that went awry and ended with his capture.
While his case is significant both for eschewing trial by military commission and for employing a very expansive definition of the term “terrorism”, it also serves a reminder of the individual lives which have been caught up in Afghanistan’s modern history of invasions and occupations. Hamidullan is only one of countless Russian soldiers who ended up staying in the country after the war ended, and becoming, more or less, Afghans.
As Ahmad – once a Soviet soldier named Alexander Levenets — said ten years ago of his decision to stay in the country: “Here I have relatives, my clan. Even if I am unemployed now, my wife’s brothers are helping me. They respect me; they need me. Who needs me back home?”