Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989
Profile Books; £29
THE rather feisty sobriquet in this title refers to the nationalities of the soldiers who made up the Soviet army in the ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The soldiers came from central Asia — Georgia, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. They were united against a common mujahedin enemy but, as could only be expected from a unity imposed from above — the Soviet state — it became ever more fragile and eventually, as Braithwaite demonstrates, was unable to deal with the massive fissures.
The invasion had relatively modest aims, though it did have wider consequences such as the cranking up of the Cold War, witnessed in such events as the western boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. In support of the communist coup of the year before, which had among its stated aims, women’s rights, an end to usury and a fair society, the politburo elicited clear aims: to garrison the main towns and cities, train the army and police and install a puppet leadership friendly to Moscow. They got more than they bargained for with more than 15,000 soldiers and an estimated 600,000 civilians dead. They intended a stay of six months but were dragged into a 10 year war.
The Soviets weren’t the first to attempt to control this critically important country with the pretence of bringing a just society — communism to the Soviets, capitalism to the US and allies. The British had been here long before as they too extended spheres of influence as a bulwark against the expanding Russian empire of Nicolas I and as a lucrative access via the Khyber Pass to Chinese trade. Ultimately, the Soviets wanted access to the Indian Ocean and geopolitical leverage.
As all these would-be conquerors found, Afghanistan is a largely feudal patriarchal country where fealty is delivered to a tribal chief and not a bureaucrat in an office a thousand kilometres away. Resistance was ferocious. An uprising against communist rule in Herat at the outset of the war resulted in the bodies of 100 Soviet advisers and their children being paraded through the streets like ghoulish trophies. The US provided huge logistical support to the mujahedin, upwards of $40 billion and with serious quantities of ordnance — including 2,000 Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Inevitably, much of this would eventually find its way to the Taliban years later and used against NATO forces.
As the war continued events in Mother Russia evolved. Leonid Brezhnev who launched the war, died. He was replaced by Yuri Andropov and ultimately Mikhail Gorbachev who began the process of withdrawal. Afghanistan, in a sense provided a template of shifting power for the Soviet state. The war eventually ground to a halt and another terrible war of succession was about to unfold involving Soviet vassal Najibullah and the incipient Taliban. When that model of human dignity and probity began hanging soccer players on the pitches of Kabul the loss of Najibullah became starkly apparent.
The author has researched his sources meticulously, with 40 pages of footnotes attesting to a thorough scholarship. He may well have written the definitive account of this war.