Books: Snapshots of a struggle

Rodric Braithwaite tells a fascinating story of Russian intervention in Afghanistan.

Afghan veteran walks past Soviet-era heliocopter 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Afghan veteran walks past Soviet-era heliocopter 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Any infidel can end up without his head, including an Afghan. Everybody has his own view of the world. Some people cut off heads, others don’t.”
Such was the view of Afghan insurgent Muhammad Hamid, who was interviewed by the Soviets after they captured him. The Afghan war against the Soviet Red Army was a brutal experience, one that was viewed as a Manichean struggle in the West, in which impoverished rugged Afghans resisted a cold Soviet war machine. This view was prominently displayed in the 2007 film Charlie Wilson’s War, named after the best-selling book of the same name. In Afgantsy: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, author and former British Ambassador to Russia Rodric Braithwaite attempts to show us the war through a more Russian lens.
The origins of the Russian intervention in Afghanistan are sometimes seen as having 19th-century roots in the Russian quest for a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean. The author notes that “no serious evidence has yet emerged, beyond a couple of remarks reported in one Soviet military memoir, that the Soviet invasion was intended as a first step towards securing a warm-water port or incorporating Afghanistan into the Soviet Union.”
The reality is that the direct impetus for Russian interest in Afghanistan was due to the overthrow of Afghanistan’s king in 1973 in a Communist coup by Afghan soldiers. The Communist government quickly became totalitarian but it also ushered in important reforms, turning the capital, Kabul, into a city with hints of modernity. “Women worked as professors and doctors and in government… wore jeans and short skirts.” Hippies from the West deplaned at the airport, some people dyed their hair blond and there was an ice-cream parlour and café at the university.
The trappings of some sort of Western modernity were shattered by violence.
First, Pakistan’s secret service began arming and aiding Afghans who had fled to Pakistan in their struggle against the Communist government. Among these were all the names that would become well known in the 1980s and 1990s: Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Then in 1978, the Afghan Communist dictator, Sardar Mohammed Daud, was overthrown in an internal communist coup. Braithwaite writes that this raised concern in Moscow: “the Afghan Communists were a growing nightmare for the Russians.” The problem was that the Afghan Communist party was not only small but fractious; divided between urban intellectuals and Pashtun tribals. It became increasingly brutal as well; when Daud was overthrown all the members of his family were murdered by the rival Communist group.
The Soviet intervention was not a foregone conclusion. Many high-level politicians argued against going into Afghanistan. Yuri Andropov, general secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the state, argued that “If Soviet forces went in, they would find themselves fighting against the people.” Initially the Russian involvement consisted of dispatching special operations troops to the border and recruiting a Muslim Battalion composed of Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmens who were Soviet citizens from Central Asia but who might appear ethnically and culturally similar to the Afghans.
As with American involvement with Vietnam, the Soviet need to intervene grew alongside its concern over the fate of the Afghan Communist factions it supported in Kabul. Eventually an entire army, the 40th, was equipped and sent over the frontier on December 24, 1979.
“Most of the soldiers were excited by the prospect of adventure… it was at first welcomed by the local population.” The invasion produced some protest back home in Russia. The wife of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov signed a protest letter.
The staff of the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies were mostly opposed to the war, but they were drafted anyway to serve as interpreters for the Soviet army.
The second half of Afgantsy is devoted to a history, or rather snapshots of the life of, the Soviet 40th Army in Afghanistan.
The army suffered from a high rate of rotation in its general staff, having had seven different commanders between 1979 and 1990. With just 80,000 men, of whom 20 percent were special forces, it was never engaged in a set-piece battle but rather a series of small scale actions, usually focused on Afghan kishlaks, or villages. The “inevitable result [of this type of war] was a heavy loss of life and property among the civilian population.”
The army laid a net of small guard posts, eventually 862 of them, across Afghanistan. “Life in a zastava [guard post] was a monotonous and exhausting business. Poor food and water, no entertainment apart from the obligatory Lenin room and perhaps a television.”
Braithwaite’s book is a fascinating story, not only of politics and war, but about the individuals who served in Afghanistan.
He includes discussions about Soviet women volunteers as well as the difficult process soldiers faced when they returned home. Afgantsy may also be an eye opener for Americans who are now contemplating the fact that the US army has been in Afghanistan for 10 years, to little effect.
At the very least this is one of the few English- language accounts of the war that attempts to look at it from the perspective of the Russians themselves.