Book Review: Afgantsy, the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

It is utterly amazing how much resemblance the aims of the Russians, when they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, bore to those of the Americans when they invaded it in 2002, with one important exception.

The Russians appear to have known what they were doing was reprehensible and that they were being dragged into a bloody occupation against their better judgment, and the Americans, under President George W Bush, thought they were going as liberators. The Russians, led by ailing and elderly leaders Leonid Breszhnev, Alexei Kosygin and Yuri Andropov, then finally Gorbachev, appear to have been fully aware of the dangers of occupying the country but were unable to stop the slide into disaster.

Nonetheless, "Our aim was no less than to give an example to all the backward countries of the world on how to jump from feudalism straight to a prosperous, just society --our choice was not between doing things democratically or not. Unless we did them, nobody else would," an unnamed communist was quoted by Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador to Moscow 1988 to 1992 and a witness to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Brathwaite appears to have had unprecedented access to Soviet records as well as to have interviewed many of the common Russian soldiers ? the Afgantsy in the title of his book, to come up with what is a brilliant record of the calamity that was to come. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in many ways due to what happened in the occupation of Afghanistan, a shamefaced 10-year campaign after which the Soviet 40th Army packed up and left behind utter chaos.

One would hope that the policymakers in Washington, DC would have read Braithwaite?s book, which was published in 2011 and which we are belatedly reviewing now. It is a work that is absolutely a crucial read, a history of everything that went wrong. And everything did go wrong despite everything the Russians did to try to stop it.

"For the first time in Afghanistan?s history, women were to be given the right to education. We told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn?t have to live shut up in the house like pets," Brathwaite quoted the unnamed Russian.

Contrary to the common wisdom, Moscow was dragged into Afghanistan by a quarreling bunch of Marxists who staged a bloody coup, murdering the then Soviet-aligned leader, Mohammad Daud, then falling on each other in a race to attempt to instill classic Marxism on a feudal country. Eventually that exploded in their faces, with the increasingly Islamic countryside in open revolt.

The sclerotic leadership in Moscow was mainly afraid the American were doing all they could to draw Afghanistan into the American camp-- which apparently they were. Moscow announced massive development loans, grants, technical aid and military assistance as the coup leaders in Kabul continued to quarrel murderously with each other. The Afghan army itself began losing battles to the rebels in the countryside, soldiers often throwing away their uniforms to join the rebels and-- it may sound familiar-- killing their Soviet advisers. When it got so bad that the country was falling into ruins, the 40th Army, the Afgantsy, as the soldiers came to be known, came storming down the road.

"The task before the 40th Army and its commanders, as they swept into Afghanistan, may have seemed simple, clean and limited," Braithwaite wrote. "The Russians had intervened to put an end to the vicious feuding within (the Afghan leadership), and to force a radical change in the extreme and brutally counterproductive policies of the Communist government. The aim was not to take over or occupy the country."

Substitute the words Americans and NATO for Russians and Soviets and it has an eerie resonance. "They also hoped that the Afghan people would in the end welcome the benefits they promised to bring: stable government, agricultural reform, development, education for women as well as men."

That, of course, was 30 years ago. The civil war that greeted them, Braithwaite writes, started well before they got there and continued for seven years after they left, until it ended with the victory of the Taliban in 1996.

"It was a war in which loyalties were fluid and divided. Individuals and whole groups switched sides in both directions, or negotiated with one another for a ceasefire or a trade deal when the opportunity arose."

In the meantime, the Russians poured hundreds of millions of dollars into development of the countryside. Many more women were freed and educated to lead their own lives under the Russians than under NATO today. Russian advisers, daring death constantly, stayed in the countryside to work on development projects-- roads, schools, irrigation, electrification.

Ultimately, however, the inevitable and brutal logic of guerrilla warfare and counter warfare began to take its inescapable path.

"...The military operations in Afghanistan had taken on the nature of punitive campaigns, the civilian population was treated with systematic and massive brutality, weapons were used without justification, homes were destroyed, mosques defiled, and looting was widespread," a Russian adviser wrote in a report to Moscow that seems to have been ignored.

There is hardly a page or a chapter in Braithwaite?s book in which the Russian experience in Afghanistan is not echoed two decades later by the American experience. Like the Russians, NATO has put advisers all over the countryside, building schools against terrible conditions, working to give women a place in government and equality of education, the litany of roads and irrigation systems and developmental aid.

The Russians told the last puppet government in Kabul it could hold out against the rebels. For a short period, it did, propped up by Russian military hardware. But eventually the money ran out. The government, as corrupt as the Hamid Karzai government is today, ran out of steam. City after city fell to the mujihadeen, who squabbled among themselves, destroying everything in their path, then years later to the Taliban, who forcibly seized the last Communist leader, Mohammad Najibullah, who had sought refuge with his brother in the United Nations headquarters. They cut off their testicles, hanged them in the middle of Kabul, then beat the bodies unmercifully. Then they forced the women into burkhas, kicked them out of the schools and government offices and told the men they couldn't cut their beards. Ninety percent of the women in Afghanistan are terrified that they will be back. That may not be enough.

Given the way the Russian experience paralleled the American one, the Americans, and Hamid Karzai, would do well to take note.