At a time when British politicians and commentators question the involvement of our forces in Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to examine the story of the last foreign power to come to grief in that unhappy country.
Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, ostensibly in support of a communist, client government which was spiralling into mayhem and faced revolt in the provinces. Initially fulfilling a limited role – assisting an ally and training Afghan personnel – the Soviets would be drawn inexorably into a full-scale conflict with the American and Pakistan-backed mujahedin rebels. The Russians would only leave some nine years later, after 15,000 Soviet soldiers and an unknown number of Afghans had been killed, and a generation on both sides had been traumatised.
Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador in Moscow and a fluent Russian speaker, is well placed to tell the story of the Soviet Union's Afghan adventure. He brings a cool, critical eye to this complex tale, dispelling a few Cold War myths and misconceptions along the way.
His approach is a rather novel one. Though the book is broadly chronological, the central section is organised thematically, covering areas such as "soldiering" and "devastation and disillusion". While this approach deprives the book of some of its narrative head of steam, it does allow Braithwaite to showcase his excellent and original first-hand testimony of Soviet veterans – the "Afgantsy" of the title. Their accounts of the boredom and squalor of military life, of the atrocities that they committed and suffered, and of the psychological consequences that they incurred, provide a fascinating leaven to Braithwaite's otherwise somewhat solid narrative.
Though he eschews making the comparison explicit, the shadow that hangs over every line of Braithwaite's book is the current Western involvement in Afghanistan. The similarities – and ironies – are obvious: both the Soviets and ourselves went into the country parroting the same watchwords about "stabilisation" and "pacification"; both spent many of the subsequent years seeking a way out, fearful of what horrors would follow withdrawal.
Afgantsy is well written and engaging and should popularise a subject that deserves far wider attention. More immediately, one is struck by the thought that this book should be required reading for all those, military and civilian alike, who are involved in the current Afghan adventure.
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