Small Wars Journal

Soviet Experience in Afghanistan: Book Review Twofer

Sun, 11/13/2011 - 12:01pm

Moscow vs. the Mujahideen - Wall Street Journal book reviews by Brian M. Downing.

The Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979-89) has passed from being the subject of angry international debate to the object of calm historical inquiry, but given the current conflict there, the period retains a certain urgent resonance. Two new books shed useful light on those days. In "Afgantsy," Rodric Braithwaite, the British ambassador in Moscow at war's close, explores the Soviets' decision to intervene, the experience of soldiers and the war's effects back home. The book is based on interviews with senior government officials and soldiers of all ranks. In "A Long Goodbye," Artemy Kalinovsky, a Western-educated academic, presents a more formal, highly detailed study of the Soviet withdrawal.


We have much in common with the USSR military and political views on Afghanistan. We went for different reasons, but both with hubris, and then found it very challenged to admit it was a flawed policy and withdraw due to large geopolitical concerns. The Soviet military leaders echo'd what many of senior military leaders said, and were also ignored. Some excerpts from the review:

- In the late 1970s, the communist Afghan government, newly installed by a coup, attempted to modernize agriculture, education and the state, but heavy-handedness and rapid implementation triggered formidable opposition among Afghans. U.S. and Pakistani intelligence encouraged the revolt, and as the government in Kabul wobbled

- An interventionist consensus formed in the aging, ailing Politburo, even as Soviet generals protested. Intervention could cause widespread desertions in the Afghan army, the generals argued, with the deserters joining the resistance. The invading Soviet troops would stir both religious and nationalist fervor in the Afghans, who would fight relentlessly to evict the foreigners.

- Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and garnered support for withdrawal. He "was not so much troubled by the military and economic costs of the war or by the domestic political effects, although these were undoubtedly important," Mr. Kalinovsky writes, "as he was by its potential to interfere with his broader reform projects, particularly his plan to seek a lessening of international tension."

- The U.S. preferred to see its rival squander resources and alienate the developing world. Mr. Gorbachev's overtures to America for help with a diplomatic solution were seen as ploys; U.S. support for the mujahideen continued.

- The Soviet leader worried that a humiliating exit followed by the Kabul government's collapse would damage Moscow's position with countries in the developing world.

- Many generals, however, opposed the less than honorable exit Mr. Gorbachev ordered; they also later blamed him for the withdrawal from Eastern Europe and the corruption and anarchy it set loose.