Review: Braithwaite's "Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan"

As little as I knew back then about Afghan society and politics, I could tell from my first fleeting visits to Kabul in 1979 that the place was rapidly coming unglued. That February, I drove in from the Pakistani city of Peshawar to report on the abduction of Adolph Dubs, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, by armed militants. But Dubs was dead before I got there, gunned down in a botched rescue attempt by KGB-trained Afghan government forces. I returned to Kabul that summer for a bizarre interview with Hafizullah Amin, one of the hardest of the communist hardliners who had seized power in Afghanistan the year before. He blathered on about how he had attended Columbia University, had taught English in Brooklyn, and was a friend of the United States—and all the while, a picture of Stalin stood proudly on his desk.

No matter how precarious the situation seemed at the time, few people anticipated how much worse it would get. By the end of the year, thousands of Soviet troops, tanks, and aircraft were flooding into Afghanistan. The ensuing war and its aftermath ultimately resulted in 9/11 and America's still-unfinished war against the Taliban. Now Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, has published an impressive book that explains the tangled events leading up to the Soviet invasion and provides fresh insights into the war that followed—Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979–89.

The book paints a grim and vivid portrait of Afghanistan, based on interviews, letters, and diaries of the Red Army troops who fought there—the Afgantsy, as they became known. And it explodes much of the conventional wisdom about Russia's involvement in the war, using records of Soviet Politburo meetings. Among the longstanding myths that Braithwaite upends is the notion that U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles changed the course of the war. In fact, he says, Mikhail Gorbachev had already made the decision to get out of Afghanistan more than a year before the CIA began distributing the shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles to the mujahedin. For the reform-minded Soviet leader, the war's cost was simply too high in blood, treasure, and global standing.

Another old chestnut the book debunks is the theory that the invasion was part of a long-term Soviet plot to grab southern Pakistan and gain a warm-water port on the Arabian Sea. On the contrary, Braithwaite shows, the Kremlin actually blundered into Afghanistan through a combination of poor judgment, flawed intelligence, and disastrous friends. As Braithwaite points out, the Afghan Marxists gravely underestimated the strength of Islam and traditional Afghan values in the countryside. They imagined they could impose "modernity" on the country's medieval, mud-brick villages through brute force. Instead their attempts set off a wildfire peasant revolt. And meanwhile a murderous power struggle erupted between then–prime minister Amin and a fellow senior party member, then–president Nur Mohammad Taraki.

The feuding Marxists pleaded for Red Army reinforcements against the rebels, but the Kremlin at first rejected military intervention as a stupid idea. Senior Soviet leaders like Yuri Andropov and Andrei Gromyko were convinced that socialism could never succeed in a place like Afghanistan, that sending troops there would only create more enemies, and that a war would derail their efforts at détente with the West. Nevertheless, Braithwaite says, Moscow began deploying Soviet battalions here and there in Afghanistan to protect bases and troops already on the ground. It was a slippery slope. Afghan cities were in revolt, and entire Afghan Army battalions were defecting to the rebels.

Taraki and Amin were panicking—but not enough to put aside their rivalry. In October, Amin seized power and had Taraki smothered under a pillow. Now the Kremlin was likewise panicking, beset by visions of chaos crossing the border into Soviet Central Asia. Andropov began to fear that Amin was a clandestine CIA agent. And at last the Soviet leadership made what Braithwaite calls an "inevitable" decision: on Dec. 25, 1979, the Soviet 40th Army began pouring into Afghanistan. The plan was to stay only a year or so, just long enough to stabilize the situation and rebuild the Afghan security forces. The Russians paid dearly for their mistake. Thousands of Afghan guerrillas made sure of it, with abundant aid from America, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.

Braithwaite tells the story from the point of view of Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Conscripts were bullied and humiliated by older hands. In addition to rebel ambushes, they had to contend with bad food and housing, inadequate clothing, and primitive sanitation. Of the 620,000 Soviet troops who served in Afghanistan, roughly three quarters had to be hospitalized for ailments including hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery, and malaria. Soviet forces would capture enemy positions and hand them over to the Afghan Army, only to see the rebels reclaim them. To the Soviet public, the war's emblem became the Black Tulip—the giant cargo plane that brought home the dead.

Atrocities became commonplace. "They did it to us, so we have a right to do it to them," explained one soldier. "The thirst for blood is a terrible desire," said another. "It is so strong, you can't resist." Rapes and murders of Afghan civilians went mostly unpunished. In response to guerrilla attacks, Soviet forces used their overwhelming firepower to inflict mass retribution on entire rural settlements. A Soviet Air Force colonel spelled it out: "A kishlak [an Afghan village] fires at us and kills someone. I send up a couple of planes, and there is nothing left of the kishlak."

Afgantsy who got home alive were given no parades. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse; factories were closing, and the Afgantsy returned to find no jobs, poor medical care, and few of the benefits the government had promised. Two years ago, on the 20th anniversary of the Russian withdrawal, Moscow finally held celebrations honoring the Afghan war veterans. The money that was spent on the partying might better have been used to assist the many Afgantsy now living in poverty, Braithwaite says.

With America beginning its own slow retreat from Afghanistan, this is an important book. The Russians fought and died in the same unforgiving landscape where Americans have been fighting and dying for most of the past decade. When the Russians pulled out, they left behind a vicious civil war that continues to this day. And the worst of it is that Afghanistan seems likely to be no better off after America's exit.

Moreau is Newsweek's Islamabad bureau chief.