Rodric Braithwaite is a former British ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yeltsin’s Russia and a specialist in Russian history.  Utilizing his extensive personal contacts with Afghan War veterans (known as afgantsy in Russian) and his fluency in the Russian language, Braithwaite has written an account of the Soviets’ involvement in Afghanistan that is detailed, easy to follow, and balanced.  Unlike other works discussing the Soviets’ experience in Afghanistan, this book is sympathetic to the plight of the Soviet soldiers and officers who found themselves in the Afghan inferno.

The Soviet involvement in Afghanistan began soon after the formation of the Soviet Union and built upon the decades of czarist entanglement, which was fueled by Russo-British rivalry.  In 1929, exactly 50 years before the Afghan War, the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan for the first time.  The goal of the first invasion was to restore the deposed Amanullah Khan to the throne.  Amanullah emulated Ataturk and befriended Mussolini.  His plans to make education compulsory for both men and women and to establish a minimum age for marriage provoked a rebellion by the forerunners of modern mujahideen.  Stalin sent about a thousand troops into Afghanistan, and they proceeded to capture several cities in the north of the country.  The intervention came too late, however, as Amanullah had already fled to Italy.

Amanullah’s successors, especially the long-serving Zahir Shah, steered a careful path between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  However, the geographical proximity to the Soviet Union and the fact that the Soviets flooded Afghanistan with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and thousands of civilian and military advisors turned pre-invasion Afghanistan into a Central Asian Finland—a nominally neutral capitalist state that was in reality firmly in the Soviet orbit.  Like his predecessor Amanullah, Zahir Shah was a dedicated reformer who gave women the vote, allowed them to attend university, and guaranteed primary education for both boys and girls.  The mujahideen and their supporters who glorify Zahir Shah’s 40-year reign (1933-73) as a golden age conveniently forget that he was an ultrasecular Westernized monarch and an ally of the Soviet Union.  The secular reforms of Zahir Shah’s rule contained the seeds of his regime’s destruction.  As the author demonstrates, Kabul University was a breeding ground for both communist and Islamist rebels.  All of Afghanistan’s communist rulers and main mujahideen leaders attended Kabul University.

Afghanistan began to unravel when the king’s pro-communist cousin and former prime minister Daud overthrew him in 1973 in a bloodless coup.  For the first time in 40 years there were political arrests and executions.  Braithwaite contends that the Soviets had nothing to do with the coup, which replaced a relatively stable pro-Soviet regime with an upheaval that has yet to be brought under control.  The Pakistanis instigated an Islamist rebellion, which was ruthlessly and swiftly crushed.  The survivors fled into Pakistan, and there—with the help of Pakistani intelligence, the Saudis, and later the CIA—established the infamous network of Islamist rebels.

A mere five years later, Daud was overthrown and murdered by Afghan communists, who as the author shows acted against the advice of the Soviets; in the author’s words, “the coup came as a bolt from the blue to Soviet officials in Kabul, including the KGB representative.”  Shackled by their ideology, the gerontocrats from the Kremlin had no choice but to support the communists—first Taraki, then the even more unbalanced Amin.  In March 1979, almost a year before the invasion, the Soviets were shocked to learn that several of their civilian and military advisors had been killed in the city of Herat, which was briefly captured by the Islamists.  By the summer, a bloody rebellion was in full swing, and the government was losing control of the situation.

Meanwhile, Amin’s erratic behavior proved too much even for the steadily declining Brezhnev and his cronies.  Amin’s flirtation with Pakistan and Iran and his botched attempt to rescue kidnapped American ambassador Adolph Dubs (which resulted in Dubs’ death) proved to the Soviets that Amin could not control the country and needed to be replaced.  In addition, the Carter administration was arming the rebels with the aim of provoking a Soviet invasion, a goal made even easier by the Islamists’ repeated violations of the border between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan and clashes with Soviet border guards.  This confluence of circumstances made a Soviet intervention inevitable.

The invading force was organized into a separate 40th Army that fluctuated between 80,000 and 109,000 army, air force, military intelligence, interior ministry, and KGB personnel.  The Soviets’ aim was not to conquer Afghanistan but to secure the towns and the roads and withdraw as soon as the Afghan army could effectively take over.  The Afghan army never rose to the task.  Desertion was endemic, and the professional level of the army was very low.  Some Afghan soldiers changed sides between the government and the mujahideen “as many as seven times.”

As the author demonstrates, a major problem the Soviets faced was their lack of preparation for an insurgency.  The closest they came to fighting one was during their intervention in Hungary in 1956.  Even then, the Soviets sustained significant casualties as a result of being unprepared for guerilla warfare.

An even greater problem was the dire state of the Soviet military.  Aside from the KGB-controlled border guards, the various special forces, and the ballistic rocket detachments, the Soviet army’s morale was fatally undermined by a problem known as dedovshchina—“the grandfather system.”  This phenomenon is best described as a mixture of extremely violent hazing and prison-like brutality.  Conscripts who completed more than a year of their mandatory two-year service were known as the “grandfathers” and forced new conscripts to clean the barracks; hand over food, money, and cigarettes; and clean and mend the uniforms of the “grandfathers.”  Brutal beatings, humiliation, and even sexual attacks were employed against new conscripts who refused to go along.  Many officers actually encouraged the brutality by outsourcing disciplinary functions to the “grandfathers” in the same manner that prison guards encourage and support brutal jailhouse gangs as a means of better controlling the convicts.  The situation was exacerbated by the Soviet military’s lack of professional NCOs who could boost morale and bolster discipline.  Instead, Soviet sergeants were simply longer-serving conscripts that were hustled through an inadequately brief months-long course.

Another problem was the appalling state of the 40th Army’s medical services.  More than three quarters of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were hospitalized, 69 percent of them because of disease—mostly hepatitis, but also malaria, typhoid, and cholera.  Braithwaite asserts that “at any given moment up to a quarter, perhaps even a third, of the 40th Army was incapacitated by disease” and that, even during World War II, Soviet military medical services were in better shape.

Braithwaite’s flowing narrative succeeds best in its descriptions of the combat operation and daily life of the Soviets in Afghanistan.  There are stories of bravery and self-sacrifice, as when, in 1988, a mere 39 Soviet paratroopers held off hundreds of Islamic rebels, including Arab volunteers from the elite Black Storks unit on a hilltop near Gardez, or when a few dozen malnourished Soviet and Afghan army POWs took over the Badaber prison-fortress in Pakistan and repulsed hundreds of mujahideen and Pakistani soldiers before the prison was pulverized by rockets and artillery.  There were also instances of appalling brutality, as when 11 soldiers led by a senior lieutenant raped several women and killed them and a number of children and old men in a village outside of Jalalabad in 1981.  In a remarkable display of military honor, the chief Soviet military advisor in Afghanistan refused the demands of the KGB and the Ministry of Defense to sweep this atrocity under the rug, apologized to the Afghan leadership, and together with them forced Brezhnev to punish the culprits severely.  The perpetrators were either shot or given long terms of imprisonment, the brigade’s commander was reprimanded, and only the brigade’s glorious record in World War II prevented it from being disbanded.

(Another story, told to the author by an unnamed Soviet officer, is an excellent example of the eerie reality of the Afghan War.  The officer was being treated in a Kabul hospital for a simultaneous infection of typhus, cholera, and hepatitis.  After his discharge, he started a relationship with the nurse who looked after him.  His jealous comrades told him that the nurse liked to draw portraits of all of her military boyfriends and hang them on her wall,  and that all three of the officer’s predecessors were killed in action as soon as she had finished the portraits.  The nurse began to draw his portrait, too, but never finished it.  He was wounded, but survived.)

In conclusion, Braithwaite emphasizes how the Afghans today compare the Russians favorably with the subsequent invaders of their country.  He praises the pragmatic Mohammed Najibullah, the last pro-Soviet president, who was brutally murdered by the Taliban, as the equal of Zahir Shah, while dismissing the hapless Karzai as a mere puppet.  A rebel commander from Herat who became a regional police chief under Karzai told Braithwaite that, had Najibullah come to power in 1979 rather than in 1986, Afghanistan would not have collapsed.


[Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989, by Rodric Braithwaite (New York: Oxford University Press) 432 pp., $29.95]