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Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

Submitted by on 18 Jul 2012 – 11:01

By Simon Gillon, Managing Editor, Government Gazette

“The chador and the parachute. You don’t have to be a prophet to foretell the victory of the parachute.” Soviet youth adviser and journalist.

Most of those of us who heard about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 had one thing in common. Short of having an old hippy or gay friend who may have been there to enjoy all the fruits which the country famously offered in the 1970s, no one really knew anything very much about what was happening there at the time.

That there was already a brutal civil war going on, and that the communist regime was imprisoning and torturing thousands of the wrong sort of communists (among others), murdering as many as 30,000 of them in its gruesome prisons, somehow managed to get lost in the messages which the media in the West picked up from the powers that be, and which they transmitted without any of the forms of censorship that the media in the old soviet union had to deal with.

Rodric Braithwaite is a former British Ambassador to Moscow. The depth of his knowledge of his subject is significantly impressive. The briefing he has had shows our own foreign office and intelligence services at their very best. His personal research is impeccable, far ranging and profound. His ability to talk to the right people and obtain the right information from them shows an extremely experienced and skilled analyst and diplomat. His objectivity is utterly professional. It is easy to understand how he managed to land one of the top diplomatic posts in the world in his time.

 

“The Russians slithered towards a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative.” Having read the detailed analysis and intimate knowledge of the previous pages documenting the progress towards this decision, it makes a compelling argument -  an old foreign office trick, of course, but one which I think it is very reasonable to take at face value. The book, now available in paper back, is very focused on the human dimension of the entire debacle, and clearly has no agenda, other than presenting a clear-headed revelation of facts and perspectives. Indeed, the title of the book refers to the Russian soldiers who fought there. Afgantsy means “veterans of the soviet war”.

Braithwaite’s knowledge of the actors, the politics, the history, the geo-politics, the regional drivers, and the flaws of the strategies and the individuals involved are not unrivalled. Ahmed Rashid’s book on the Taliban, for example, is another exemplar of how to know all about these matters and to write this kind of book on this subject. But his presentation very quickly establishes an authority, objectivity and interest which are extremely impressive.

And so one moves into the reality of what the Russians had to deal with, having taken their fateful decision to invade, initially both to protect their increasingly potentially vulnerable southern border, and to support international communism. What an absurd idea the latter of these appears to be 30 years on. Once there, it became clear that the lack of strategic vision when deciding to invade would haunt the entire mission. “Our army was given tasks which it was in no position to fulfil, since no regular army can possibly solve the problem of a territory in revolt.”

The sheer, sustainable, brutal and well organised violence unleashed against them by the mujahedin took them completely by surprise. At its most violent from the Russian perspective, the war was costing them the lives of about 150 soldiers a month from 1980-85, almost 10,000 over this phase of the war. We learn of the mujahedin leader who boasted of only half-skinning alive the Russian troops he captured, leaving them in agony, tethered for their slaughter, surrounded by booby traps designed to kill both them and their compatriots who came to try to help.

And we learn of the Russian response, and the violence unleashed on the Afghans, every time a single shot might be fired at them from a dirt poor village, to call in the air strikes and annihilate the entire area, houses, crops, trees, and any animal or person there, in the end to the tune of at least 100,000 civilians killed, possibly many more. There then followed a bloody civil war which burst into the open, and which destroyed most of what had survived the Russian occupation and the war during the time they were there.

Of course, Afganistan has suffered for longer than most countries. The 17th century bazaar in Khabul was destroyed by the British in 1842. The 15th century houses of Herat by local Afghans on British advice in 1885 in preparation for an Anglo-Russian conflict which never occurred. In 1986 the Russian airforce destroyed half of Kandahar and vast swathes of its population. One of the largest farms in the developing world, near Jalalabad, employing 6,000 workers, was destroyed by the mujahedin soon after the Russian departure, in heavy fighting in the area. Khabul itself had survived the Russian occupation largely unscathed, but it was utterly destroyed in 1993-94 by gratuitous artillery and tank bombardment by opposing Afghan factions in the civil war. The destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamyan was one of the most notorious acts of wanton, ignorant destruction of an ancient monument in modern times. And if you add to this the destruction of thousands of schools, and hundreds of hospitals, administrative buildings, and villages since the early 80s, then you start to get the picture. Long range bombing of the country by the Russians during the war only added to the carnage and destruction.

Apart form the country’s mountainous geography and its entirely inhospitable climate, there is also the matter of the complete incoherence of a nation of 4 entirely different peoples (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Pashtuns) who have always fought each other in a timeless sea of enmity, shifting allegiances, violence and betrayal. This made the Russian ability to cope with the country post-invasion even more difficult. Braithwaite writes of the “elusive un-coordinated guerrilla enemy” which was impossible for a regular army, or its special forces to deal with.

The surreal nature of the Afghan approach to war is also brought out from a human angle. One Russian commander called Kartsev maintained good relations with the local Afghans, including the mujahedin, and his troops were largely left alone. But the neighbouring Russian commander and his men faced constant attack from the same people who left Kartsev’s troops in peace. Similarly with the convoys which crawled along the mountain roads on the main supply routes from Soviet Central Asia across Afghanistan. When these were commanded by commanders who got on well with the mujahedin, they could make the arduous journey largely unscathed. One commander who did not bother with such niceties lost around 400 vehicles out of 1,200 in a single convoy trip. Altogether 11,000 Russian lorries and tankers were destroyed.

Not all Russian prisoners were treated barbarically by the Afghans. Many were well treated, others were kidnapped and ransomed, several converted to Islam, some settled in Afghanistan and some even ended up fighting with the mujahedin. Others managed to make it out of the country with outside help. After the war there was a concerted effort to trace those who were still missing in action, and the numbers of those unaccounted for has slowly dropped over the years. Braithwaite mentions, though, that for the families of those who are not confirmed as having been killed, not only is there the constant, nagging doubt about precisely what has happened, but also, they receive no pension, and can be left penniless and destitute.

The book looks in great detail at the everyday life of the soldiers themselves, and also the Russian women who served there in a wide range of capacities, and looks at awareness of the war at home, and the growing disillusion both within the army and in the general population. The mothers’ movements were among the first sustained protest movements in a country still rigidly under the communist yoke.

And it is interesting to be reminded that while the bazaars in Afghanistan were flooded with Russian goods for years after the army’s departure, when the Russian troops arrived, they had access in the markets there to things they had never even heard of back in Russia – perfume, make-up, cassettes, Japanese electrical goods, Western clothes such as jeans, to say nothing of the easy availability of both alcohol and drugs. It is easy to forget what a totally dysfunctional society the Soviet Union had become by this stage, and vast quantities of the goods purchased or taken by the troops serving in Afghanistan were simply stolen from them by soviet customs officers when they crossed the border to return home.

Also interesting is Braithwaite’s intimate knowledge of who was making what decisions in the Soviet hierarchy and gerontocracy. In the background to the war far away in Moscow, we are reminded of the deaths of Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and the beginnings of perestroika and glasnost as Gorbachev took over a morally and economically bankrupt state. Shevardnadze, once perceived and admired in the West as one of the dual pillars of realism and pragmatic honesty in the Soviet hierarchy, prior to his taking over in Georgia, emerges as a hawk on Afghanistan.

Afgantsy is very well balanced, based on detailed briefing, research and personal professional experience. The author’s understanding of all the elements of the war, the geo-political, international, national, regional, factional, ideological, religious, cultural, traditional, and military, is fascinating. But it is always the human element on which he manages to focus. One Russian former medical officer who served there speaks of “All wars lead[ing] to an ‘epidemic of amorality’.” “Life had transformed us”, says another, reflecting on the numbers of veteran soldiers suffering from family breakdown, accidents, suicide, depression, and facing other problems once they returned home, problems which do not all disappear with time, others of which may still manifest themselves.

A large body of poetry and music which emerged on the Russian side during and after the war tells of the disillusion, the suffering, the violence, the horror at what they did and at what they endured. Igor Morozov, a songwriter who served in the war says about this music: “A country’s songs tell you what is ailing it”. For the veterans, the war continues in their personal lives and in their memories.

And as for the country they left behind, devastated by civil war, ruled by the Taliban, invaded again after 9/11, still occupied with the best intentions (for want of a better strategy), and still suffering from a brutal insurgency which the troops there cannot deal with effectively, the destruction continues. No doubt, once the Taliban are helped brutally back into power after the US and other NATO forces pull out within the next 5 years or so, the silence, as music is banned once again, will be a profoundly sad and eloquent testimony to what is ailing the Afghanistan of the future.

“…music, dancing, and women’s education all brought to nothing.”

 

Afgantsy
The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89
Rodric Braithwaite
Profile Books
ISBN 978 1 84668 062 5