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“…people do not forgive that sort of thing.” Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979 – 1989

February 17, 2012

The 40th Army goes to war

Book: “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979 – 89″, Rodric Braithwaite

Just finished this – a very good read from the former UK Ambassador to Moscow. His other book “Moscow 1941” I am still trying to finish, but is also very good.  Both books focus on the very human level of the Russian experience and this generally means Russian civilians as conscripts in a poorly prepared series of military operations.

“The intentions of the Soviet government were modest: they aimed to secure the main towns and the roads, stabilise the government, train up the Afghan army and police, and withdraw within six months or a year…”

So “Afgantsy” is not a blow by blow account of the military/guerrilla struggle (to be honest, I could have done with a little bit more of that side), but rather an attempt to reflect without prejudice – but with much sympathy – the experience of the Russian men and women, military and civilians involved in the 1979 – 1989 “internationalist duty”.   Mr Braithwaite clearly has made good use of newly released files and documents.  The most interesting part for me was the convincing account of the decision-making processes that caused the Soviet leadership to intervene.  Having just turned a very immature 16 years of age in December 1979, at the time I bought into the “Soviet quest for a warm water port” explanation for the intervention.  This is dismissed in about half a paragraph.  What comes across very clearly is the, literally decrepit, indecisive nature of the Soviet leadership but also how badly the Soviets did not want to intervene and how the weak and over-zealous leadership of the Afghan communists drew the Soviets in.

I don’t want to overstate the irony/hindsight/history-tragically-repeating-itself motifs, but when the rising in Herat (March 1979) took place:

“…the immediate reaction of the Communist government in Kabul was to panic, and to ask Moscow to send military forces to put the rising down.  The Soviet Politburo debated the question for four whole days and then came to a very sensible conclusion.  They would not send troops, though they would supply the Afghan government with additional military and economic aid.  As the Soviet Prime Minister, Alexei Kosygin told the Afghan President, Nur Mohamed Taraki, ‘If we sent in our troops, the situation in your country would not improve.  On the contrary, it would get worse.  Our troops would have to struggle not only with an external aggressor, but with a part of your own people.  And people do not forgive that sort of thing.’

“Driven step by step, mostly against their will, [the Soviets] tried to get a grip.  Their decisions were bedevilled by ignorance, ideological prejudice, muddled thinking, inadequate intelligence, divided counsel, and the sheer pressure of events.  Needless to say, the experts who actually knew about Afghanistan – and there were may of them in the Soviet Union in those days – were neither consulted nor informed…”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 17, 2012 3:25 pm

    Thanks for the hindsight insight.

  2. October 21, 2013 2:11 pm

    Well, gosh, Tim. I forgot I had read this review and now I’ve read the book in spite of it. A good read.

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