Tuesday, 11 September 2012

On the anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, its worth perhaps remembering one of the festering wounds that brought the world to that unhappy and horrific day - the sorry saga of Afghanistan.  This is my review of Rodric Braithwaite's excellent book "Afgantsy", which first appeared in the UK's "Independent on Sunday" in the summer of 2011. 

Rodric Braithwaite, “Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989”
Profile Books, £25.00, 417pp, notes, maps illustrations.

 At a time when British politicians and commentators are questioning the continued involvement of their forces in Afghanistan, it seems appropriate to examine the story of the last foreign power to come to grief in that unhappy country.

Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, ostensibly in support of a communist, client government, which was spiraling into mayhem and facing revolt in the provinces.  Initially fulfilling a limited role of assisting an ally and training Afghan personnel, the Soviets would be drawn inexorably into a full-scale conflict with the American and Pakistani-backed Mujahedin rebels.  They would only leave some nine years later, after 15,000 Soviet soldiers and an unknown number of Afghans had been killed and a generation on both sides had been traumatised.

Rodric Braithwaite is well-placed to tell the story of the Soviet Union’s Afghan adventure.  A former British ambassador in Moscow and a fluent Russian speaker, he brings a cool, critical eye to this complex tale, dispelling a few old Cold War myths and misconceptions along the way.

His approach is a rather novel one.  Though the book’s structure is broadly chronological, the central section dealing with the war itself is organised thematically, covering areas such as ‘soldiering’, ‘fighting’ and ‘devastation and disillusion’.  Whilst this approach rather robs the book of some of its narrative head of steam, it does nonetheless facilitate the showcasing of Braithwaite’s excellent and original use of the first-hand testimony of Soviet Afghan-war veterans – the ‘Afgantsy’ of the title.  Their accounts – of the boredom and squalour of military life; of the atrocities that they committed and suffered, and of the psychological consequences that they incurred – provide a fascinating leaven to Braithwaite’s otherwise somewhat solid narrative.

Though he eschews making the comparison explicitly, the shadow that inevitably hangs over almost every line of Braithwaite’s book is the current western involvement in Afghanistan.  The similarities – and ironies – are obvious: both the Soviets and ourselves went in to that country parroting the same watchwords about ‘stabilisation’ and ‘pacification’; both spent many of the subsequent years seeking a way out, all the while fearful of what horrors would follow their withdrawal

Afgantsy is well-written and engaging and should serve to popularise a subject that deserves much wider attention and scrutiny.  More immediately, one is struck by the thought that this book should be required reading for all of those, military and civilian alike, who are involved in the current Afghan adventure.

© Roger Moorhouse 2011 

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