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The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan

By Gregory Feifer
Harper Collins, 2009

A border can be a tricky thing, particularly because at its core it is nothing but a decision – not an inevitable decision of history plotted by an unencumbered hand on a two-dimensional surface but a series of decisions made and re-made in actual time, under specific circumstances, and by those who for that moment hold the power to decide. If the story of history were that of benevolent rulers making such choices in the interests of all who would fall within and without those lines, the world’s most brutal and intractable conflicts would never have begun. All too often those with power over populations impose their lines in the hope of keeping some people in, some people out, and as many people as possible under their control. And almost as often as territorial decisions are made, groups caught in the middle violently dispute them. Find an eccentric border on any map and you can bet there is a history (or present) of conflict surrounding it. U.S. geography shows myriad examples. Take, for example, West Virginia’s whimsical curves and abrupt angles that were contrived, disputed, and defended amidst the furor of the American Civil War.

Even so, among regions where imposed borders affect the lives of those within them, Central Asia is a special case. Historically a confluence of languages, cultures, and ethnicities, its major population centers serving as crucial trade hubs along the Silk Road routes, the region was seen as exotic and dangerous but certainly not remote. 19th and 20th Century geo-politics were extremely harsh on the peoples and places of Central Asia. As nautical travel and naval power grew to increasingly determine the expansion of empire, the grand cultures and cities of Central Asia were further viewed by outside empires (British and Russian primarily, but Persian and Chinese were among others with interests) as regions to subdue and absorb. Or, if decisive victory was impossible, as untamed areas to serve as a buffer between spheres of influence.

Which brings us to Afghanistan. A relatively young political entity in a very old place, Afghanistan is a difficult country to comprehend – more so because it has been so often been viewed and defined from the outside. During the 19th Century, as Tsarist Russia sought expansion east and south and British India sought to consolidate and protect its northern and western frontiers, Afghanistan was a loosely defined collection of tribal and ethnic groups of crucial strategic importance to the two empires. In fact, it was not until the late 1800s, after numerous failed invasions, intrigues, and alliances that came to be known as “The Great Game,” did Russia and Britain begin to define Afghanistan’s boundaries. Most revealing of their intentions to keep separate their competing empires is the Wakhan Corridor, the slim appendage of territory stretching eastward to China. And while the first half of the 20th Century would see Great Britain retreat from its far-off imperial claims, the Russian and Soviet Empires would continue to seek influence with the state to their south.

The above is only a small piece of the vast history in the background of author Gregory Feifer’s new history of the Soviet Union’s 1979-1989 war in Afghanistan, The Great Gamble. Many may recognize the author’s name or recall his measured tone from his authoritative and searching dispatches reporting Russia’s more recent machinations as National Public Radio’s Moscow correspondent. His war reporting this past summer during the Russo-Georgian conflict over disputed regions of the Caucusus – the region on Russia’s expansive frontier that rivals Central Asia in ethno-political complexity – again showed him as a knowledgeable and discerning student of Russian regional affairs.

The Great Gamble is extensively researched, particularly in appreciation of the fact that the immediate events discussed are not yet thirty years old. Taking advantage of his skills, experience, and contacts (one gets the impression that there are intriguing stories behind the mere procurement of certain interviews) as a foreign correspondent, Feifer’s narrative relies greatly on the experiences of those involved on all sides of the conflict – from Soviet political and military insiders to various participants in the mujahideen resistance and even former CIA operatives – but he leans most heavily on the poignant stories of Soviet veterans. Fortunately for the reader, Feifer’s research also includes a prudent mix of combat analyses, contemporary reports, and historical studies that inform a balanced treatment of his complex subject.

If only Soviet leaders had given the decision to invade and the decade-long war that followed such thorough consideration as Feifer has given his book. The enormous structure of the Soviet government of December 1979 was beginning to show the cracks that would eventually lead to its collapse, but few – not its own leadership, not its Cold War adversaries – recognized these weaknesses at the time. As Soviet officials in Afghanistan began to relay the pleas of the Afghan Marxist government for Red Army support in suppressing the government’s internal opposition, the small group at the top of Brezhnev’s regime was too often distracted by more provincial concerns. The author describes one absurd but revealing scene:

When Brezhnev pinned on Kosygin the latest of the prime minister’s countless medals – this one for the Order of the October Revolution – he commented that the award looked pretty, then turned to fellow Politburo member Konstantin Chernenko. “Kostya,” the general secretary said, “I don’t have one of those.” Several days later – probably the time it took for the Politburo to find an excuse to make the award – a place was found on Brezhnev’s bulging chestful of decorations for a new Order of the October Revolution.

The point Feifer makes is not that the regime was oblivious to the world outside the Kremlin walls. There was a strong interest within the government in supporting and gaining influence with states of the USSR’s Near Abroad – an interest that has been renewed with the incursions of Putin’s Russia into the affairs of Eastern European and Caucasian governments. In the case of Afghanistan, however, the interest of the leadership rarely went beyond superficial or ideological considerations.

While the Soviet brass would only later have to contend with the consequences of its myopia, the government of Afghanistan had more tangible problems. Here Feifer could have done more to provide an account of both the Afghan government’s political health and the short and tumultuous history of communism in Afghanistan. Though he presents a vivid picture of the intrigues of those in power, he misses an opportunity early in The Great Gamble to firmly establish the unanswered (then as it is now) question, “How will Afghanistan be ruled?”

The immediate issue in September 1979 was a successful and fatal coup leveled against Marxist President Nur Mohammed Taraki by his deputy prime minister, Hafizullah Amin. And though the possibility of a Communist government ever succeeding in governing Afghanistan was remote – the country was (and still is) primarily rural, tribal, and hostile to centralized governmental control regardless of its ideology – Feifer highlights Brezhnev’s characteristically simplistic response: “What a scum that Amin is to smother a person with whom I took part in revolution.” As Amin continued his predecessor’s appeals for Soviet military intervention to quell the severe domestic resistance to his attempted Communist reforms, the orders to invade were hastily planned. Ironically, the force’s objective would be Amin’s removal.

What did not attract the attention of the Soviets plotting the invasion was the fact that, aside from being internally chaotic, the Afghan government had little or no control of its country outside of its urban Kabul base. As such, what was conceived in the minds of the Politburo members as a quick and decisive military victory (sound familiar?) with the goal of installing a palatable, sympathetic government under their ally Babrak Karmal rapidly escalated into devastating conflict that would engage world governments for a decade and beyond.

The bulk of The Great Gamble, written in Feifer’s solid effective and engaging prose, comprises a narrative of that escalation, described by the people contributed to and witnessed its progression. One particularly interesting examples of Feifer’s cast of characters is a Soviet Officer, a 25 year-old army lieutenant at the time of the invasion, named Vladimir Polyakov. Stationed in East Germany when the invasion began, he, like most officers, left for Afghanistan eager to contribute to the official objective of defending the Afghan people and their revolution. Like most of the Soviet forces, his route to combat ran through Soviet Uzbekistan, across the Amu Dar’ya River (Afghanistan’s only natural boundary) into northern Afghanistan, through the exhaust-choked Soviet-built Salang tunnel cut three kilometers through the Hindu Kush mountains, and finally across the sparse plains overlooking Kabul.

Once he arrived and the initial success of the invasion began to recede, however, a more complex picture began to emerge. Rather than facing traditional ground forces, the Afghan government’s – and therefore the Red Army’s – main opposition often the form of small bands of raiders ambushing unwieldy supply routes and troop detachments. Soviet troops called these fighters dushmany (“bandits” in Russian; Feifer astutely identifies it as the same derisive term Russian soldiers applied to more recent rebel adversaries in the Caucusus), and found themselves unprepared to neutralize or even distinguish the mujahideen from the Afghan civilians. As a result, it was often the civilians who suffered most from Soviet firepower. To soldiers like Polyakov, the purpose for their involvement was quickly obscured and replaced by the singular objective of staying alive. Feifer presents this transformation through Polyakov’s activities patrolling Kabul’s streets:

During the early months, even officers toted Kalashnikovs, which contributed to a macho pride. But officers’ high soon dissipated, and Polyakov began violating regulations by leaving behind even his pistol, which he believed would do more harm than good…in a real confrontation on the streets.

In the stratified structure of the Soviet military, however, innovations in tactics were slow to make their way from individual soldiers on the ground to the superior officers who controlled even minor tactical procedures. Unfortunately, things were no better at the top of the political leadership. Brezhnev’s deterioration and death in 1982 was followed by the short tenures of the entrenched party men Yuri Andropov (Nov. 1982 – Feb. 1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (Feb. 1984 – March 1985), who were even less capable of reform (or good health) than their predecessor. Despite all of the advantages of a technologically superior army backed by a modern state, the Soviets could manage no better than a stalemate in Afghanistan.

Mujahideen stand on a downed Soviet helicopter in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley, 1979

That the Soviets faced a resourceful enemy committed to the task of defending its own terrain against all perceived invaders – the Red Army as well as the Karmal government – was a large part of the problem. Among the most able mujahideen leaders was a young Tajik (ethnic Tajiks form Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group, after the majority Pashtuns) named Ahmed Shah Massoud who opposed the Soviet occupation from his base in the critical Panjshir Valley north of Kabul. A detailed map of the Valley is included, and it is a helpful compliment to Feifer’s description of the theater. Its proximity to the capital – and to the Bagram air base – coupled with the ability of Massoud and his men to disrupt Soviet supplies, operations, and morale made it the crucial battlefield of the war. Paradoxically, the conflict there also offered the best opportunity the Soviets would have to negotiate an end to the fighting.

After two years of bloody failures to subdue Massoud’s mujahideen, Soviet military intelligence was able to make contact with the commander. To their surprise they encountered not a simple warlord but a serious strategist who identified his primary enemy as Karmal’s government, not the Soviets. By 1983, a ceasefire was negotiated in the Valley. However, since the Soviets did not engage any of the other mujahideen leaders, the truce served as a period of conflict between rebel groups. Without pressing the opportunity for a larger negotiated solution, the Soviets allowed the fighting to resume with renewed intensity.

In fact, the intensity increased, as another factor in the war began to tell: foreign aid. The Great Gamble succeeds in analyzing the significance of foreign governments – Saudi Arabia, the U.S., Egypt, Turkey to name a few – that had been funding the several mujahideen groups since the invasion. In true Cold War fashion, however, the CIA initially was unwilling to fund groups directly, preferring to maintain tenuous deniability by funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and aid through Pakistan’s intelligence agency. Still, Washington’s original goal was to help frustrate the Soviet war effort; the idea that the USSR could be defeated was not seriously considered until, in 1985 and 1986, CIA director Bill Casey led a charge to fully support the resistance. And while the U.S. government didn’t comprehend the nature of the war, the weakness of the USSR, or even who exactly they were funding, they did provide the mujahideen with some of their most advanced weapons. Feifer identifies the first attack on a Soviet gunship helicopter using American surface-to-air Stinger missiles, in September 1986, as a major turning point:

Eight Mi-24 gunships approached Jalalabad on September 25, 1986, on their return from a routine mission. As they neared their base, a rocket streaked toward them from the ground, slammed into the lead helicopter, and exploded. When a second craft blew up seconds later, the frantic pilots of five of the remaining six brought them down hard enough to cause damage and injure passengers. Only one of the choppers turned to fire its cannon at the attackers, and it too was destroyed as it swooped toward a group of rebels near the airfield. Another rocket had scored, followed by yells of “Allah Akbar!” – God is Great – from the ground….

Still, the tide of war would not truly begin to recede without a major political shift in Moscow, and the instinct to change direction had to wait for Mikhail Gorbachev’s consolidation of power and agreement to the Geneva Accords of 1988. By early the next year, the Red Army had completed its withdrawal from the territory and government of Afghanistan, leaving both to the mercy of others.

Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, 1988

It is a strength of Feifer’s book that he is able to connect the aftermath of the Soviet failure in Afghanistan to the collapse of the entire Soviet state as well as to the rise of the militant Islamic Taliban regime. In fact, he devotes the book’s final chapter to the far-reaching repercussions of the invasion, noting some of the parallels between Brezhnev’s invasion and the George W. Bush’s a generation later. But the greatest strength of The Great Gamble is its author’s ability to write military history with both engaging detail and meaningful perspective. From the individual stories of participants, each independently entertaining and revealing, Feifer is able to explain how one of history’s most formidable military forces began a war it didn’t know how to fight – and then fought that war in a way that it could never win.

A native New Englander, Zac Marconi sells old books at new prices at the Brattle Book Shop in Boston and is currently pursuing a B.A. in Potpourri. He lives in Cambridge, MA and sincerely enjoys cold weather.