The Great Gamble:
The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer
HarperCollins, 336 pp.
he Soviet war in Afghanistan was a dark comedy of errors right from the beginning. Western propaganda during the Cold War liked to paint the Russians as soulless robots, but, as NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer describes in his new book, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan, the reality of Red Army operations during the Soviet takeover was more Keystone Kops than anything else. On the first day of the invasion, December 27, 1979, Soviet special forces converged on the presidential palace in Kabul. Their job was to kill Afghan President Hafizullah Amin, who was suspected by Moscow of treacherous disloyalty. A ruthless Communist, Amin had murdered his predecessor, Nur Muhammad Taraki, along with most of Taraki’s family, and sent thousands of opponents to firing squads or jail during his own brief tenure in office.
As Feifer vividly recounts, the Soviet operation was swathed in confusion—perhaps a reflection of the secrecy and bureaucratic timidity with which Leonid Brezhnev’s Politburo had ordered the invasion fifteen days earlier. Before the attack, the Soviets had spent billions of dollars propping up pro-Moscow regimes in Kabul. An April 1978 coup by the Afghan Communist Party finally succeeded in installing an overtly revolutionary government—which then immediately foundered as its radical social programs inspired revolt in the countryside. Still, as its subsequent dithering demonstrated, the Kremlin was notably unenthusiastic about direct intervention in Afghanistan. Subsequent events would show that reluctance to be well founded.
The day unfolded as the KGB, with the help of Amin’s Russian cook, succeeded in poisoning the Afghan president—this after an earlier attempt had been thwarted by Amin’s fondness for Coca-Cola. (The fizz neutralized the toxin—future dictators, take note.) One of Amin’s Soviet doctors, who hadn’t been tipped off about the poisoning, resuscitated him. Cue the arrival of the Russian commandos, who shot the groggy president in his underwear as soon as they spotted him in a hallway. They then tossed in a hand grenade for extra effect, finishing off not only Amin but also his five-year-old son. Judging by Feifer’s account, the elite Soviet spetsnaz troops who staged the attack were lucky to have made it that far. The troops were undeniably "elite" as far as their training was concerned, but their leaders failed to coordinate some of the most basic details of the operation, which meant that the various units involved ended up killing each other as well as shooting at the few Afghan government troops who put up a fight. By the end of the evening a handful of Russian commandos and most of Amin’s family were dead.
That episode set the tone for everything that followed, and nine years later Soviet troops left the country in ignominy. The official death toll for their side was 15,000; as Feifer notes, some experts think the real number was far greater, perhaps as high as 75,000. Some 1.3 million Afghans were killed; a third of the prewar population, close to 6 million people, fled to neighboring countries, while another 2 million became internal refugees. Afghanistan had been transformed into a moonscape, and the political vacuum that ensued continues to bedevil the international community to this day. The USSR had wasted countless billions on the war at a time when its own economy was largely grinding to a halt, and revelations of war-related corruption and bungling contributed mightily to popular hatred of the Communist Party and, ultimately, to the disintegration of the Soviet empire. Feifer argues, I think quite rightly, that one of the biggest hidden costs of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan was the psychological trauma brought back home by an entire generation of Afghan war veterans. Their brutalized ranks were hugely responsible for the rise of organized crime that took hold in Moscow as the Communist Party relinquished control.
This might seem like ancient history to some, but it’s all intensely relevant. One of the biggest tasks facing the Obama administration is, of course, precisely how to fix NATO’s war in Afghanistan. Our conspicuous failure to gain traction there so far suggests that we just might not have assimilated the lessons of the Soviet misadventure to quite the depth required. Feifer is up front about this. Though he uses a bit of testimony from Afghan sources, his account of the occupation relies much more heavily on interviews with Soviet veterans. "Their perception of the war they experienced and endured may help dispel some American illusions about our wars," he writes, "and also make us more sensitive to the volatility of the regions now determining the success or failure of our foreign policy."
Fair enough. And there’s no question about it, Feifer’s richly reported tale has its share of eerie déjà vu moments. One Soviet soldier recalls an instance in 1987 when his unit opened fire on what they took to be a "mujaheddin caravan." The Russians soon discovered that they had slaughtered a roving wedding party on its way from one village to another—a blunder that soon, all too predictably, inspired a series of revenge attacks on the Red Army troops in the area. This undoubtedly sounds wearily familiar to U.S. and NATO planners (and Afghan government officials) struggling to contain the effects from the "collateral damage" that is often cited today as one of the major sources of the West’s political problems in the country. I caught myself wincing when Andrei Gromyko, the redoubtable Soviet foreign minister, is shown complaining about the impossibility of sealing off the borders with Pakistan, an issue we’re still wrestling with today.
Feifer’s account is rife with details of the Russians’ failure to integrate political and military strategy. Despite plenty of attempts to build roads and prop up farmers, the Soviets never managed to get the hang of civil affairs. One big reason for that, of course, is that their own system was dysfunctional. It would have been hard enough to make a workable state out of Communist Afghanistan even if the "fraternal" Soviet forces in the country had been backed up by an efficient state at home. Feifer’s narrative really comes alive when his interviewees describe the corruption, inefficient logistics, and general mistreatment that dogged the war effort at every turn. Today’s U.S. soldiers can expect hot rations and laptops, satellite links and on-demand therapy. For Red Army soldiers in the 1980s, bliss was a fire extinguisher filled with covertly made moonshine, a chicken looted from the local farmers, or one of the rare commanders who frowned upon dedovshchina, the deeply entrenched system in which regular soldiers are subjected to savage hazing by their immediate superiors. (In one memorable scene, an officer gives the bullied men the chance to take revenge; they strap their tormentors to a couple of bed frames and tattoo them with burning cigarette butts.) No wars are pretty, but the sheer brutality of this particular conflict remains stupefying. The Russians blithely wipe out entire communities, or sow vast areas with mines; the guerillas respond in kind whenever they can. One of Feifer’s interviewees recalls arriving at the scene of a firefight and coming upon a fellow Russian who has been completely skinned by the mujahideen: "He was still alive, sitting next to a tree, covered in flies."
In short, the overwhelming majority of "lessons" from Feifer’s account are negative ones. If you want to know how not to conduct a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, this is definitely the book to read. Yet there are also quite a few hints in the narrative that point, tantalizingly, in the opposite direction. Around 1985, as Feifer acknowledges, there was a moment in the war when the Soviets actually appeared to be, as he says, "gaining the upper hand." It certainly didn’t hurt that their side had plenty of boots on the ground. The Russians were hitting the guerillas hard, and the Afghan government army, "its numbers growing and troops better trained," was actively participating in operations. Soviet commanders were gradually fumbling their way toward close coordination of ground and air attacks. And one weapon in particular turned out to be a perfect fit for this particular battlespace: the Mi-24 helicopter gunship, aka the "Hind" or the "Flying Tank." The heavily armored Hind, bristling with cannons and rockets, was just the thing you wanted hovering in the neighborhood as your unit of heliborne special forces deployed on the crags of some hellish Afghan valley.
In fact, it was precisely this sense that momentum was on the Communists’ side that spurred an initially reluctant CIA to supply the anti-Soviet jihad with shoulder-held Stinger missiles, crucially denting Russian air superiority. Feifer’s sources confirm that the move had a devastating effect on the progress of the war—though it may have been somewhat academic when you consider that Mikhail Gorbachev, who had by that time ascended to the Soviet leadership, had already decided to pull his forces out. Yet even after this point there is still the intriguing fate of Mohammad Najibullah, the Afghan secret police chief who took over the country in 1987. A man who never shied at shedding blood, Najibullah was widely feared. But—in stark contrast to his predecessor, the feckless Babrak Karmal—he ended up, against all the odds, sticking it out for another five years. As Feifer points out, he outlasted the Soviet Union itself.
How did he do it? Feifer doesn’t really say. Certainly infighting among the anti-Soviet resistance didn’t hurt; neither did Najibullah’s relative success at portraying himself as a good Muslim. (Indeed, when I was in Afghanistan in 2002, I was startled to hear people praising him as one of the country’s great martyred leaders—along with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the guerilla commander assassinated by Osama bin Laden in the days leading up to 9/11.) In any case, it would have been helpful to learn more. It may be that Feifer had more or less lost interest in the narrative by this point. Or it may also be that this episode would have contradicted one of the themes Feifer is trying to get across—namely, that Afghanistan is inherently unconquerable:
The Soviet war in Afghanistan again confirmed that no power ever successfully conquered that land, which, for all its remoteness, lies at a strategically important crossroads of empires … While foreign forces have often moved into Afghanistan with relative ease, they’ve never been able to maintain control.
Really? On that basis I think Feifer could soon find himself facing legal action from, say, the representatives of ancient Persia, or the Mongols, or the heirs of Tamerlane (who governed the place for almost two centuries, most of it from their glittering capital in Herat), or even the Ghaznavids (don’t ask). Wars can be won in Afghanistan. It might be a lot harder to win them following the devastation that the Soviets wrought there, but they can be won. Despite the dark conclusions of this brilliantly reported book, President Obama might want to keep that in mind.
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Christian Caryl is the Tokyo bureau chief of Newsweek. He has reported from thirty-seven countries, including Russia, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iraq.