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‘This time it will be different’

Philip Hensher recalls the costly Soviet adventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and compares it to the British involvement there in the 19th century and the present day

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

12 March 2011

12:00 AM

Afgansty: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 Rodric Braithwaite

Profile, pp.417, 25

There used to be two rules of successful imperialism. First, don’t invade Russia. Second, don’t invade Afghanistan. As Rodric Braithwaite points out, invading the latter country itself offers no real difficulties. The Afghans abandon their strongholds and take to the hills, allowing the invader to enjoy the illusion of power in Kabul, with a puppet leader installed in the Bala Hissar, the old palace fortress. The problems come later, as a long war of attrition achieves little and finally obliges the invader to cut his losses and run.

Anyone can see that this is what is happening at present to the British and American forces. And it has happened before. It happened to the British in the 1840s — a tragic venture about which I wrote a novel, The Mulberry Empire. And it happened to the Russians in the 1980s. No one could regard this last episode as a success for the invaders, since it led almost directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It also placed the United States in a position of funding and arming the mujahedin, who — as the Taleban — would ultimately turn round and bite their sponsors.

The meaning of this campaign has been much debated since, and it certainly resulted in some strange international bed- fellows. As late as 1998, Zbigniew Bzrezinski, the national security adviser to President Carter, was justifying that administration’s aid to the mujahedin thus:

What is more important in the history of the world? The Taleban, or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims, or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the Cold War?

By September 2001 that question no longer looked so rhetorical. Charlie Wilson, the well-known sponsor of the mujahedin in the US Congress, was happy to describe the warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani as ‘goodness personified’. Shortly afterwards, Jalaladin joined the Taleban and became number three on the US most-wanted list.

Braithwaite has written a highly revisionist account of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, based on Russian archives and personal memoirs. It manages to be surprisingly sympathetic to the invaders, in this last mad, fateful imperial Soviet adventure. They didn’t want to do it; they decided on it for the most foolish reasons; as soon as they were in Afghanistan they wanted to leave, and it took a decade before the last Soviet soldier departed the country on foot.

Of course, mad Russian nationalists have always looked forward to the day when Russian soldiers might make their way through Afghanistan, and further on to the coast, to wash their boots in the warm waters of the Indian ocean. But very few people ever took that seriously. The Soviets had for many years been buying influence in the region with hospitals and schools, and that was as far as it went.

In the late 1970s, however, the chronically fissiparous Afghans started to lure the Soviets in, much against their will. First, the King was despatched to exile in Italy. Then the political factions made themselves apparent, rising up against Daud, the King’s republican successor, and killing him in 1978. The Communists took over, and promptly divided into two parties: the Parcham, composed of sophisticated urban intellectuals, led by Babrak Karmal, and the Khalq, representing the rural tribesmen, led by Nur Mohamed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. The Khalq then proceeded to take charge, and immediately split again into further factions. Taraki was deposed as president by Amin and murdered, rather horribly.

All these groups believed themselves to have the support of the Soviet government, whom they regularly begged for military assistance. But Moscow was frankly wary of direct involvement in the affairs of this backward Muslim state. Invasion would ruin the Soviet image in the West, just as détente was starting to make itself felt. And the Afghan communists’ political views were considered to be

crude and unsophisticated. Their Marxist theories … had little application in a country which lacked the theoretically essential attribute of an urban proletariat.

Nevertheless, the Russians entered. The decision was made secretly, without much consultation, and on the understanding that it would be a short mission. Despite the existence of immense academic expertise on the region, dating back to the Russian orientalists of the 19th century, little advice was taken by the politicians. The British even provided a Soviet deputy foreign minister with a historical account of British failures in Afghanistan:

[The deputy] said, ‘But this time it will be different’, as people usually do when they set out to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors.

The Russians executed Amin and installed as their puppet the Parchamite Babrak Karmal, setting everything up for a long drawn-out catastrophe.

Braithwaite recounts this elaborate preamble thrillingly and with great narrative skill. The main players emerge with clarity: the creaking, formal gerontocracy in Moscow during the last days of Brezhnev is compared to the energetic, brutal but curiously attractive Afghan leaders, Taraki, Amin and Karmal. The tragic set-pieces are also lucid and exciting, including the Soviet storming of Amin’s palace as he remained unaware to the last who was attacking him, and the terrible murder of Taraki.

Despite possessing such narrative verve, Braithwaite devotes most of his book to an analysis of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. Though it was a grotesque mistake to go in, the Russians had a dreadful time there, and it was the ordinary soldier who ended up paying a terrible price for such folly.

On the other hand, Braithwaite is careful to point out that it was the Afghans who had their cultural heritage largely destroyed. Most of the looting, pillaging and destruction which has made the British Museum’s current Afghanistan show so difficult to mount occurred in the 1980s. There is also the fact that though 15,000 Soviet soldiers were lost, there were up to 1.5 million civilian Afghan casualties.

Most of the Russian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan were impoverished peasants; anyone with the remotest connections could bribe or talk their way out of military service. But there was a group of enthusiasts who genuinely supported the Soviet mission. Like American visitors in recent years, these idealists believed first and foremost in liberating Afghan women from their enveloping dress and providing them with access to education. Known as ‘advisers’, they were widespread in the region and comparatively well-paid, though by no means always popular. Some Soviet units had notices at the entrances to their bases that read, ‘No dogs or advisers admitted.’

But given the appalling conditions ‘across the river’, as the Soviets euphemistically described Afghanistan, it was virtually impossible for any humanitarian effort to succeed. In Braithwaite’s words,

the Soviets prided themselves on the number of hospitals and orphanages they built in Afghanistan. But they themselves filled more hospitals and orphanages than they constructed.

Corruption was endemic; anything made of metal was stolen and sold on. Drugs became a commonplace addition to the traditional enthusiasm of Russian troops for alcohol. The army ran amok.

Tales of the brutal behaviour of the ‘grandfathers’, or veteran soldiers, to raw recruits are horrifying. It was, too, an unexpected indictment of the failures of the Soviet system that its soldiers found, in the bazaars of a backward country like Afghanistan, treasure-troves of goods that they would never have found at home.

Many died appalling deaths at the hands of the mujahedin before the country was finally handed back in 1989. But for some the experience of this culture was
a profound and inspiring one, and there were a few who met their life-partners there, and even a handful who actually converted to Islam and started fighting on behalf of the mujahedin.

This is a fascinating account of an episode which was showing some signs of being forgotten. Rodric Braithwaite was HM ambassador to Moscow during the last days of the Soviet Union, and he retains a good measure of sympathy for those who suffered most. He has had solid access to a range of Russian memoirs and official archives — though at times one feels that a tentative supposition may be contradicted when more papers surface.

His book has the great merit of treating the episode as a unique and horrific experience, while allowing the reader to draw his own parallels with the British involvement in Afghanistan in the 19th century, and indeed the present day.

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