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The Disasters of War in Afghanistan

This post from Adam Morton coincides with today’s guest talk to @NottsPolitics by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, formerly Ambassador in Moscow and Foreign Affairs Advisor to the Prime Minister, and author of AFGANTSY.

Picture a dynamic hologram of Afghanistan.

The first image captures Afghanistan 1982: the mujahedin insurgency is numbering close to 250,000; Soviet aid to the Afghan military and associated expenses is roughly $7.5 billion; the sledgehammer blows by the 40th Army of the Soviet Union against kishlaks, or rural settlements, result in military crimes; a reconnaissance patrol of the 66th Independent Motor-rifle Brigade rape and murder 11 Afghan victims—the majority women and children—near Jalalabad.

Now flip the dynamic hologram.

The second image captures Afghanistan 2012: opium farming is on the rise again and funding the Taliban insurgency; the poppy trade accounts for £1.4 billion at source; the annual budget deficit is at $7 billion after foreign troops, aid and security funds are withdrawn; U.S. troops of the 82nd Airborne Division are caught posing with the dead remains of suicide bombers; and U.S. Army sergeant Robert Bales is charged with 17 counts of murder—the majority women and children—during a midnight shooting rampage in Kandahar province.

If the image of a dynamic hologram blurs the distinctions between Afghanistan 1982/2012 then a recent superb book by Rodric Braithwaite, entitled Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89, will help to clarify the continuities and contrasts that have shaped and are shaping the foreign interventions that have led to the road to Kabul.

Rodric Braithwaite was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988 to 1992, has engaged in government service as Foreign Policy Adviser to Prime Minister John Major and as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, and is currently Chairman of the International Advisory Council of the Moscow School of Political Studies.

Afgantsy is a tour de force that provides detail on, and insight into, the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan and its aftermath after December 1979. In April 1978, the local communist party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power in a military coup against the government of Mohammed Daoud Khan. Following the April Revolution, however, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan soon became embroiled in internecine conflict between factions led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin (the Khalqists) and Babrak Karmal (the Parchamites), with the former initially prevailing. Taraki was assassinated by forces under the leadership of Amin; the latter was himself assassinated by Soviet military forces following the 1979 intervention; and the Republic was then led by Karmal for most of the following decade under Soviet tutelage.

Braithwaite provides a great narrative on the historical backdrop of foreign interventions in Afghanistan during the period of the ‘Great Game’ between the Russians and the British. It should be noted that, currently, Britain is effectively engaged in its fourth Afghan War, since the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) that led to the ignominious loss of 16,000 lives (4,000 military personnel and 12,000 civilian camp followers) during the retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad. The sole British survivor was Dr. William Byron. Braithwaite most skilfully moves from this historical context to provide a gripping account of the unfolding events surrounding the prosecution of the Soviet intervention and the taking of the Taj Bek Palace in the centre of Kabul. The chapter on the storming of the palace is a real highlight in this examination of the Soviet Union’s road to Kabul.

But the book is no gung-ho account of warfare. Drawn from many Russian sources, a deeply sensitive account is produced of the Soviet war in Afghanistan covering the conditions of soldiering, the brutality of fighting, and the devastation and disillusion that ensued for all concerned. The Soviet veterans of Afghanistan, the Afgantsy, ‘have seen horrible things and some of them have done horrible things’, writes Braithwaite. The ensuing portrait is one that represents the brutality, murder, torture, and rape that mark all wars with its haunting consequences.

Yet the book is also a sophisticated report on Soviet attempts at nation-building and Cold War geopolitics. Soviet aid to Afghanistan constituted a significant, though not overwhelming, 10 per cent of its overall aid given to the “Third World”, the latter estimated at $78 billion between 1982 and 1986. The social conflict of the Second Cold War that was driving Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is also a recurrent theme of the book. Yet the notion that the war undermined the status of the Soviet Union itself is delicately debunked. In terms of facts and figures between 600,000 and 1.5 million Afghans were killed in the Soviet war and 15,051 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, U.S. military casualties were 58,260 killed and missing. The North Vietnamese suffered 1.1 million combat deaths, the South 266,000 with civilian deaths ranging between 361,000 to 2 million.

In terms of the contemporary reckoning of war in Afghanistan it is worth noting that amongst the actors and participant-observers traced in Afgantsy is the insurgent Jalaluddin Haqqani (c.1950-). In 1991, Jalaluddin was fighting with the mujahedin, captured Khost two years after the Soviets departed Afghanistan, then later joined the Taliban to remain with them after September 11, 2001. The U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, one of the most effective supporters of the mujahedin, once referred to Jalaluddin as ‘goodness personified’. But as Braithwaite perceptively notes, ‘Charlie Wilson’s hero became number three on the American’s “wanted” list’.

In 2012, Jalaluddin is at the centre of the Haqqani network, along with his sons Sirajuddin and Badruddin, in orchestrating assaults across Kabul, Nagarhar, Logar and Paktia against the Afghan government and NATO. Based in North Waziristan, in neighbouring Pakistan, with close links to Pakistan’s armed forces, the Haqqani network is embroiled in leading the contemporary battle for Kabul. Hence Braithwaite’s conclusion is that the Afgantsy veterans see the Americans mirroring their own experience and their own mistakes in Afghanistan.

The retreat of the Army of the Indus from Kabul in 1842 was famously captured in Patrick Macrory’s reprinted book Kabul Catastrophe (Prion Books, 2002). Whether it is 1842/1982/or 2012, the disasters of war in Afghanistan remain. In 2004, the Soviet veterans of the war in Afghanistan were honoured with a memorial (pictured above) on the site of Poklonnaya Gora, a shallow hill on the outskirts of Moscow, where Napoleon waited in vain for the city fathers to deliver the keys of the city. Rodric Braithwaite has delivered a contemporary classic and an alternative monument to some of the more recent disasters of war and intervention in Afghanistan. It is a gem of a book.

Adam David Morton

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