Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.
To stumble into Afghanistan is to stumble into history — or at least to stumble into a trap laid by historians, whereby any foreign occupier of the country is compared, all too tediously, to his failed predecessors. Notice the hierarchy of these comparisons. If the historian draws parallels to the armies of Alexander the Great, he does you an honor: Alexander’s empire had at least conquered the known world before Afghanistan undid it. Analogies to the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Elphinstone’s army in 1842 are less flattering, and more menacing. And if the historian remarks that your unit is “just like the 154th Spetsnaz Detachment,” he is saying not only that you’re doomed to ignominious defeat but also that you’re too historically ignorant to realize when you’re being insulted.
Historians who have written in English about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan have focused on the Afghan, U.S., and Pakistani side of the conflict. They have had good reasons for this emphasis: the Afghan resistance and the wily deal making that kept it in business comprise one of the best stories of the Cold War. But history needs a corrective, and Gregory Feifer, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, has written The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan to provide it. His narrative starts with the fall of Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1978 and ends with the Soviet withdrawal across the Uzbek Friendship Bridge in 1989. It focuses almost exclusively on the Soviet side throughout.
Feifer’s preferred source material is his own interviews with Soviet veterans, as well as some text previously available only in Russian. The Russian perspective is also his; even some of his transliteration of Afghan names looks like it has gone through an intermediate Russian transliteration first. Feifer is, for once, a writer on Afghanistan unbewitched by the romance of the Afghan insurgency and the David-and-Goliath mythology of the conflict. Underdog though the Afghan resistance was, it was also a well-funded, politically calculated, and deeply factionalized insurgency that enjoyed the canny support of the U.S. The Valley of Elah would have been a much different place if David carried the Hebrew equivalent of a Stinger missile in his sling. Feifer’s account focus on the experience of Soviet soldiers, who for obvious reasons remember Afghanistan unsentimentally.
The most compelling material, in fact, is not breathless tales of men in war (although there are some of those), but the description of the snake pit of palace intrigue that killed Daoud and his successors, Taraki and Hafizullah Amin. At each step the Soviets lurk in the background, and through a thick archival fog Feifer narrates the confused machinations of Politburo puppet masters who conferred on when to poison Afghan presidents and when to invade. The distrust and infighting among powerful Soviet-leaning Afghans themselves is told neatly here, with attention to the odd details (the KGB tried to poison Amin, but Amin’s Coca-Cola rendered the poison chemically inert) that determined the course of the war.
On questions of strategy — how the Soviets thought they could win in Afghanistan in the first place — Feifer is regrettably too silent. But his interviews with Soviet veterans suggest that it didn’t much matter: the Soviet military, in its own men’s retelling, was so decrepit that one could hardly imagine it faring well against any determined enemy. Soldiers suffered from bowel disorders and chronic hepatitis. They looted to supplement their rations and wore strips of tent insulation as socks. It seems at times as if the Red Army never resupplied after the Second World War. Indeed, one soldier recalls being issued rotten meat rations in metal containers marked with their year of production, which was 1942.
What baffles and impresses about the Soviet army in Afghanistan is that it operated as long as it did, and with as little outcry from its soldiers and their families. This silence speaks more to the muffled fear of Soviet society than to the horrors of war in Afghanistan. Those horrors defy exaggeration. Mujahedin left corpse-ridden landscapes — think Vlad the Impaler on a bad day. They flayed alive captured soldiers by cutting the skin around the belt, then yanking the loose skin up over the head of the soldier and tying it off neatly up top, like a potato sack. The Soviets Feifer interviews sound, in turn, haunted by their own atrocities. In one case an Afghan friendly to the occupiers rode in a Soviet helicopter and pointed out his house to the Russians. The gunner, perhaps thinking that the Afghan was indicating a target, destroyed the house. The Afghan wailed in distress, so to save paperwork, the Soviets just threw him out of the helicopter.
The brutality eventually wore the Soviets down. It wore them down both in Afghanistan and at home. Ordinary Muscovites came to know names like “Panjshir” and “Paktia,” much in the same way “Panjwaii” has entered the Canadian mental gazetteer and “Falluja” and “Tora Bora” have entered the American one. What started as a half-baked, ill-coordinated invasion never got much more sophisticated, even as it grew to troop strengths of 100,000 and above. Even the straitened Soviet press picked up on the futility. Artyom Borovik, a journalist for the Soviet equivalent of Life, wrote about soldiers’ discontent. And in the years after the war, Soviet veterans organized, demanding better treatment. Just like the Arab mujahedin who returned home after fighting against the Soviets, these veterans became known in their own society as Afghans (afghantsy) and reintegrated poorly.
Feifer’s book contains no historical revelations, and as a yarn it suffers by comparison to other books about the Soviet occupation, most prominently the early sections of Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. But the emphasis on the Soviet side offers a new layer of misery to our understanding of the conflict. Feifer’s own sensibilities lead him to wonder whether Soviet-style bungling may have played a role in U.S. forays into Iraq and Afghanistan. This interpretation is fair enough; the needless fog of war in the early days of Iraq does sound like it echoed the confusion of Soviet forces at the beginning of their invasion.
But the wretched state of affairs in the Soviet military can compel the opposite interpretation as well. Where the Soviets ate rancid meat from ancient ration packs, U.S. soldiers eat Skittles in lovingly packed MREs. Well-stocked, sterile field hospitals tend to the smallest complaints of U.S. soldiers; the Soviets had typhus. The comparison between the U.S. and the Soviet armies is, in other words, strained at best. Whether comparisons to the British or Macedonians are more apt remains an open question.