Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Regional Relations

AAN Reads: The Soviets in Afghanistan, In Their Narrative

Thomas Ruttig 15 min

Rodric Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy’ has already deservedly been widely praised for its Soviet and Russian sources-based account of the Soviet intervention years in Afghanistan. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig joins in, but finds that Artemy Kalinovsky’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ is a more than worthy addition on this issue.

Rodric Braithwaite’s book has already deservedly been reviewed – and praised – widely. It ‘finally dispels many of the Cold War myths’, wrote Rory Stewart, himself a wanderer through and author about Afghanistan, now an MP in London. It is to become ‘the standard history’ on, as the subtitle reads, ‘The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89’, another reviewer opined.

Kalinovsky’s contribution, originally his dissertation – the author, of Russian origin, worked at the London School of Economics -, got less attention although covering the same terrain because it was published a bit later. However, Braithwaite – who owes a lot of his material to Kalinovsky which he also acknowledges in his book – wrote a recommendation of it in the 22 May issue of the Financial Times. Kalinovsky also had published a paper earlier about the Soviet advisors in Afghanistan, called ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’(*).

Indeed, Braithwaite, former British ambassador in Moscow and a Russian speaker, dismantles a number of Cold War myths about Afghanistan. Some of it will be hard reading for a number of Afghans and Western writers who published on Afghanistan during the Cold War:

  • – the Soviets did not push the PDPA to overthrow President Daud in 1978 but rather tried to convince its leaders to continue working with him;
  • they – including the KGB – had neither been aware of the 7 Saur coup nor did they approve it in advance (the PDPA organisers thought they would not get the green light);
  • there was indeed evidence for a relationship between Hafizullah Amin and the CIA – one of the reasons later given to justify the intervention -, and it was admitted by Amin himself in a party leadership meeting a transcript of which the Soviets got hold;
  • after the invasion, the Soviets aim ‘was not to take over or occupy the country’; Kalinovsky adds a lot of detail on how early the Soviets realised that building ‘socialism’ in Afghanistan was impossible;
  • the Soviets did not stop the private sector of the economy (indeed they were happy to have it because it kept the country’s markets going);
  • while ‘[t]he Russians used aerial bombings on a large scale, but never on the scale of the massive American B-52 strikes against North Vietnam’;
  • the claim ‘that Russia had lost a whole generation of young men […] in Afghanistan’ is wrong – merely 3.4 per cent ‘of those eligible [in the USSR] for military service’ served in Afghanistan;
  • Baltics and Caucasians were not ‘deliberately targeted for service in Afghanistan because the Kremlin thought they were politically unreliable’ – their casualty rates were far below those of the Russians.

Braithwaite also talks about the ‘wild [Soviet] casualty figures’ ‘produced’ in the West. He further points out that reports about the use of chemical weapons by the Soviets ‘petered out’ soon and that Soviet ‘toy [butterfly] mines […] were not the product of the twisted imagination of the KGB engineers [but] directly copied from the American Dragontooth BLU-43/B and BLU-44/B mines, used in very large numbers in Indo-China’. He adds that it was ‘not surprising’, though, ‘that children should have found them attractive’ (they were made from brightly coloured plastic) ‘and that they and their parents should have reported them to journalists as disguised toys’.

Braithwaite shows that comparisons with Vietnam are overblown: five times as many American soldiers passed through Vietnam than Soviet soldiers through Afghanistan and ‘nearly four times as many died’. ‘[M]any more Vietnamese than Afghans died – perhaps between one and a half to six times as many, depending on which among a number of unsatisfactory figures one chooses’. But, to make no mistake, he finds ‘this kind of moral calculus […] not fruitful’ and adds this crucial sentence: ‘For the Afghans, of course, it was not a small war at all.’

The difference between both wars, he concludes, was that ‘the Vietnamese were able to enjoy the fruits of their victory. The Afghans were not.’ The mujahedin’s entry into Kabul ‘was only the prelude to more decades of war and foreign intervention, which made it almost impossible to repair the physical, social, moral, and political damage which had initially been caused by the Communist regime and the Soviet intervention’. The author needs to be thanked that he helps us to move away from Cold War propaganda and closer to facts.

One of the most popular myths, however, Braithwaite deflates only half: that the Stinger missiles provided to the mujahedin by the US (see: ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’) changed the war profoundly and speeded up, if not triggered, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. He writes:

‘After the initial panic, the Soviet countermeasures reduced the loss rate [on their air assets] to much what it had been before the Stingers arrived. No convincing evidence has appeared from Russian sources that the Stingers affected the political decision-making process in Moscow, or that they had much beyond tactical effects on the Soviet conduct of military operations. Gorbachev took the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan a full year before the first Stingers were fired.’

The other half of this myth – that the ‘first Stingers were fired [by] a Soviet-trained engineer [with the mujahedin] called Ghaffur [and] shot down three Mi-24 helicopters that were coming to land in Jalalabad’ on 26 September 1986 – needs to be questioned, though. A colleague who had worked in Peshawar in those days reported that those rockets were in fact fired by South African mercenaries who later boasted about their coup in one of the Western hang-outs of Peshawar. Indeed, Braithwaite briefly mentions ‘foreign advisers attached to the mujahedin’ in his book but does not elaborate further, not in this case and not in general.

Both books are very well-researched. There is a lot of detail, some of it really new (at least to me): how the Soviets wanted to kill Ahmad Shah Massud during one of his direct meetings with one of their people in the Panjshir – and the Soviet emissary along him. That the Soviets already had something like ‘government in a box’ (like the US Marines for parts of Helmand), called orgyadro, a Russian acronym for organizational core, which were supposed to reorganize local governance in ‘liberated’ areas. That there were ‘contractors’ as well, the civilian Soviet service personnel at their bases and the Afghan convoy drivers from Afsotr company that lost 11,000 lorries throughout the war.

I also found it extremely interesting that the Soviets apparently thought that the Afghan Maoists had considerable influence in the army and the intelligentsia. Apparently, leftists fighting their Afghan allies were seen as a particular threat because they could have established a strong counter-narrative to the rhetoric of the ‘internationalist assistance’ of the ‘limited contingent’ as the USSR’s 40th Army had officially been called. It is known that the KhAD went the extra mile to break up the Maoist resistance in the early 1980s. (They were later helped by the ISI who decided to stop all financial and weapons supplies except for the ‘Peshawar Seven’, all Islamists.)

The books are comprehensive and give detailed insight into Soviet decision making processes. For my taste, Braithwaite is better on the early years, on 1978/79 and the invasion, while Kalinovsky is much better on the Gorbachov years, including on the Geneva and the US-Soviet talks on Afghanistan. He also includes a very good summary on the Soviet withdrawal’s aftermath, a period Braithwaite does not cover.

As Kalinovsky does, Braithwaite makes it a point to let a lot of former Soviet people speak in their own words, from the party leaders and high-ranking generals to the ordinary soldiers and Soviet women who served in Afghanistan. As Kalinovsky does, he quotes plenty of Soviet and Russian journalists and analysts, newspaper articles, official documents, memoirs, testimonies and personal interviews.

Nevertheless, a question mark needs to be put behind the suggestion that one of these books, or both, are the standard book(s) on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The concentration on Soviet and Russian is their greatest strength of the books – but also a limitation: They tell the post-Soviet/Russian narrative of the ten years of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and its aftermath, but this is still not the whole story.

There are also a few things that are wrong in Braithwaite’s book, maybe because of over-reliance on the Russian sources and because he is not really an Afghanistan specialist: that the Saur ‘revolution’ was ‘democratic’ in intent (maybe, on paper, with its appeals for broad-based governments which were never formed); that the mujahedin ‘never’ targeted the Soviet advisors (even during my first six months in 1983/84, a handful of them were assassinated in Kabul); that there was a plan to create a Tajik autonomous area in Northern Afghanistan parallel to the Soviet withdrawal and that the Afghan leadership had ‘approved this’.

This leads to the unfortunately repetition of over-generalisations widespread elsewhere, like that there is ‘little sense of a national entity’ amongst Afghans; that Kandahar ‘has always been a dangerous city for foreigners’; that the PDPA factions Khalq are equal to Pashtuns and Parcham to non-Pashtuns – although he mentions at some point that the Parchami Karmal was a Pashtun, while at some other point he claims that Najibullah (another of many Parchami Pashtuns) was ‘unwilling to cooperate with non-Pashtun politicians’ (an assumption Kalinovsky shares but he refers mainly to Najib’s rejection of the Soviet army’s proposal to ‘work’ with Ahmad Shah Massud). The author also gives exact percentage figures about how many people of which ethnic group are living in Afghanistan, figures we actually do not possess.

Apart from this, Braithwaite constantly misspells Afghan names because he relies on their (inaccurate) Russian transcription: there are Farakh province, Bakharak and Khairaton town (the Russians don’t have an ‘h’, they often use ‘kh’ instead), and Anahita Ratebzad, the leading PDPA woman and post-1978 minister for education, becomes Anakhita (she is the victim of a – much graver – misspelling in Kalinowsky’s book where she is made Anahita Ratzebad). A zindan (prison) becomes a zindand by Braithwaite’s pen, the Pashto language is called ‘Pushtu’ and a village a ‘kishlak’ (qishlaq) – a Turkic word used by the Soviet soldiers (who knew it from Soviet Central Asia where Turkic languages were the most widely spoken) but not by most Afghans (amongst whom they are minority languages). Embarrassingly, he confuses Turkestan and Turkmenistan and puts the Uzbek capital Tashkent to Turkmenistan. This should have been avoided by better editing.

One major question that remains open in both books is how the authors exactly evaluate the overall Soviet approach to what today would be called ‘state-building’, whether it was outright ‘Sovietisation’ and whether it worked or not. Kalinovsky gets closer to a statement when saying:

‘Soviet leaders believed that the country was not ripe for socialism and urged their tutees in the PDPA to move away from a revolutionary agenda. The goal was political stabilization, with modernization as its major tool. That this modernization often looked like socialism stemmed from two factors. First, the PDPA leaders thought of themselves as revolutionary Marxists and shed this coat only reluctantly; second, the advisors sent by Moscow […] knew only how to replicate their experience in the USSR’ while Gorbachov was advising Karmal and Najibullah in 1985 to return to ‘free capitalism, to Afghan and Islamic values, to sharing power with oppositional and even currently hostile forces’.

On the Soviet side, it seems, it was ‘Sovietisation’ by default and against better judgement. It was mainly the Afghan side that insisted on ‘Sovietisation’, some PDPA leaders surely because they saw themselves as ‘revolutionary Marxists’, as Kalinovsky writes, and the USSR as the shining social model; others because they had not much choice in the Cold War context. Then, you were either with Moscow or with Washington.

Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, London 2011 (Profile Books).

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Harvard University Press 2011.

(*) It needs to be added that there were books before who tackled the Soviet years in Afghanistan or aspects of it. First of all, naturally by Russian authors that began to appear during Gorbachev’s glasnost years, and I just mention the ones translated into English: Outstanding is Belorussian Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Zinky Boys’, followed by Artyom Borovik’s ‘The Hidden War’ (he was covering the war as a journalist on the Russian side) and Oleg Yermakov’s ‘Winter in Afghanistan’ (available in German).

There are the highly valuable collections of Soviet era documents by Paul Bucherer-Dietschi’s Bibliotheca Afganica (‘Strategischer Überfall – das Beispiel Afghanistan’, Switzerland, in German) and by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project. Mark Galeotti (‘Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War’) was the first in the West who looked at what the Afghan invasion did to Soviet society, who followed the traces of the Afgantsy, their returnee associations and listened to the ‘soldier-bards’’ songs (they were circulating as a kind of audio samizdat).

Last but not least, authors are beginning to research and compare the Soviet and the US-led interventions, like Martin Kipping who published a paper for AAN last year: ‘Two Interventions: Comparing Soviet and US-led state-building in Afghanistan’ (find it here).

Rodric Braithwaite’s ‘Afgantsy’ has already deservedly been widely praised for its Soviet and Russian sources-based account of the Soviet intervention years in Afghanistan. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig joins in, but finds that Kalinovsky’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ is a more than worthy addition on this issue.

Rodric Braithwaite’s book has already deservedly been reviewed – and praised – widely. It ‘finally dispels many of the Cold War myths’, wrote Rory Stewart, himself a wanderer through and author about Afghanistan, now an MP in London. It is to become ‘the standard history’ on, as the subtitle reads, ‘The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89’, another reviewer opined.

Kalinovsky’s contribution, originally his dissertation – the author, of Russian origin, worked at the London School of Economics -, got less attention although covering the same terrain because it was published a bit later. However, Braithwaite – who owes a lot of his material to Kalinovsky which he also acknowledges in his book – wrote a recommendation of it in the 22 May issue of the Financial Times. Kalinovsky also had published a paper earlier about the Soviet advisors in Afghanistan, called ‘The Blind Leading the Blind’(*).

Indeed, Braithwaite, former British ambassador in Moscow and a Russian speaker, dismantles a number of Cold War myths about Afghanistan. Some of it will be hard reading for a number of Afghans and Western writers who published on Afghanistan during the Cold War:

  • – the Soviets did not push the PDPA to overthrow President Daud in 1978 but rather tried to convince its leaders to continue working with him;
  • they – including the KGB – had neither been aware of the 7 Saur coup nor did they approve it in advance (the PDPA organisers thought they would not get the green light);
  • there was indeed evidence for a relationship between Hafizullah Amin and the CIA – one of the reasons later given to justify the intervention -, and it was admitted by Amin himself in a party leadership meeting a transcript of which the Soviets got hold;
  • after the invasion, the Soviets aim ‘was not to take over or occupy the country’; Kalinovsky adds a lot of detail on how early the Soviets realised that building ‘socialism’ in Afghanistan was impossible;
  • the Soviets did not stop the private sector of the economy (indeed they were happy to have it because it kept the country’s markets going);
  • while ‘[t]he Russians used aerial bombings on a large scale, but never on the scale of the massive American B-52 strikes against North Vietnam’;
  • the claim ‘that Russia had lost a whole generation of young men […] in Afghanistan’ is wrong – merely 3.4 per cent ‘of those eligible [in the USSR] for military service’ served in Afghanistan;
  • Baltics and Caucasians were not ‘deliberately targeted for service in Afghanistan because the Kremlin thought they were politically unreliable’ – their casualty rates were far below those of the Russians.

Braithwaite also talks about the ‘wild [Soviet] casualty figures’ ‘produced’ in the West. He further points out that reports about the use of chemical weapons by the Soviets ‘petered out’ soon and that Soviet ‘toy [butterfly] mines […] were not the product of the twisted imagination of the KGB engineers [but] directly copied from the American Dragontooth BLU-43/B and BLU-44/B mines, used in very large numbers in Indo-China’. He adds that it was ‘not surprising’, though, ‘that children should have found them attractive’ (they were made from brightly coloured plastic) ‘and that they and their parents should have reported them to journalists as disguised toys’.

Braithwaite shows that comparisons with Vietnam are overblown: five times as many American soldiers passed through Vietnam than Soviet soldiers through Afghanistan and ‘nearly four times as many died’. ‘[M]any more Vietnamese than Afghans died – perhaps between one and a half to six times as many, depending on which among a number of unsatisfactory figures one chooses’. But, to make no mistake, he finds ‘this kind of moral calculus […] not fruitful’ and adds this crucial sentence: ‘For the Afghans, of course, it was not a small war at all.’

The difference between both wars, he concludes, was that ‘the Vietnamese were able to enjoy the fruits of their victory. The Afghans were not.’ The mujahedin’s entry into Kabul ‘was only the prelude to more decades of war and foreign intervention, which made it almost impossible to repair the physical, social, moral, and political damage which had initially been caused by the Communist regime and the Soviet intervention’. The author needs to be thanked that he helps us to move away from Cold War propaganda and closer to facts.

One of the most popular myths, however, Braithwaite deflates only half: that the Stinger missiles provided to the mujahedin by the US (see: ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’) changed the war profoundly and speeded up, if not triggered, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. He writes:

‘After the initial panic, the Soviet countermeasures reduced the loss rate [on their air assets] to much what it had been before the Stingers arrived. No convincing evidence has appeared from Russian sources that the Stingers affected the political decision-making process in Moscow, or that they had much beyond tactical effects on the Soviet conduct of military operations. Gorbachev took the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan a full year before the first Stingers were fired.’

The other half of this myth – that the ‘first Stingers were fired [by] a Soviet-trained engineer [with the mujahedin] called Ghaffur [and] shot down three Mi-24 helicopters that were coming to land in Jalalabad’ on 26 September 1986 – needs to be questioned, though. A colleague who had worked in Peshawar in those days reported that those rockets were in fact fired by South African mercenaries who later boasted about their coup in one of the Western hang-outs of Peshawar. Indeed, Braithwaite briefly mentions ‘foreign advisers attached to the mujahedin’ in his book but does not elaborate further, not in this case and not in general.

Both books are very well-researched. There is a lot of detail, some of it really new (at least to me): how the Soviets wanted to kill Ahmad Shah Massud during one of his direct meetings with one of their people in the Panjshir – and the Soviet emissary along him. That the Soviets already had something like ‘government in a box’ (like the US Marines for parts of Helmand), called orgyadro, a Russian acronym for organizational core, which were supposed to reorganize local governance in ‘liberated’ areas. That there were ‘contractors’ as well, the civilian Soviet service personnel at their bases and the Afghan convoy drivers from Afsotr company that lost 11,000 lorries throughout the war.

I also found it extremely interesting that the Soviets apparently thought that the Afghan Maoists had considerable influence in the army and the intelligentsia. Apparently, leftists fighting their Afghan allies were seen as a particular threat because they could have established a strong counter-narrative to the rhetoric of the ‘internationalist assistance’ of the ‘limited contingent’ as the USSR’s 40th Army had officially been called. It is known that the KhAD went the extra mile to break up the Maoist resistance in the early 1980s. (They were later helped by the ISI who decided to stop all financial and weapons supplies except for the ‘Peshawar Seven’, all Islamists.)

The books are comprehensive and give detailed insight into Soviet decision making processes. For my taste, Braithwaite is better on the early years, on 1978/79 and the invasion, while Kalinovsky is much better on the Gorbachov years, including on the Geneva and the US-Soviet talks on Afghanistan. He also includes a very good summary on the Soviet withdrawal’s aftermath, a period Braithwaite does not cover.

As Kalinovsky does, Braithwaite makes it a point to let a lot of former Soviet people speak in their own words, from the party leaders and high-ranking generals to the ordinary soldiers and Soviet women who served in Afghanistan. As Kalinovsky does, he quotes plenty of Soviet and Russian journalists and analysts, newspaper articles, official documents, memoirs, testimonies and personal interviews.

Nevertheless, a question mark needs to be put behind the suggestion that one of these books, or both, are the standard book(s) on the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The concentration on Soviet and Russian is their greatest strength of the books – but also a limitation: They tell the post-Soviet/Russian narrative of the ten years of the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan and its aftermath, but this is still not the whole story.

There are also a few things that are wrong in Braithwaite’s book, maybe because of over-reliance on the Russian sources and because he is not really an Afghanistan specialist: that the Saur ‘revolution’ was ‘democratic’ in intent (maybe, on paper, with its appeals for broad-based governments which were never formed); that the mujahedin ‘never’ targeted the Soviet advisors (even during my first six months in 1983/84, a handful of them were assassinated in Kabul); that there was a plan to create a Tajik autonomous area in Northern Afghanistan parallel to the Soviet withdrawal and that the Afghan leadership had ‘approved this’.

This leads to the unfortunately repetition of over-generalisations widespread elsewhere, like that there is ‘little sense of a national entity’ amongst Afghans; that Kandahar ‘has always been a dangerous city for foreigners’; that the PDPA factions Khalq are equal to Pashtuns and Parcham to non-Pashtuns – although he mentions at some point that the Parchami Karmal was a Pashtun, while at some other point he claims that Najibullah (another of many Parchami Pashtuns) was ‘unwilling to cooperate with non-Pashtun politicians’ (an assumption Kalinovsky shares but he refers mainly to Najib’s rejection of the Soviet army’s proposal to ‘work’ with Ahmad Shah Massud). The author also gives exact percentage figures about how many people of which ethnic group are living in Afghanistan, figures we actually do not possess.

Apart from this, Braithwaite constantly misspells Afghan names because he relies on their (inaccurate) Russian transcription: there are Farakh province, Bakharak and Khairaton town (the Russians don’t have an ‘h’, they often use ‘kh’ instead), and Anahita Ratebzad, the leading PDPA woman and post-1978 minister for education, becomes Anakhita (she is the victim of a – much graver – misspelling in Kalinowsky’s book where she is made Anahita Ratzebad). A zindan (prison) becomes a zindand by Braithwaite’s pen, the Pashto language is called ‘Pushtu’ and a village a ‘kishlak’ (qishlaq) – a Turkic word used by the Soviet soldiers (who knew it from Soviet Central Asia where Turkic languages were the most widely spoken) but not by most Afghans (amongst whom they are minority languages). Embarrassingly, he confuses Turkestan and Turkmenistan and puts the Uzbek capital Tashkent to Turkmenistan. This should have been avoided by better editing.

One major question that remains open in both books is how the authors exactly evaluate the overall Soviet approach to what today would be called ‘state-building’, whether it was outright ‘Sovietisation’ and whether it worked or not. Kalinovsky gets closer to a statement when saying:

‘Soviet leaders believed that the country was not ripe for socialism and urged their tutees in the PDPA to move away from a revolutionary agenda. The goal was political stabilization, with modernization as its major tool. That this modernization often looked like socialism stemmed from two factors. First, the PDPA leaders thought of themselves as revolutionary Marxists and shed this coat only reluctantly; second, the advisors sent by Moscow […] knew only how to replicate their experience in the USSR’ while Gorbachov was advising Karmal and Najibullah in 1985 to return to ‘free capitalism, to Afghan and Islamic values, to sharing power with oppositional and even currently hostile forces’.

On the Soviet side, it seems, it was ‘Sovietisation’ by default and against better judgement. It was mainly the Afghan side that insisted on ‘Sovietisation’, some PDPA leaders surely because they saw themselves as ‘revolutionary Marxists’, as Kalinovsky writes, and the USSR as the shining social model; others because they had not much choice in the Cold War context. Then, you were either with Moscow or with Washington.

Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, London 2011 (Profile Books).

Artemy M. Kalinovsky, A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Harvard University Press 2011.

(*) It needs to be added that there were books before who tackled the Soviet years in Afghanistan or aspects of it. First of all, naturally by Russian authors that began to appear during Gorbachev’s glasnost years, and I just mention the ones translated into English: Outstanding is Belorussian Svetlana Alexievich’s ‘Zinky Boys’, followed by Artyom Borovik’s ‘The Hidden War’ (he was covering the war as a journalist on the Russian side) and Oleg Yermakov’s ‘Winter in Afghanistan’ (available in German).

There are the highly valuable collections of Soviet era documents by Paul Bucherer-Dietschi’s Bibliotheca Afganica (‘Strategischer Überfall – das Beispiel Afghanistan’, Switzerland, in German) and by the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project. Mark Galeotti (‘Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War’) was the first in the West who looked at what the Afghan invasion did to Soviet society, who followed the traces of the Afgantsy, their returnee associations and listened to the ‘soldier-bards’’ songs (they were circulating as a kind of audio samizdat).

Last but not least, authors are beginning to research and compare the Soviet and the US-led interventions, like Martin Kipping who published a paper for AAN last year: ‘Two Interventions: Comparing Soviet and US-led state-building in Afghanistan’ (find it here).

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