Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Guest Blog: Author’s Reply to AAN Reading ‘Afgantsy’

Rodric Braithwaite 5 min

It is usually a mistake for an author to come back to a reviewer, but you raise a number of interesting and useful points, which made me think it would be worth breaking the rule, wrote Rodric Braithwaite*, author of ‘Afgantsy’ which primarily looks at the impact of the Afghan war on Soviet people. Here is his reply to our review.

Standard, Definitive or Comprehensive History?

You are doubtful that either my book or Artemy Kalinovski’s bookA Long Goodbye (Harvard 2011)** will become the ‘standard history’***. You are of course right. There is no such thing as a ‘definitive’ history of anything: even Gibbon and Thucydides didn’t achieve that. I would be silly to make such a claim, and I’m sure Artemy wouldn’t either.

Proper academic research on the Soviet war in Afghanistan is only just beginning – Artemy’s book is one of the most distinguished examples. There is quite a lot of good work being done on Soviet nationbuilding by young scholars in Britain and no doubt elsewhere. But not much is being done in Russia that I know of, and vast fields remain unploughed.

Neither would I nor, I suspect, Artemy, claim to be ‘comprehensive’. Artemy deals brilliantly with the politics and the diplomacy of the Soviet withdrawal; I deal primarily with the impact of the war on Soviet people – politicians, generals, soldiers, advisers, women. Neither of us deal in military history as such: that has been well done by Lester Grau and others. The American, Pakistan, and mujaheddin points of view have already been well covered. To write a comprehensive history integrating all of these would have been far beyond my capacity.

Soviet nationbuilding

You say ‘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”‘. Perhaps our evaluations are insufficiently exact for your purposes, but I think they are clear enough. Artemy’s formulation, which you quote, is admirably succinct. My chapter on nationbuilding is more diffuse but comes to much the same conclusion.
By the 1970s the Soviet model of ‘socialism’ had been held up as a model in the developing world for several decades, and had been adopted with more or (often) less success by a significant number of countries. But the Soviet leadership in 1979 were quite clear that Afghanistan was nowhere near socialism in their sense, and did their best to persuade the Afghan leaders accordingly.

Nevertheless the civilian advisers they sent were imbued with the Soviet way of doing things, which seemed after all to have worked in Central Asia. They soon discovered that attempts to build Communist youth or women’s organisations on Soviet lines wouldn’t work. By the mid 1980s the civilian advisers were already beginning to be withdrawn. At the same time Soviet aid projects – the reservoirs, roads, factories, irrigation projects, educational projects, did work; so of course did the military advice and training.

But – not least in the context of a civil war – none of this could or did add up to building a modern nation, whether ‘socialist’ or capitalist. I think that Artemy and I document and spell all of this out reasonably adequately.


You say that I was wrong to believe that the mujahedin never targetted the Soviet advisers. I do say they were not specially targetted: rather different. That was a Soviet view, but it may be too simple, and would in any case be hard to establish. There are a number of anecdotes in the book about the assassination of Soviet advisers by the mujahedin and others: see page 160 et seq. Nevertheless very few of the youth advisers were killed, even though they went into the villages often unarmed and unaccompanied except by an interpreter. If there had been a campaign of targetted assassination, one would have expected the casualties to be higher.

You mention the attempt to kill Masud during the negotiations for a cease fire. Tkachev’s account can, I now see, be read two ways. But there is little doubt that it was the Afghan government that organised the attack, and it was Afghan intelligence that claimed that Masud had been killed (page 187). The Soviet military in Afghanistan fairly consistently took the view that Masud was potentially a useful interlocutor, and it was they who had authorised Tkachev’s negotiations with him. The Afghan government repeatedly tried to sabotage contacts between the 40th Army and Masud. But no doubt this episode too is destined to remain murky.

Tajik Autonomous Region

You cast doubt on the story about a plan to create a more or less autonomous Tajik region at the time of the Soviet withdrawal. The details are set out on page 664 of Lyakhovski’s Tragedia i Doblest Afgana (2004 edition). According to Lyakhovski’s endnote, the text of the document is in Varennikov’s personal archive. It was drafted by Lyakhovski himself on behalf of Varennikov, the senior Soviet officer in Afghanistan, who sent it to Masud through his secret link. It proposed among other things a Tajik Autonomous Region within a unified Afghanistan; Tajik units included within a national army, whose task among other things would be to guard the Hairaton-Kabul highway; and direct trade and economic links with the Soviet Union. The message concluded that the plan had been approved by Vorontsov (the Soviet ambassador) and Varennikov, who had agreed it with the leadership of the [Afghan] Republic. I found and find that last bit hard to believe; hence the ‘rather surprisingly’ on page 287.

Foreigners’ cliches about Afghanistan

One of my aims was to puncture them, particularly the Cold War cliches, and the British cliches about the Great Game and the benign intentions of the British empire.
Some have no doubt found their way into my book. But I don’t share the view that Afghans lack a sense of national unity. On page 13 I say that a main task of Afghan rulers has been ‘to preserve a semblance of national unity’. The Afghan state has historically suffered from fissiparous tendencies, which rulers in Kabul have had to counter. That is not the same thing as saying (as some do) that Afghans have no sense of nation: their ability to unite against foreigners points in the opposite direction.

As for Kandahar being a dangerous city for foreigners, that was the view of Andrei Greshnov, a man with much experience of the country who is still stationed in Kabul (page 297): but the context doesn’t make that clear.

Saur and Democracy

The gap between the paper intentions of the PDPA and their practice was indeed immense, as you say. The opening pages of my book were intended to underline that, and the theme is developed later. ‘Democratic’ in the Communist context does of course have a special meaning. I lived in Communist countries for ten years, and dealt with them for as much again, so I wasn’t taken in by the PDPA rhetoric.

Ethnic composition of Afghan population

I learned while writing the book that almost all figures relating to Afghanistan are wrong – on population, casualties, the economy, the size of the contending forces, and so on – whoever produces them. I make the point here and there, and I should no doubt have done so in relation to the ethnic divisions as well.

Parcham and Khalq

I don’t think I say that the first were Tajik and the second Pushtun. My understanding was that they were mostly Pushtun (not Keshtmand, of course), but that the first were largely urban and the second largely rural (page 38). No doubt there were many exceptions.

Spelling and transliteration

You worry that I constantly misspell Afghan words. I’m unrepentant. I set out my principles in an introductory note (page xiv): my aim is to use transcriptions which reflect English usage where possible, and convey pronunciation for the lay reader. That is why I don’t use the rebarbative academic rules for transliterating Russian into English (‘El’tsin’ for ‘Yeltsin’).

I do not know the Afghan languages and don’t know the rules for their transliteration. So for Afghan words I used either what seemed to be common English usage (that includes the widely used – in English – “Pushtu”); or transliterations from the Russian which last has, as you say, led me into technical error. Specialists in the relevant languages will be able to convert my transliterations back into the originals without difficulty.

Mistakes and typos

A number of people have pointed out misprints, typos, and mistakes in the book. My editors are correcting them for future printings. I am adding yours to the list.

(*) Rodric Braithwaite was UK Ambassador to Moscow from 1988-1992, i.e. first to the USSR, then to Russia.

(**) Both books, Afgantsy and The Long Goodbye were reviewed by us here.

(***) The only editor’s remark here: This claim was not one of the author(s), the reviewer’s remark was referring to one of the book’s endorsements by other author.


Afghan War Soviet


Rodric Braithwaite

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