Remembering Russia’s Vietnam

Remembering Russia’s Vietnam

FRANK ELLIS remembers the tortuous Soviet attempt to subjugate Afghanistan

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

Rodric Braithwaite, Profile Books, London, 2011

“This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan”

(Rambo III, 1988)

Afgantsy is divided into three parts: part I (‘The Road to Kabul’) which provides the reader with the background to the internal crisis that led to the Soviet invasion; part II (‘The Disasters of War’) which speaks for itself; and part III (‘The Long Goodbye’) which deals with the attempts by Gorbachev to disentangle Soviet forces from the conflict. In an epilogue Braithwaite then examines the long term consequences of the war on the veterans. His use of sources is generally good – he makes effective use of various web sites dedicated to the veterans of the war – though some sources are surprisingly absent. There are, for example, no references to the ice-breaking essays written by veterans published in the journal Znamia in 1988 when it was edited by Grigorii Baklanov, a famous writer and himself a veteran of the Great Fatherland War. Nor is there any mention of the pioneering work of Mikhail Kozhukov, the war correspondent of Komsomol’skaia pravda, who covered the war for some three and a half years.  A more recent contribution to the study of the Soviet invasion and occupation was written by Colonel Oleg Kulakov while studying at the NATO Defence College (See Oleg Kulakov, ‘Lessons learned from the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan: Implications for Russian Defence Reform’, Research Papers, № 26, NATO Defence College, March 2006, pp.2-7). This paper should have been part of Braithwaite’s research corpus.

For the benefit of the reader who does not speak Russian Braithwaite explains that the title of his book is derived from afgantsy, the Russian nominative plural of afganets. Afganets has a number of meanings: an inhabitant of Afghanistan (though Braithwaite does not point out that the word specifically refers to a male inhabitant, a female would be afganka); a type of wind; and the word’s most recently acquired meaning, a veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. That Soviet soldiers referred to themselves as afgantsy does, I suggest, require some explanation, some speculation as to why this is so. I could not imagine Soviet soldiers returning from Germany in 1945 calling themselves nemtsy (Germans) and I have not heard of the soldiers of the Russian Federation returning from a tour in Chechnia being called chechentsy (Chechens). The use of afganets by Soviet soldiers to refer to themselves amounts to a rejection of any ideological baggage used to justify the war. It also suggests going native, an identification with the country they have invaded. This is not what one would expect from soldiers brought up in a Marxist-Leninist state. Soviet soldiers appear to be adapting to the terrain and people much in the same way that British political advisers and soldiers did when they lived in and administered the remote frontier regions of India. Kipling would have understood the psychology of these Soviet soldiers instantly.

Abandoned Soviet BTR in Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Teddy Wade/Released)

Braithwaite’s account of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan begins, as it must, with the internal politics of Afghanistan.  Those of us who know our Lenin have heard it all before. Afghan communists, just like their fellow fanatics in the early days of the Soviet Union, Mao in China and Pol Pot, made all kinds of promises about modernity and the need for revolutionary change and sweeping away the old order. In Afghanistan, promises of imminent paradise on earth, if only the role of religion and ancient customs were jettisoned, could only enrage the pious and the conservative; and so they did.  The problems started with the overthrow of President Daud in April 1978 by a group calling itself the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Braithwaite says that this group’s crude Marxism was more of a liability to the Soviet Union than an asset because their Marxist theories had very little relevance for a country which lacked an urban or industrial proletariat. Well, if that was true for Afghanistan in the 1970s it was much the same for Russia between 1917 and 1939. The tenets of classical Marxism were ditched by Lenin and Stalin in order to build socialism in one country. And if the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was split into two rival wings, Parcham and Khalq, and divided by a violent rivalry, the Soviet Communist Party with its internal rivalries and bloody purges provided something of a precedent.  Just how zealous was the ideologically inspired blood letting can be appreciated by what happened in Afghanistan in the period between the communist coup and the Soviet invasion. Braithwaite informs us that ‘twenty-seven thousand people may have been executed in the Pul-i Charki prison alone’.[1] For the factions of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan Stalin was a surer guide to the pursuit and exercise of power than Brezhnev and his successors. However, as Braithwaite points out:

“The Afghan Communists made the fatal mistake of underestimating the power of Islam and its hold on the people”. [2]

The rebellion against the communists in Herat in March 1979 in which a handful of Soviet advisers were killed came as a shock to the Soviet leadership.  Solutions there were but they all had to be measured and assessed against the background of the Cold War. The problem for the Soviet leadership was that any action it took to restore the situation and to secure its interests, directly or indirectly in Afghanistan, might jeopardise what appeared to be the rewards of détente. On the other hand, as Braithwaite notes, the process towards ratification of the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) by the US Senate had stalled and in the Western European member states of NATO – The Federal Republic of Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and the UK – opposition to the deployment of Soviet SS 20 medium-range missiles was growing with the likelihood that the Americans would deploy Pershing II and Cruise missiles in response.

Another factor was the longevity of the relationship between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan. Abandoning Afghanistan to its fate would be seen as a huge propaganda defeat and might encourage other so-called fraternal states to rethink their relationship with the Soviet Union (the Solidarity crisis in Poland erupted in 1980-1981). The murder in October 1979 of Nur Mohamed Taraki, the Communist President on the orders of his comrade/rival the Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin, tilted the balance in favour of intervention. Brezhnev’s reaction to the news that Amin had had Taraki murdered is hilarious: ‘What a bastard, Amin, to murder the man with whom he made the revolution…’[3] Perhaps Amin got the idea of doing away with his rival from Brezhnev’s old boss. Having been caught out by events, the Soviet authorities, in effect, Brezhnev, Andropov, Gromyko and Suslov, decided to intervene. The crucial Politburo meeting took place on 12th December 1979. The Braithwaite view is that the Soviet intervention was not totally reckless, since all the main problems had been assessed. The prevailing view was that Afghanistan could not just be abandoned: there were too many vital Soviet interests at risk. Braithwaite also argues, though not entirely convincingly, that the decision was not solely ‘taken in secret by a small clique of gerontocrats’.[4] I take a rather different view of what Braithwaite refers to as ‘the consensus-building mechanisms of Soviet power’.[5] Public displays of consensus at Soviet Communist Party meetings were political theatre for publication in Pravda, any decision having been taken earlier behind closed doors.

The formal invasion order was issued by Dmitrii Ustinov, the Soviet Defence Minister at midday (Moscow time) on 25th December 1979. In the order Ustinov specified that Afghan air space and the land border were to be crossed at 1500hrs (Moscow time) by forces of the 40th Army and the Soviet Air Force. During the night of the 24th-25th December, ahead of the formal order, Soviet transport aircraft laden with soldiers from the 103rd Guards Air Assault Division and 345th Guards Independent Parachute Assault Regiment landed in a steady stream at Bagram and Kabul airports. Critical for the success of the initial phase of the invasion was the seizure of key passes, such as the Salang Pass, which was taken by men of the 56th Guards Independent Airborne Assault Brigade.

The trickiest phase of the operation was the capture of Amin’s current residence, the Taj Bek palace, with the aim of killing Amin himself. The assault took place on 27th December 1979. Even as his world was coming to an end Amin did not grasp that the men attacking his palace were not Afghan rivals but Soviet Special Forces. Braithwaite concedes that the precise circumstances in which Amin died are not clear and that he could have been killed in crossfire. However, there is a rumour that Mohamed Gulabzoi, Minister of Communications, and a member of a group dubbed, in a nice borrowing from Comrade Chairman Mao, the Gang of Four by Amin, was given the task. This makes sense. Given that Amin’s death was essential to the whole enterprise – he would be far too dangerous left alive or even wounded – it seems improbable, I would suggest, that Amin’s death would be left to chance. Someone or some group, possibly Soviet, though ideally, and more likely, Afghan, would have been given the specific task of killing Amin inside the palace. That Amin’s five-year old little boy was also killed, shot in the chest, is a clue that Amin’s killer was an Afghan. In the world of tribal hatreds and feuds, for which communist ideology provides but a thin layer, killing the son, the potential avenger, is the vindictive, and to most Westerners, scarcely conceivable norm. Lenin, Stalin and Beria would all have approved such a course of action.

Having invaded Afghanistan, removed Amin and installed their new man, Babrak Karmal, the main Soviet force based on the 40th Army and known as The Limited Contingent of Soviet Troops in Afghanistan (Ogranichennyi Kontingent Sovetskikh Voisk v Afganistane) now had the task of consolidating its grip and achieving the necessary stability prior to a withdrawal. The first thing that went wrong, as predicted, was the condemnation of the invasion by Western states and NATO and very real damage to relations between West and East. Throughout much of the Cold War a substantial body of opinion in Western states propagated the view that American foreign policy was essentially aggressive whereas that of the Soviet Union and its satellites was defensive or to use the favoured word “progressive”. In late December 1979 this naïve, often cowardly and all too often mendacious view of the world was terminally damaged. If the Anglo-French sell out to Hitler at Munich in 1938 and its immediate aftermath brought home the real nature of the National-Socialist state and its ambitions, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served much the same purpose in changing perceptions, finally, among Western states and their often see-no-evil populations.

The Soviet invasion made the task of deploying Pershing II and Cruise missiles that much easier. Elected in April 1979, Margaret Thatcher was now determined to permit the deployment of Cruise missiles in the UK. The Soviet invasion also assisted the rise and election of Ronald Regan in the US in 1980 and probably helped Helmut Kohl in 1982-1983. So by the end of the first quarter of 1983 a marked political shift from left to right had taken place in the three main NATO states. While this alignment probably had more to do with the failure of state socialism and big government, foreign policy – Soviet behaviour – was also an influence. Where throughout the 1970s the Soviet Union found itself able to act more or less as it pleased by the early 1980s there was a new resolve spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Regan to confront the Soviet Union. That the summer Olympics were due to be held in Moscow in 1980 was a propaganda gift for Western anti-communists and the parallels between the Nazi Olympics of 1936 were freely and effectively made.

The military problems confronting the Soviet 40th Army were formidable and clearly adumbrate the same difficulties faced by NATO today. Terrain can be captured and cleared of enemy but as soon as the regular formations withdraw the insurgents reoccupy the vacated terrain and reassert their authority among the local population. This classic feature of insurgency and counterinsurgency characterised all Soviet attempts, for example, to pacify and to control the magnificent Pandsher valley. Even allowing for the strategic importance of the valley – close to the Bagram airbase, the Salang tunnel and Kabul – the nature of the struggle waged between the men of the 40th Army and the insurgents led by the outstanding guerrilla commander, Ahmad Shah Masud, to possess the Pandsher reminds me of two evenly matched rivals fighting to own an exceptionally beautiful work of art. In order to maintain a permanent presence in the valley the Soviet army established outposts, zastavas which typically consisted of a large section. The zastava would normally be in a position that was exceptionally difficult to assault and would be defended by heavy machine guns and mortars and supplied by helicopter. The supply chain was the weak link since Masud’s men had heavy machine guns and they waged a war of attrition against the Soviet helicopter units. The biggest operation against Masud took place in the spring of 1984. The force consisted of 11,000 Soviet troops with 2,600 Afghans, supported by 200 aircraft and 190 helicopters. Most of the losses in this operation came from mines and ambushes. Masud, forewarned of the Soviet assault, had withdrawn the bulk of his men and survived to fight another day.

One of the most famous battles between Soviet forces and mujahedin occurred in January 1988 when some 200-400 mujahedin fighters attacked a temporary picket defended by men of the 9th Company 345th Guards Independent Parachute Assault Regiment. The battle raged all day and into the morning by which time the Paras were running low on ammunition. Soviet casualties were 6 killed and 28 wounded. The action was made into a film, 9th Company (2005) and certainly gives Rambo III a run for its money.

Atrocities were committed by both sides. The Soviet forces wiped out whole villages when ambushed, executed prisoners indiscriminately, sowed mines and booby traps. The mujahedin returned the favour. Soviet prisoners could expect to be tortured. Beheadings were not straightforward. The head is not removed by one blow of a very large sword administered by an expert executioner: it is hacked off with a knife. Braithwaite reports that one Soviet prisoner was stripped naked and castrated. A ring was inserted in his nose and he was paraded about, presumably as a gruesome propaganda stunt. Once this cycle of atrocities starts it is very difficult, if not impossible, to break. Generals can issue orders requiring a strict code of conduct towards prisoners and civilians but soldiers who have encountered the mutilated bodies of comrades will take no notice. Junior leaders trying to enforce orders on the proper treatment of prisoners will be ignored. If they persist, they run the risk of being killed or, to use American slang from Vietnam, “fragged”, by their own men. These sorts of conflicts always arouse a primeval desire for revenge which must be propitiated and which cannot be brushed aside by appeals to common humanity. The advocates of common humanity might like to consider that common humanity would surely mandate that Soviet forces – and now NATO forces – would not be bombing and strafing people in their homelands in the first place. Once the bombing, the strafing and all the accidents start, then the path towards mutual atrocities is inevitable. Each set of participants brings its own atrocities: the insurgents will slowly and often very clumsily behead prisoners or their women will urinate in the mouths of prisoners so that they drown; the counterinsurgents will use firepower and grenades, but the lust for revenge is the same.  And in the Internet age both sides will post their slaughter porn, their electronic scalps for the world to see.

Yet among the cycle of atrocities are miracles of survival and recognition of common humanity. Take, for example, the case of Aleksei Olenin. Braithwaite notes that Olenin was kidnapped while relieving himself. A point that has some tactical relevance here and which is not immediately obvious is that Olenin had, I suspect, gone to obey a call a nature which necessitated his having to squat rather than to stand.  Like most of us he preferred some privacy, out of sight of his comrades, which served the purposes of his abductors. This is a serious point since women serving with men are at a treble disadvantage and are not going to obey the calls of nature or attend to other hygiene requirements in front of men. They will seek privacy so placing themselves at a heightened risk of being abducted or being killed. Olenin ended up in a mujahedin detachment. After two months he converted to Islam. The detachment commander who regarded his Russians as his property decided to marry them off. However before any marriage could take place Olenin returned home to a country that by now had changed beyond recognition (this was 1994). But young Olenin discovered that love is a demanding mistress: she is not easily disobeyed. After six months he returned to Afghanistan and married Nargez. Eventually, his wife, he and a daughter returned to Russia. This is a remarkable and moving story, redolent in some ways of the Book of Ruth, a small piece of fragile goodness amid so much suffering.

Another remarkable story concerns the fate of Nikolai Bystrov who was also captured by the mujahedin. After many escape attempts and death threats he was given the choice of being exchanged for prisoners or trying to make it abroad. He stayed with Masud and ended up as one of his bodyguards. He then married a woman from Masud’s tribe and acting on Masud’s advice returned to Russia with his wife in 1995. The way Masud treated this Russian soldier confirms the Afghan’s status as a wise man and leader and underlines the dreadful loss for his tribe and even Afghanistan when he was killed on 9th September 2001. Islam desperately needs men of the calibre of Masud, but then so does Britain.

Braithwaite devotes a lot of space to the way the war in Afghanistan nurtured or rather furthered opposition to the Soviet regime. Attempts to hide the truth and the losses provoked opposition especially among mothers who had lost sons. The state controlled media and the censorship regime could prevent damaging stories from being published but rumours spread and people knew mothers whose sons came home in sealed coffins or came home as invalids. There were also some senior dissenting officers – Colonel Leonid Shershnev, General Alexander Maiorov and Colonel Tsagolov – who did not pull their punches. One of the truly striking things that emerge from Afgantsy is how Soviet military failures and successes anticipate the same sort of problems faced by NATO and the failure on the part of NATO to have studied the Soviet experience until very late in the day.

Unlike Matthew Parris, who in any case lacks the background knowledge, I do not see Afgantsy as bidding fair to become the standard history on the subject of the Soviet invasion. That would require the use of a lot more material from the US, especially the CIA, our own SIS and would, above all, require access to a great deal of Soviet documents which have still to be declassified and are unlikely to be for some time. It would be very interesting to know the degree to which the KGB and other Soviet agencies were able to penetrate the mujahedin. One particular weakness of Afgantsy is the failure to provide a detailed account of Western propaganda deployed against the Soviet occupation. There is certainly no shortage of accessible source material. I remember that émigré papers such as the Paris-based Russkaia mysl’ ran exceptionally detailed articles on the occupation and clearly had access to high grade sources. This is material that Braithwaite should have used. What Braithwaite does manage to achieve in Afgantsy is a general synthesis of a lot of material such that there is a clear overall picture of what happened, a valuable contribution and one because of that which highlights for future researchers the lacunae still waiting to be filled.

Dr. FRANK ELLIS is a Sovietologist and military historian. © Frank Ellis 2013

[1] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, p.76

[2] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, p.44

[3] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, p.73

[4] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, p.81

[5] Braithwaite, Afgantsy, p.81


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