THE GREAT GAMBLE: THE SOVIET WAR IN AFGHANISTAN


great-gamble

by Gregory Feifer

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

 

A groundbreaking account of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of the men who fought it, from NPR’s Moscow correspondent.

 

Anyone who has followed the historians’ perspective on the Bush-Obama war in Afghanistan knows the mountainous country has been considered a graveyard for outsiders. Before the Americans, the Soviets became engulfed in a nine-year war there that many say was a much greater factor to the collapse of the Soviet Union than Reagan’s build-up; as it exposed the weaknesses of the rag-tag nature of the Red Army. Using predominantly interviews with Soviet veterans and translations of released Russian information, Gregory Feifer provides an intriguing look at why the Russians’ felt they lost and believe likewise the Americans will too. In some ways the anecdotal glimpse of the war is overwhelming as there is so much material from so many vets. Yet ironically this deep look from mostly the perspective of Russian war veterans lacks two critical interrelated elements in light of today’s debate over whether the United States can win in Afghanistan. First why the Soviets felt they could win a protracted war when they issued rations stamped 1942 and second why did the Afghanistan resistance believe they could defeat one of the world’s two superpowers. Still this is an interesting account of the Soviet war in Afghanistan worth reading over several weeks.

 

Biography:

Gregory Feifer is National Public Radio’s Moscow correspondent. He was educated at Harvard University and lives in Moscow with his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Sebastian.

 

PRESS REVIEW:

 

The New York Times - Nicholas Thompson:

…a highly readable history of the conflict…The author, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, tells the story mainly through the eyes of Soviet veterans and spies. The results are vivid and original…It’s “a tragic human story,” Feifer writes-and one that he recounts with skill.

 

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. –Graeme Wood

Graeme Wood is a staff editor at The Atlantic. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications including The New Yorker, Good magazine, and The American.

 

From the Publisher:

The Soviet war in Afghanistan was a grueling debacle that has striking lessons for the twenty-first century. In The Great Gamble, Gregory Feifer examines the conflict from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground. During the last years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union sent some of its most elite troops to unfamiliar lands in Central Asia to fight a vaguely defined enemy, which eventually defeated their superior numbers with unconventional tactics. Although the Soviet leadership initially saw the invasion as a victory, many Russian soldiers came to view the war as a demoralizing and devastating defeat, the consequences of which had a substantial impact on the Soviet Union and its collapse.

Feifer’s extensive research includes eye-opening interviews with participants from both sides of the conflict. In gripping detail, he vividly depicts the invasion of a volatile country that no power has ever successfully conquered. Parallels between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are impossible to ignore-both conflicts were waged amid vague ideological rhetoric about freedom. Both were roundly condemned by the outside world for trying to impose their favored forms of government on countries with very different ways of life. And both seem destined to end on uncertain terms.

A groundbreaking account seen through the eyes of the men who fought it, The Great Gamble tells an unforgettable story full of drama, action, and political intrigue whose relevance in our own time is greater than ever.

 

The New York Times - Nicholas Thompson:

…a highly readable history of the conflict…The author, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, tells the story mainly through the eyes of Soviet veterans and spies. The results are vivid and original…It’s “a tragic human story,” Feifer writes-and one that he recounts with skill.

 

Kirkus Reviews:

Blow-by-blow account of the Soviet Union’s nine-year military occupation of Afghanistan, which gained little, wasted lives and helped bring down a formidable empire. Feifer took advantage of his position as NPR’s Moscow correspondent to conduct interviews with participants that enabled him to penetrate the Russian reasoning behind the invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. Moscow’s incursion into its small Central Asian neighbor was intended as a quick hit. It stemmed partly from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s hurt feelings over the ouster and murder of the country’s first communist president by the ruthless Hafizullah Amin, partly by fears that erupting civil violence would disturb Moscow’s hard-won hegemony in the region. The senile Politburo had no real understanding of Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, or of the largely illiterate populace’s resistance to modernization and long-standing resentment of foreign invaders. The Russian quagmire in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of some 75,000 Soviets and 1.25 million Afghans, has been compared to America’s debacle in Vietnam, but Feifer sees a more apt parallel in America’s inability to extricate itself from Iraq. The Soviet invaders shot Amin as an enemy of the people, installed Babrak Karmal as president and flooded the country with troops and arms. The Americans, Saudis and Chinese (among others) aided the mujahideen, rural leaders who overcame ethnic, tribal and economic divisions to unite under Islam, defying the Soviets from their base in the Pakistani mountains. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he made withdrawal an official policy, though ending the war proved harder than starting it. The last plane leftKabul on February 15, 1989. The war’s ramifications would prove long and bitter for both superpowers, as Feifer sketches in a too-brief final chapter. Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, also forthcoming in January, offers more material on Afghanistan’s current plight. Feifer’s thoughtful, deliberative use of eyewitness testimony gives an intensely close-up sense of what the war was like for those who fought it. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, John Silbersack/Trident Media Group

 

Table of Contents

 

Introduction 1

 

1 Invasion Considered: A Short, Victorious War 9

 

2 Storm-333: The Invasion 55

 

3 The Soviets Dig In 85

 

4 The Mujahideen Fight Back 120

 

5 The Soviets Seek Victory 152

 

6 The Tide Turns 192

 

7 Endgame 218

 

8 Aftermath 255

 

Epilogue 280

 

Acknowledgments 291

 

Glossary of Names 293

 

Notes 295

 

Bibliography 309

 

Index 313

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