Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 March, 2011, 12:00am

Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89
by Rodric Braithwaite
Profile HK$325

Russian-backed Afghan president Nur Mohammad Taraki was in his dressing gown when the three men came for him. Presidential guard bigwig Lieutenant Ruzi said: 'We've come to take you to another place.' The men led Taraki downstairs to a room in which stood a bed. Ruzi told an accomplice to bind Taraki's hands with a sheet and ordered the president to lie on the bed. Taraki complied. Ruzi put his hand over Taraki's mouth and told one accomplice to bind his legs while another sat on them. Ruzi then covered Taraki's head with a pillow: when he removed it Taraki was dead.

The murder took 15 minutes, Soviet politics expert Rodric Braithwaite notes in his gritty account of how Russia became ensnared in 'the graveyard of empires', Afghanistan. Later that October 10, 1979, evening, it officially emerged that Taraki died from a 'brief and serious illness' after a year in power. Braithwaite describes the murder, concocted by a man Taraki had tried to kill, deputy prime minister Hafizullah Amin, as 'an intrigue worthy of Shakespeare's Richard III'.

The drama proved pivotal in the Soviet decision-making process. 'Who will now believe my promises, if my promises of protection are shown to be no more than empty words?,' Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev said, describing the usurping Amin as 'a bastard'. The Kremlin leader's emotional statement suggests he was more than the grey man of popular myth. Likewise, it seems, his regime was more honourable than it looked - driven by allegiance instead of gung-ho imperialism.

Still, it was ruthless. Riled like his boss, Soviet secret police chief Yuri Andropov resolved to eradicate Amin and install a more malleable Afghan leader. On December 27, 1979, under cover of a Soviet military build-up, heavily armed airborne brigade shock-troopers were airlifted into the capital, Kabul. Within hours after the opening of their Trojan Horse operation the troops stormed Amin's palace and overwhelmed the elite presidential guard. Capturing Amin, the storm-troopers executed him along with several members of his family for crimes against the people, and seized control of the capital.

Next, Soviet armour columns radiated out across Afghanistan to occupy cities, airbases and strategic lines of communication. A Soviet strongman, Babrak Karmal ('Little Tiger'), was duly installed. Despite the swaggering start (foreshadowing the initial success of the October 2001 US invasion) the Soviets were in for a nightmare: a decade of messy, vicious grappling with an enemy that proved elusive and implacable.

Just like the Americans, the Soviets got bogged down, severely outstaying their welcome. Both sides in the war that unfolded in noxious spasms behaved vilely, the mujahideen especially. One mujahideen leader, Braithwaite reports, boasted that he routinely half-skinned Russian prisoners after a successful ambush, and left them alive, ringed by booby traps designed to snare Soviet rescue teams. The cruelty and carnage achieved no conclusive result. 'Neither the Soviet army in Afghanistan nor the American army in Vietnam was defeated: they held the ground and eventually withdrew in good order,' Braithwaite writes. 'The failures in both cases were failures of intelligence, judgement and assessment. Both the Americans and the Russians set themselves unattainable strategic goals.'

Neither achieved its key goal: the installation of a friendly, stable regime with similar aims, says Braithwaite, a former British ambassador in Moscow then prime ministerial foreign policy adviser. After reforming president Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the dirty war and pulled his troops out in 1989, Soviet veterans (Afgantsy) were shunned by employers who saw them as tricky - insistent on the promised privileges that they rarely received.

It is hard to find fault with Afgantsy but a brutal critic might say that Braithwaite's book is a bit late. The intelligence he offers might have carried more weight had it surfaced before the Americans invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, set to outlast their Red Army predecessors.

The Soviets wound up losing some 14,000 troops. So far, the US-led coalition occupying the rocky land has lost only a fraction of that - 2,000 - but its troops are even less popular. When Braithwaite visited in September 2008, almost every Afghan he met told the same story. 'The Russians were not so stand-offish as the Americans, who had no interest in Afghanistan itself, and who looked like Martians with their elaborate equipment, their menacing body armour, and their impenetrable Ray-Bans when they briefly emerged from the high walls behind which they barricaded themselves,' Braithwaite writes.