Catastrophic Playground

Stephen Kotkin

  • A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya, translated by John Crowfoot
    Harvill, 336 pp, £12.00, June 2001, ISBN 1 86046 897 7
  • Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus by Svante Cornell
    Curzon, 480 pp, £57.88, January 2001, ISBN 0 7007 1162 7

Afghanistan emerged as an independent kingdom in the 18th century, though its frontiers would change many times and it would always be more a confederation of tribes and lesser khanates than a centralised state. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, determined to halt Russia’s Inner Asian advance and ‘secure’ its own North Indian frontier, Britain fought three wars with the Afghans. It failed to subdue them but acquired substantial influence over Afghan foreign relations. Britain also sought to counter Russia by colonising oil-rich Iran, a far greater prize, but achieved only limited success; and after the Second World War, the United States replaced it as the ‘barrier’ to Moscow’s penetration of Iran. Following Britain’s departure from the Indian subcontinent in 1947, the Soviets became Afghanistan’s principal source of military hardware and economic aid, building hospitals and hydroelectric dams as well as military airfields and a strategic tunnel. In the mid-1960s, an Afghan Leninist party appeared – surely one of the last to be founded anywhere – and in 1978 it stunned Moscow by seizing power in Kabul. The senescent Soviet establishment recognised the frail revolutionary regime it had not created and did not control, but after unsanctioned assassinations and uprisings, the Kremlin faced increasing instability in a country on its border and became paranoid about the possibility of American penetration. Late in 1979 – the year the Islamic Revolution in Iran toppled the Shah, whom the CIA had returned to power in a nearly bungled coup in 1953 – the KGB engineered a putsch among Afghanistan’s Leninist gangsters. It was backed by an expeditionary force that was intended to stay a few months or perhaps a year, two at the most. Nearly a decade went by before the remnants of this force withdrew ignominiously across the Friendship Bridge to Soviet Tajikistan. Just over two years later, the Soviet state itself dissolved.

Tajikistan descended into civil war after 1991, a blowback from the conflict across the Hindu Kush, compounded by a struggle to preserve local Soviet-era structures; and the war in Afghanistan began to loom large in explanations for the Soviet collapse. But as Mark Galeotti points out in Afghanistan: The Soviet Union’s Last War (1995), the Soviet Union did not lose the war; in some ways, it did not even fight it. While the US sent some 550,000 troops to Vietnam, the USSR never had more than about 120,000 in a country five times Vietnam’s size. Soviet deployment in Afghanistan involved a mere fiftieth of the Kremlin’s total Armed Forces of 5.3 million. Only 40 per cent of the Soviet troops took part in combat and fewer than 15,000 soldiers died during the ten years of war – compared with between 35,000 and 65,000 servicemen who died at home in circumstances ranging from suicide to hazing. Indeed, more than five times as many people in Brezhnev’s Soviet Union died in car accidents each year than in battle during the entire Afghan campaign. The war accounted for less than 2 per cent of the annual defence budget, and its total cost over the whole decade amounted to a single year’s subsidy for Soviet agriculture (a war of another kind). With statistics such as these Galeotti makes the point that for the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was a ‘small war’, a political vehicle for some, a misfortune for most, and ultimately ‘just another symbol of the system’s failure, to rank alongside Chernobyl, empty shops and mafia millionaires’. He explodes the myth about the total narcoticisation of the rank and file (only a small minority succumbed to drug addiction). Emphasising the political corruption that allowed the privileged and the well-connected to escape war duty – ‘Life is a book,’ the Russian proverb goes, ‘and the Army is two pages torn out of it’ – Galeotti directs his anger at the Soviet regime for concealing the basic facts of the conflict even from those press-ganged into battle.

Untranslated KGB memoirs show that the authorities were victims of their own falsehoods. In Ruka moskvy (1992), Leonid Shebarshin, one of the KGB’s top experts on Inner Asia, reports that after the 1978 Communist coup no one in Moscow could obtain accurate information about Afghanistan, and Yuri Andropov, head of the KGB, found himself compelled to make secret visits to Kabul to gather intelligence. Nikolai Leonov, the chief KGB analyst, was able to observe for himself, in Afghanistan, the lies that were being told in official telegrams and reports to the Politburo, and in Likholetye (1995) he shows how the myriad Soviet agencies clashed with each other, producing a vacuum of responsibility which was exploited by their Afghan clients, who also lied continuously. Many Soviets, he adds, referred to Afghanistan as ‘(Af)gavnistan’ (Af-shit-stan).

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[*] Frank Cass, 218 pp., £17.50, 26 September 1998, 0 7146 4857 4.