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I was still in high school the year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, 1979. I remember reading about it in Time magazine and watching President Carter denounce it on TV. The Soviets, everyone said, were bent on ruling the world. Détente had been a ploy to lull us to sleep. In Afghanistan, the Communists had renewed their campaign. We had to do something. So we didn't go to "their" Olympics. Oddly, that brave gesture failed to bring them around to our way of thinking.
There are two really wonderful things about Sir Rodric Braithwaite's new book Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89 (Oxford UP, 2011). First, Sir Rodric shows in excruciating detail just how wrong we got it. The tiny cabal of Soviet leaders who sent the Red Army into Afghanistan weren't imperialists pursuing some grand strategy to conquer the globe. They were scared, sometimes confused old men in a situation that was made impossible by conflicting, contradictory aims. They wanted to protect the USSR's southern boarder; they wanted to keep the US out of the region; they wanted to stop the local Communist Party from turning Afghanistan into another Cambodia; they wanted to protect their personal friends and allies, people they knew, trusted, and liked; and, almost more than anything else, they wanted to give the Afghanis peace, stability, and prosperity so they just wouldn't have to think about Afghanistan ever again. That's right, the men in the Kremlin were not evil; they wanted to do good, if only for their own sake.
The trouble was--and this brings us to the second wonderful aspect of Sir Rodric's book--they couldn't accomplish all these things. They knew this: the horrible example of America's effort to "help" Vietnam was right before their eyes. But they were frightened, prone to catastrophic thinking, and didn't want to appear weak. So they had to do something. They couldn't very well refuse to go to their own Olympics. So, by steps, they invested Afghanistan. First there were advisors. Then there were troops to protect the advisors. Then there was political unrest, calls for help, and the dispatch of larger army units to "restore order." Order was not restored, so the generals (though not all of them) reasonably asked for more troops. And so it went until the Soviets conquered Afghanistan but did not hold it; ruled it but did not govern it; won every battle in it but lost the war against it.
If this sounds familiar to Americans, it should.
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