By Ian Kemp
The Soviet War in Afghanistan is often cast as the penultimate act of the Soviet Union as a superpower. In “The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan,” Gregory Feifer explores this pivotal event but also looks beyond the Cold War and provides insight into both the life of a soldier and the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan just 22 years later.
In “The Great Gamble,” Gregory Feifer is able to effectively highlight this story through interviews with the Soviet soldiers who fought it. His focus on the brutality of this war and incoherence of strategy makes the book relatable to all veterans who were orphaned by governments that started failed wars.
Feifer provides strong historical context for his narrative by tracing the rise of communism in Afghanistan – an overwhelmingly rural and tribal nation – as brutal in a way that was shocking even in the existing environment of tribal power struggles. It was the cruelty of the communist takeover that galvanized opposition and led to the rise of the mujahideen. Feifer details the complexity of the Soviet chain of command at this time and reaches the interesting conclusion that there is no way to pin down who made the ultimate decision to send in the Red Army.
Once the Red Army was on the ground they faced the impossibility of winning in a decisive way. Armies going back to Alexander the Great have tried to conquer Afghanistan to no avail. By the rules of European war, the Soviets quickly controlled the country. No fortresses were held against them and no armies challenged them in the field, yet they continually lost soldiers and struggled to control the territory. No matter how much raw savagery they let lose upon the Afghan population they couldn’t crush the insurgency. Feifer notes, in the ultimate act of irony the mujahideen used the same tactics that Mao – the communist leader of China – had written about when fighting the Japanese; this irony was not lost on many of the Soviet officers in the field.
Although Feifer’s analysis of the war in a larger sense is interesting, in the end the book is worth reading for his insights into what it was like to be a solider in the Soviet army. The strange disparities are fascinating; their military had at its disposal thousands of nuclear weapons, but the soldiers were surviving on field rations that were 30 years old. They had thousands of tanks, but soldiers were stealing color televisions from the locals because they had never seen them before. Decisions made by the politburo decades previously had created a society rich in large scale military hardware and poor in the basics staples of the modern world. So despite all of their superiority in technology, and their control of the air (and for that matter the airwaves), they could not win.
Feifer ends his book briefly describing Afghanistan under the Taliban, a situation he describes as “literally hell on earth” and goes on to standard criticisms of U.S. military policy and tactics in the country. Namely that more respect for Afghan cultural norms such as not entering the ‘woman’s area’ of homes or communicating to local chiefs before conducting raids in their area would go a long way. However, the U.S. military has tried these tactics and they have done nothing to increase effectiveness. As soon as it is announced that the U.S. will not enter a certain part of a home, the insurgents will hide there. If you tell local chiefs that the U.S. is conducting a raid in advance they will, often, inform the insurgency because they are afraid that if they do not they will face retaliation from the Taliban. If winning the war was this simple the U.S. would not have been there for over a decade.
The parallels between the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the American invasion are not hard to find. In both cases superpowers quickly overran the country only to be bogged down for years fighting an insurgency. Interestingly, the largest American base in the country is Bagram, which was built by the Soviets. Over 15 years into the American conflict victory continues to be elusive. In reading this book it is clear that the Soviets failed to find a way out and we may be forced to accept that America cannot find one either.
What ends up being the most interesting parallel between the U.S. and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan is not both countries cynicism but weirdly a failure of optimism. The Soviet Union truly believed that once the Afghan people had been freed of their oppressive culture they would embrace communism. Once the insurgency became a real threat then it was just a matter of crushing the “puppets of foreign powers” and communism would thrive. It never did. In the case of the U.S., it appears that leadership truly believes that once the Taliban is neutralized liberal democracy – the assumed natural state of man – will be embraced given the right support. Seventeen years in and it is still to be seen what the necessary support would be.
Ian Kemp is an Afghan War veteran who served in Information Operation with the US Army’s 101st and 82ndairborne. He also served in the US Navy as an Anti-Terrorism officer onboard the USS Winston S. Churchill where he carried out anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. Ian is a graduate of the University of Chicago, Suffolk University and New York Universities Stern School of Business and now works as an Entrepreneur in Residence at Gramercy Labs in Manhattan.