For many Westerners the Soviet Union’s invasion, occupation and eventual expulsion from Afghanistan is a subject that resounds with the theme of the underdog; the gallant, poorly equipped tribesmen taking on and beating the mighty war machine of the Red Army – with the help of Stinger missiles. But as the author of this book writes: “As so often during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, facts were hard to establish, and hard to distinguish from myth-making.”
It is this challenge that Braithwaite has taken on. A former British ambassador to Russia, Afghantsy offers probably the best account of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan available to English language readers.
Briathwaite brings together a mass of accounts from participants in the conflict, largely from the Soviet side. These range from the high ranking decision makers to the soldier who fought in the plains and mountains. The author also puts the war in its historical context, explaining the history of the country and it’s interactions, often unfortunate, with the outside world and their schemes.
This is not a book that heavily analyses the war, though there is some present; it is more of history of the conflict and of those who were involved. But this is why it is such an excellent book. By imparting the actual thinking and reasoning behind the decisions that led to war (which Braithwaite paints as a stumble rather than a march) the reader is really able to identify with what happened to cause the tragedy and the way it unfolded.
It is the unbiased way the Braithwaite writes that really separates the book from other English texts dealing with the war, which tend to be coloured by the Cold War propaganda. The author sets out the course of events clearly and in a style that is easy to read and interesting, even for those with no prior knowledge of the war.
In short, the book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the Cold War, the Soviet Union or military history generally. But it perhaps would be of more interest and use to professional soldiers and, especially, politicians. The way the government of the Soviet Union got dragged into the conflict is a dire warning indeed.
Ed Nash has spent years traveling around the world. Between June 2015 and July 2016 he volunteered with the Kurdish YPG in its battle against ISIS in Syria; his book on his experiences, Desert Sniper, was published in the UK by Little, Brown in September 2018.