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Saturday 9 June 2012

Review: Rodric Braithwaite, Afgansty: the Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89

American ambassadors are political appointees, rewarded for financial contributions to election campaigns, and they are often enough stupid or crooks: try the examples in Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat for proof.

British ambassadors are career appointees and often enough clever and honourable. Sherard Cowper-Coles who wrote Cables from Kabul is a good, recent example. So too is Rodric Braithwaite.

His book is partly an unspoken ("diplomatic") critique of the current NATO occupation of Afghanistan. Every chapter of his book about the Russian Occupation of 1979 - 1989 allows parallels to be drawn with the current disaster.

The book is remarkable for its clear-headed portrayal of the horrors of war, and especially, the horrors of wars of occupation. Perhaps surprisingly for a former ambassador engaged in high diplomacy, Braithwaite dwells at length on the experience of ordinary Afghans and ordinary Russian soldiers and technical advisers. He writes a very humane book, readable from cover to cover. But quite often, it is disturbing reading.

At the same time, Braithwaite presents the leadership and higher authorities (military, intelligence, civilian) of the Soviet Union as less sclerotic and less vicious than is often imagined. At times, I guess that what he writes will make people in the Foreign Office think that he is just another of those ambassadors who "went native". (He was Ambassador to Moscow, 1988 - 1992).

The Soviet Union got itself into a mess in Afghanistan, found it hard to get out, and when it did so left a legacy of bitterness both in Afghanistan and in Russia where veterans of the war and parents of dead soldiers felt betrayed.

15 000 Soviet soldiers died in Afghanistan; somewhere between 600 000 and 2 500 000 Afghans: no one was counting and perhaps 1 million is the safe guess. See pages 346-47 for the number crunching.

In due course, when we have left, writers will tally the figures from the current war.

Previously published on my Blog, The Best I can Do

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