In February 1979, Soviet forces moved south along the mountainous Salang Pass, ostensibly to help their Afghan neighbors defend themselves against a possible American invasion.
As the mass of men and machinery reached the 2-mile-long Salang Tunnel (recently completed with Soviet money and manpower), the procession ground to a halt. The massive invasion force had devolved into a logjam of accidents and vehicle breakdowns.
Inside the tunnel, scores of soldiers were dying, their lungs poisoned by the acrid diesel exhaust spewed from the engines of the motorized rifle battalions. This disastrous start could not have been more prophetic of how the decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan would turn out.
The Great Gamble by Gregory Feifer is a comprehensive history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Writing from Soviet war veterans' points of view and weaving together a tangle of third-person testimonials, Feifer lets those who participated in the conflict give the history lesson.
The story begins in 1978 when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan came to power after the murder of President Mohammed Daoud. Installed as president was Mohammed Taraki, president of the PDPA. The organization, "Communist in all but name," as Feifer describes it, enjoyed funding from the KGB and close communications with the Kremlin.
But things were not right from the start. For one, there existed in Afghanistan a huge gulf between urban and rural populations. The rural people were staunchly traditional and jealously guarded their ancient ways.
From the moment he took office, Taraki pushed for women's education, equal rights, land reform and national status for ethnic groups. And he backed up his mandates by executing and torturing thousands.
"The ultimate goal — besides consolidating political control — was to brutally punish society into modernizing," writes Feifer. But when Taraki appointed the nefarious Hafizullah Amin as his prime minister, his fate was sealed. Within months Amin assassinated Taraki and took control of the government.
"The risk of PDPA collapse threatened the Kremlin with loss of decades' worth of influence-building in Kabul," Feifer writes. The Soviets had no choice — they had to whack him, then stage a coup.
Fully aware of the dangers of invading a country like Afghanistan, the doddering Soviet Politburo, under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, took the great gamble in order to pre-empt the Americans who, it was rumored, were poised to enter the region. Feifer writes: "The party's stalwart ideologue, (Mikhail) Suslov, was said to have insisted that Moscow protect Afghanistan's socialist regime by removing the threat posed by Amin, who was thought to have ties to the CIA." Many, however, including most of the Afghans whom Feifer interviewed, believe the real motivation behind the invasion was Moscow's historic ambition to possess a warm-water port on the Indian Ocean.
The Great Gamble is often tedious reading, grinding along like the armored personnel carriers that incessantly rumble through the narrative. But Feifer is uncompromising when it comes to telling the whole truth and nothing but, no matter how unpleasant. Eyewitness accounts of atrocities and thievery are legion. Soviet soldiers were trading their arms and ammunition to the very rebels they were fighting in order to acquire enough food and clothing to survive daily life.
There are also descriptions of mujahedeen skinning Soviet soldiers alive and countless instances of Soviet soldiers callously killing innocent women, children and elderly Afghans.
For 10 years, the brutality raged on, with neither side giving quarter; all the while the United States and Pakistan provided a never-ending supply of money, arms, intelligence and safe havens to the mujahedeen.
Perhaps a young Winston Churchill summed up fighting in Afghanistan best in an 1897 letter to his grandmother: "The tribesmen torture the wounded and mutilate the dead. The troops never spare a man who falls into their hands — whether he be wounded or not. . . . I wish I could come to the conclusion that all this barbarity — all these losses — all this expenditure — had resulted in a permanent settlement being obtained. I do not think however that anything has been done — that will not have to be done again."
Officially 13,833 Soviets died fighting the war, with 10,751 permanently disabled, out of some 630,000 who served there. However, many believe the true number is closer to 75,000 dead. On the Afghan side, the numbers are mind- blowing — 1.3-million dead, and a third of the prewar population fleeing the country.
In his closing paragraph, Feifer delivers a finger-wagging caveat: "The inherent contradictions of the American use of force to try to plant democracy in countries with no tradition of representative government differ little from the Soviet attempt to build communism in Afghanistan."
The Great Gamble is a powerful cautionary tale and a must read for any serious student of Soviet and Afghan history.
Richard Horan is the author of two novels, Life in the Rainbow and Goose Music. He lives, writes and teaches in central New York.