Blow-by-blow account of the Soviet Union’s nine-year military occupation of Afghanistan, which gained little, wasted lives and helped bring down a formidable empire.
Feifer took advantage of his position as NPR’s Moscow correspondent to conduct interviews with participants that enabled him to penetrate the Russian reasoning behind the invasion of Afghanistan on December 27, 1979. Moscow’s incursion into its small Central Asian neighbor was intended as a quick hit. It stemmed partly from Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s hurt feelings over the ouster and murder of the country’s first communist president by the ruthless Hafizullah Amin, partly by fears that erupting civil violence would disturb Moscow’s hard-won hegemony in the region. The senile Politburo had no real understanding of Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, or of the largely illiterate populace’s resistance to modernization and long-standing resentment of foreign invaders. The Russian quagmire in Afghanistan, which claimed the lives of some 75,000 Soviets and 1.25 million Afghans, has been compared to America’s debacle in Vietnam, but Feifer sees a more apt parallel in America’s inability to extricate itself from Iraq. The Soviet invaders shot Amin as an enemy of the people, installed Babrak Karmal as president and flooded the country with troops and arms. The Americans, Saudis and Chinese (among others) aided the mujahideen, rural leaders who overcame ethnic, tribal and economic divisions to unite under Islam, defying the Soviets from their base in the Pakistani mountains. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he made withdrawal an official policy, though ending the war proved harder than starting it. The last plane left Kabul on February 15, 1989. The war’s ramifications would prove long and bitter for both superpowers, as Feifer sketches in a too-brief final chapter. Invisible History by Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, also forthcoming in January, offers more material on Afghanistan’s current plight.
Feifer’s thoughtful, deliberative use of eyewitness testimony gives an intensely close-up sense of what the war was like for those who fought it.