03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Afghanistan: The Soviet Experience (New York Review)

Amy Hertz, The Huffington Post: With the surge in Afghanistan expected to begin this week, we thought it was time to take a look at the long view of Afghanistan, from the perspective of the books written about the struggle of two major powers in Central Asia. We'll bring you a round up of book reviews and reportage from The New York Review of Books in two parts: first we'll look back at the Soviet war, then to the current American action.

Here's our trip backwards through the archives of The New York Review of Books:

From the article "Afghanistan: The Imperial Dream", by Firuz Kazemzadeh, February 21, 1980 (two months after the Soviet invasion)

It is too early to attempt a full evaluation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Only the principal events have become known in the outside world. Causes, motives, methods, and intentions are still obscure. What is clear is that on December 27 Soviet troops suddenly appeared in Kabul. Hours later the radio announced that they had been invited to come by the Afghan government which sought Soviet protection against unidentified and sinister forces. Fighting broke out in the capital. Soon the president, Hafizullah Amin, who had presumably issued an invitation to the Russians, was captured and executed, his place being taken by another Marxist militant, Babrak Karmal, who was abroad and did not appear in Kabul for several days.

Soviet troops firmly established themselves around the capital and in the principal provincial cities: Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Ghazni. There was little or no resistance from the Afghan regular army which had been thoroughly demoralized by the long struggle to put down a powerful tribal rebellion inspired by the fundamentalist Moslem clergy. However, the same tribal forces that had fought the government of Hafizullah Amin were now resisting the Russians, and they continue to do so as I write.

Though the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan seemed to surprise Washington, it should have been expected. Moscow had every reason to prevent the collapse of a regime installed with its help and to defeat hostile tribal forces possibly supported by Russia's enemies. The downfall of the Shah in Iran had removed the threat of American or Iranian intervention and made it possible for the Soviets to occupy Afghanistan without running a serious risk. Moreover, the power vacuum that has recently emerged in the Middle East gave Russia an opportunity to achieve goals it had been pursuing for well over a century.

Before the eighteenth century the Moslem tribes called Afghan, some speaking Pashto, an Iranian language, others speaking Persian, had been dominated by Iran and by Mughal India and had not been firmly united under the rule of any native Afghan prince. A measure of unity was achieved only in the middle of the eighteenth century with the rise of Ahmad Khan Abdali of the Durrani tribe, a powerful warlord and a capable politician who laid the foundation of the Afghan kingdom. (Read the rest of the article.)

From "The Far Away War", by Edward Mortimer, December 22, 1983

Report from Afghanistan, by Gérard Chaliand, translated by Tamar Jacoby
In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey, by Jere Van Dyk
A Hitch or Two in Afghanistan: A Journey behind Russian Lines, by Nigel Ryan
Behind Russian Lines: An Afghan Journal, by Sandy Gall
Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, by Henry S. Bradsher
Red Flag over Afghanistan: The Communist Coup, the Soviet Invasion and Their Consequences, by Thomas T. Hammond

Four years have passed since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and we in the West still do not seem to know what to think about it, let alone what to do about it. For most of us it is still, as Czechoslovakia was for Chamberlain in 1938, "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." In fact the Afghans are a great deal further away than the Czechs, both geographically and culturally; so our excuse for knowing nothing about them is somewhat better. But at least the Westerner who wants to know something about Afghanistan now has quite a lot to read. (Read the rest of the article.)

From "Afghanistan's Other War", by Jeri Laber, December 18, 1986

"The wounded I have treated here have a determination that I have never seen before," a Moslem doctor said, describing Afghan patients who have been wounded by Soviet bombs, mines, or artillery. "I have never met a wounded or amputated man who is defeated, sad, or sorry, I have never heard a woman cry, a woman shouting, a crowd of people mourning.... I come from a Moslem country that mourns its dead for forty days. I have never seen anything like this."

The doctor, an Egyptian orthopedic surgeon named Mahmoud Booz, runs a voluntary hospital for Afghan war-wounded in Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan where several million Afghans have temporarily fled. He is not alone in his admiration of their spirit, which he considers more Afghan than Moslem. Like others who know the Afghans, he believes that the jihad, the holy war that they have been waging for seven years against the Soviets, is as much a struggle for Afghanistan's freedom and integrity as it is a fight for Islam. He is convinced that the Afghans will be victorious "despite the superior technology in the hands of the Russians." And he believes that the Soviets will also fail in the "other battle" that is being waged in Afghanistan--the battle to win over the Afghan children.

Amid the rubble of Afghanistan's devastated villages and cities in chaos, a new generation of Afghans, unlike any other, is coming of age. Both the Soviets and the Afghan resistance--known as mujahedin--seek to influence this generation. The Afghan children, already battered by war, are being treated as the prize in a contest of ideologies in which the Soviets may have met their match. (Read the rest of the article.)

From "Iraq: Will We Ever Get Out?" by Thomas Powers

The Soviet-Afghan War: How a Superpower Fought and Lost, by the Russian General Staff, translated from the Russian and edited by Lester W. Grau and Michael A. Gress
The Bear Went Over the Mountain: Soviet Combat Tactics in Afghanistan, translated from the Russian and edited by Lester W. Grau

What is remarkable about the situation in Afghanistan--even astonishing--is that the Americans, after watching 100,000 Russians fight Afghans at great expense with no success for nine years, have signed on for a dose of the same. Lester Grau, a retired Army colonel, has edited three books on the Russian war using Russian materials, ranging from a general staff history of the war to small-unit combat reports.

The implication of these books is not ambiguous. After their invasion in December 1979, the Russians walked into Kabul with ease, as invaders of Afghanistan invariably do, but after that it was mounting trouble all the way. The Russians paid a substantial price for thinking they could "win" if they stuck to it--a still-hidden number of dead soldiers, probably exceeding 20,000, and perhaps five times that number of seriously wounded; loss of nearly 500 aircraft including 350 helicopters; huge quantities of other equipment destroyed; hundreds of thousands of disaffected soldiers returned to civilian life back home, not to mention the opprobrium of the world.

The CIA officer Anthony Arnold, who was stationed in Kabul before the Russian invasion, thinks the penalty of failure went beyond immediate losses and humiliation to include the actual collapse of the Soviet state itself. They were weaker than they knew, Arnold thinks, but the Russians did not give in easily: they killed more than a million Afghans, bombed villages to rubble, machine-gunned herds of sheep from the air, and drove as many as a fifth of all Afghans out of the country, across the border into the safe haven of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Nothing worked and the war ended when the last Russian troops and trucks drove back across the Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan in 1989. It is true that the mujahideen got plenty of material help from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, but it was the Afghans who fought the Russians to exhausted frustration, and have gone right on fighting among themselves ever since.

Shrugging off the lessons of history is the preface to disaster in Afghanistan. The Afghans seem so weak--an impoverished people living in mudbrick houses making a hardscrabble living; shepherds, farmers, and nomads answering to feudal lords ruling tiny villages connected by dirt tracks over rocky mountain passes. How tough can it be to defeat these skinny men in rags and occupy their country? (Read the rest of the article.)

Read more at the New York Review of Books.