Posted by: Christian | December 21, 2009

Soviet-American-Afghan History

Said a certain someone about war in Afghanistan:

These regions, which are vast and thinly populated, are considered to be of no strategic value; it is better to leave them alone rather than to pin down large numbers of troops who would be very exposed because the lines of communication would be over-stretched. As a result, since there is no enemy, the network of resistance bases is much weaker there than elsewhere and the most able-bodied men often mount guard at the “frontier,” waiting for an offensive that never comes. The drawback for the [foreign forces] is that these regions provide the resistance with long but safe lines of communication, a place to fall back to an a source of supplies in case of hardship. Furthermore, the fact that they control a certain amount of territory adds to their credibility.¹

Just replace the “foreign forces” in brackets with “Russians” and you have the full quote from Olivier Roy, who first wrote this in 1986. The parallels are there in current strategy.

There are comparisons to Soviet strategy in Afghanistan that are fair to make, and some that are quite weak. But how easy is to actually do a comparison on whatever aspect you would like to work on? Basically, my non-scientific assessment is that the scholarship on Afghanistan that was produced regarding the 1980s is a rather shameful corner of scholarship. For the sheer number of publications – many even through academic publishers – the number of quality publications is abysmal.

There was the lack of access to the field, there was the propaganda, there were the agendas, there were the Cold War politics, there was the sudden appearance of “experts,” there were the journalist sources of ill repute, there was the hero worship, etc… The reasons for bad scholarship are legion. This is not an original criticism. I’ve heard it before elsewhere.

However, I wouldn’t totally write off this era as a black hole of knowledge. There are useful sources. If there are any prospective grad students out there… the opportunity to write an original and important work on the Soviet-Afghan War still exists. I would say that you would need to speak Russian, Dari and (bonus points for) Pashto to be able to produce this work. So, go for it…

And those “useful sources” that I mentioned? Start with these:

Olivier Roy, 1990. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

Antonio Giustozzi, 2000. War, Politics and Society in Afghanistan: 1978-1992. Georgetown University Press.

Mark Urban, 1988. War in Afghanistan. St. Martin’s Press.

There are of course other good sources (a few in a pile of trash), but these are the best starting points I can think of at the introductory level.

I’ll dedicate my next blog entry to illustrating an example of bad scholarship on the Soviet-Afghan War.


Note 1: Pages 191-2 on the Roy book listed above.


  1. Thanks for the reading suggestions. What is your take on Steve Coll’s book? It’s obviously not an academic work, but would it at least be a decent introduction for non-specialists?

    Also, how useful do you think reading old travelogues such as those by Mohan Lal are to understanding modern Afghanistan?

  2. BK, Coll’s book is great for getting an insight into the motivations of the policy makers and intel communities of US, Saudi, and Pakistan. But it’s not meant to be an intro to Afghanistan.

    Old travelogues vary greatly in quality. Mohan Lal would be one of the better ones. But I would just read a book by a contemporary historian who has worked through the older sources for you. But if you have the time, by all means read his work. It’s probably free for download somewhere.

  3. Oliver Roy. What a guy.

    Also check out Barnett Rubin, more specifically The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, 2002.


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