Posted by: Christian | January 12, 2010

Revisionist Russian Tough Love Letter to NATO Countries re: Afghanistan

The New York Times does let the Russians into its op-ed pages on occasion. Today it let in two enthusiastic Russian revisionists who put their rambling onto paper: General Boris Gromov (ret.) of the 40th Army and Dmitry Rogozin, the Russian ambassador to NATO. Usually the Russian commentary in English on Afghanistan comes from everybody’s favorite schadenfreude practitioner, the Uzbekistan-born Zamir Kabulov (not too sure, I was told he’s from Andijan but I can’t find a source), who served as Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan until last September and who may have been a KGB officer for a while. But it’s no surprise he’s not in the NYT as this NYT article made the KGB connection resulting in this hissy-fit of a Wikipedia “fan page” on Kabulov. I assume he is as unhappy as whoever edited his wikipedia entry.

There is much “revisionism” that is needed on the Soviet-Afghan War, as much of the info is clouded by propaganda generated by Pakistan, the mujahideen , the US and various other interested parties (NGOs, journalists, advocates, etc…). For example, the Soviets were far more successful in creating local security forces compared to current efforts, they were not fighting the whole country as many in the West and Pakistan liked to imagine, it was not a drive for the Indian ocean, you can find urban Afghans with nostalgia for the Soviet era, parts of the country did benefit from infrastructure and development projects, etc… But Gromov and Rogozin take it too far. I’ll excerpt and make rambling comments.

First up:

The length of the NATO operation in Afghanistan will soon become comparable to that of the Soviet involvement there. But the military actions we conducted 20 years ago differed fundamentally from those of today.

For sure. Do go on…

We were fighting against the fathers of today’s Taliban militants face-to-face, whereas Western armies prefer to fight from the air. This allows them to save soldiers’ lives, but does not secure them from tragic mistakes that kill and wound civilians.

Ah, yes. The civilian-friendly population-centric counterinsurgency tactics of the Soviet military in Afghanistan. So basically, Soviet soldiers stripped off their shirts, covered themselves in mud and snuck up behind the mujahideen to fight them hand-to-hand. They never used massive artillery barrages, large-scale air strikes, land mines, heavy munitions or anything like that. Sarcasm over. Yes, there were spetsnaz, paratroopers and razvedchiki that got up close and in the mujahideen’s face. But there was no shortage of civilian deaths from the liberal use of big exploding stuff falling out of the air.

Moving on…

It is not only the nature of war and its means that have changed; the whole world has evolved. So it is wrong to compare these two operations in terms of death tolls or material and moral damage.

“… because ours would look far worse than yours if we compared quantitatively.” That’s what they would say if they were honest. But they do have a point. Counting only death tolls misses a lot that should be included.

The next part is golden:

A more challenging issue is to understand the political ramifications for NATO, Western security and the future of Central Asia. It is imperative for all three that NATO keep to its commitment in Afghanistan.

Recently there have been numerous appeals in Europe to curtail the presence of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as soon as possible. The arguments underpinning such appeals are essentially both pacifist and irresponsible.

Straight from the desk of President Medvedev, or possible from the desk of future-President Putin? Anyways, we know who approved this message. Our newish Russian allies, who may derive some pleasure in seeing “us” stumble in Afghanistan, but who do not want “us” to fail in Afghanistan. As someone else more eloquent than I said, “The Russian government’s enthusiasm for NATO et al in Central Asia and Afghanistan has risen along with the Taliban’s renewed strength.” I can’t remember who said that (or something like that), but it makes sense. Anyways, the above quoted statement likely came from or was vetted by the Kremlin.

Then there is this:

The national selfishness of peace-loving Europeans is understandable.

It is nice that those Europeans have stopped invading you. Next up:

Moreover, the state of [NATO] troops in the Afghan swamp mars NATO’s image as “the most successful alliance in the world.”

The logical question arises: “Why on earth should we be taking part in all of this?” While the main NATO power — the United States — sees the mission in Afghanistan as essential, the alliance includes 27 other member states, some of which have joined for reasons that have little to do with displaying heroism in far-away wars.

That is precisely why the ISAF operation in Afghanistan is the moment of truth for NATO. If the alliance does not accomplish its task, the mutual commitments of its 28 member-states would be undermined and the alliance would lose its moral foundation and raison d’être.

Yes, NATO should rediscover its raison d’être, which is…um… to encircle Russia and make them really paranoid? Anyways, NATO is dysfunctional, but probably the least worst. And the only one really being tested. But the interesting comments follows right behind:

We know all too well what happens to unions that become meaningless. The war in Afghanistan was one of the major factors in the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Officials in Brussels and Washington who are thinking of a rapid exit strategy for the ISAF mission are engaged in elaborating on a suicide plan. Withdrawal without victory might cause a political collapse of Western security structures.

Well, aren’t we alarmist? I hardly think a withdrawal from Afghanistan will result in the collapse of “Western security structures.” As for the war in Afghanistan being a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union… no. That view is not in favor outside of Ronald Reagan fan club meetings. Could be an academic conspiracy, or maybe there are many more important factors that came into play.

Here’s some more of that revisionism:

This troubles Russia far less than the consequences for the region itself. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was not a shameful escape accompanied by the hooting of the mujahadeen. The Soviet Army entered the country, accomplished its tasks — unlike the Americans in Vietnam — and returned to its motherland.

The hooting didn’t last long. But there was hooting. And I do know that the government of Najibullah did last for a couple of years, but the Soviet-Afghan war goes into the “Loss column” for you. You can put an asterisk by it, but it is still considered a failure.

More gold:

In fact, we were the first to defend Western civilization against the attacks of Muslim fanatics. No one thanked us. On the contrary, everyone was impeding our actions: The United States, NATO, Iran, Pakistan, even China.

Thank you Soviet Union, for keeping me safe from Muslim fanatics. I realize you entered Afghanistan because Western civilization was under a dire threat of an impending global caliphate. If only we realized that you were trying to save us. *eyes roll*

And some more dire warnings:

How long would the Afghan government endure today if it were left alone to face the Taliban? A rapid slide into chaos awaits Afghanistan and its neighbors if NATO pulls out, pretending to have achieved its goals. A pullout would give a tremendous boost to Islamic militants, destabilize the Central Asian republics and set off flows of refugees, including many thousands to Europe and Russia.

It would also give a huge boost to the illegal drug trade. Opium production in Afghanistan in 2008 came to 7,700 tons, more than 40 times that of 2001, when international forces arrived. If even the ISAF presence could not prevent the explosive growth of Taliban drug dealing, than it is not difficult to understand what a NATO pull-out would lead to. As people in the West count the coffins of NATO soldiers from Afghanistan, let them not forget to include the coffins of Americans and Europeans who were killed by Taliban heroin in their own countries.

The first paragraph is possible, maybe, partially. That can’t be discounted. But the second paragraph? Is it possible for the opium trade to be any more successful than it is now?

More of that official Russian position:

A “successful end” to the operation in Afghanistan will not come simply with the death of Osama bin Laden. The minimum that we require from NATO is consolidating a stable political regime in the country and preventing Talibanization of the entire region.

That is the Russian position. We are ready to help NATO implement its U.N. Security Council mandate in Afghanistan. We are utterly dissatisfied with the mood of capitulation at NATO headquarters, be it under the cover of “humanistic pacifism” or pragmatism.

We insist that NATO troops stay in the country until the necessary conditions are provided to establish stable local authorities capable of independently deterring radical forces and controlling the country. That is why we are helping NATO by providing transit for goods and training personnel for Afghanistan, including anti-narcotics officers. [underling added]

Bear hug! I think “we” are friends again.

Final advice:

Meanwhile, NATO should get down to studying our war in Afghanistan, in which the Soviet Union managed to deter the onslaught of Islamic fundamentalists for a full 10 years.

Yes, people would seriously study the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. It is understudied and shamefully so. But sorry, your presence in Afghanistan plus Pakistani, American and Saudi strategy turned Islamic fundamentalists into a beast. Weak at the beginning, formidable by the end. Gromov and Rogozin’s version is a little too far removed from reality.

But on the plus side, America and Russia sitting in a tree, K-I-…….. Anyways, it’s feeling a little like Iron Eagle II.


  1. LOL, I’ll happily admit that I love your blog because of posts like this as well.
    With regard to Iron Eagle II: You know, that could be a blue print for Iran … ;-)

  2. On part two of their comments they don’t seem to notice that The Bear Went over the Mountain mentions a constant reliance by Soviet soldiers on armor at the cost of not getting into contact with the enemies, and that insurgents would (if they had to) fight close to the Soviets so that they couldn’t be bombed.
    On your point about revisionism, are there any decent Russian authors on the Soviet-Afghan war (and what do they even call it)?

  3. TCHe,

    I’m with you. I think that country in Iron Eagle II is Iran. Or perhaps Libya. Anyways, it was the golden era of Soviet-American friendship.


    You’re right. The Russian General Staff’s own writing contradicts Gromov. But he’s not stupid. He’s just being a politician (which he now is).

    As for Russian authors, the field is littered with memoirs and narratives. For example, there are about 225 non-fiction books published in Russian on the Soviet-Afghan War (they call it the “Afghan War”, plain and simple) that made it as far as to be cataloged:

    Of these, 115 are memoirs. Of the remaining books (quickly narrowed down by duplicates and some wretched books), I couldn’t say anything about how authoritative some of these are.

    There are some excellent Russian and former Soviet academics. But the Soviet Afghan war is not my specialty and I read Russian far too slowly to give a good assessment.

    Of course, a couple of narratives have been translated. i.e., Artyom Borovik. But not much that passes as sober analysis (besides the book that you mentioned).

  4. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/12/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  5. You ARE far from reality, educated fool, with your stupid mockery comments. Go chat with other teenagers.

  6. Christian, I have to say that the vitriol of internet trolls is sometimes that best evidence that a point has been made well. Good post.

  7. Ironic: I am just reading the Pentagon’s “A different kind of war,” after you highlighted it at the Afghanistan Analyist page on FB, and pages 43-44 there explaining how the “important” input of former Soviet generals in CENTCOM’s planning process in the wake of 9/11 contributed to the preference of the low footprint approach.

  8. Field sanitation and disease were rampant among Soviet soldiers; at a level that is appalling for a modern army in the 1980’s.
    This may not have had an effect on the outcome of the war, but it doesn’t bode well when the officers don’t at least enforce proper latrine construction and maintenance or help their soldiers avoid Hepatitis and other disease. The common Soviet soldier has much to bitter about from the war.


%d bloggers like this: