Jim Cullen, Review of Artemy M. Kalinovsky's "A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan" (Harvard, 2011)





[Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003), among other books. He is also the author of the recently published Kindle Single e-book President Hanks. Cullen blogs at American History Now.]

There appear to be people who would like this book to be, in effect, Why the U.S. Will Fail in Afghanistan. Such people include the publicity department at Harvard University Press, whose press release for the book cites the "suspiciously familiar" set of reasons Artemy Kalinovsky cites for the Soviet debacle there. They also include investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, whose blurb for the book suggests he did not actually read it, since his remarks focus on this angle, which comprise about three (very good) pages on the subject. There are of course very good reasons, in both marketing and intellectual terms, for viewing The Long Goodbye through that lens (it is, after all, why I picked it up). But such a perspective also distorts what this book is and why it is valuable.

A more relevant, if still somewhat nationally narcissistic,  historical analogy is more relevant: The U.S. and Vietnam. Before a few years ago, the comparison was downright proverbial: the Soviet decade-long (1979-89) adventure in Afghanistan was the USSR's Vietnam, the imperial incursion that brought a hegemon to its knees. Some would say it was actually worse, since it precipitated the end of the Soviet Union itself.

Kalinovsky does engage this analogy (a little). And he sees merit it. Certainly, he would agree that both Afghanistan and Vietnam posed knotty military problems (though he is among those who believes that the Soviet 40th army acquitted itself well). And that both generated dissent at home and disenchantment abroad. But the emphasis here is the reverse of what one typically sees in discussions of Vietnam: for the Soviets, maintaining credibility with its allies and the Third World were primary, while managing public opinion was not a serious issue until the war was almost over.

Kalinovsky notes that the Soviet regime of Leonid Brezhnev was ambivalent at best in its decision to intervene in an internecine quarrel between two leftist factions in Afghanistan in late 1979, neither of which commanded a popular majority in that fractious country. Ironically, most of Soviet experience there involved trying to temper the excesses of the ruling regime and steer it in a more pragmatic direction that involved power sharing among themselves and outsiders. The Soviets realized almost immediately that they'd made a mistake, and by 1982 were already formulating strategies to leave. But -- and this is important to Kalinovsky -- it took a long time for the withdrawal to actually take place because the Soviets could afford, literally and figuratively, to bide their time. The war may have been, in the memorable words of Mikhail Gorbachev, "a bleeding wound," but it was not a fatal one.

Actually, Gorbachev is the pivotal figure in The Long Goodbye. He inherited the war when he came to power in 1985 and was determined to end it. But "determined" in this context is a decidedly relative term, whose pace was contingent on other circumstances, primary among them the U.S.-Soviet relationship, which took a frosty turn in the years after the invasion but began to improve once Gorbachev took the helm in the second half of the 1980s. Soviet diplomatic strategy had been to tie a withdrawal from Afghanistan to an agreement that Pakistan and the United States would revoke their (overlapping) support for the mujahadeen forces attacking the Afghan regime. But in the negotiations that led to the breakthrough Geneva Accords of 1988, Gorbachev decided in effect to make Afghanistan a loss-leader, to announce his seriousness in resolving general Cold War tensions in the form of a unilateral Soviet withdrawal.

It would be too strong to suggest that this strategy backfired, because it's far from the clear that the alternative was any better. It's safe to say, however, that it didn't turn out the way Gorbachev hoped. The U.S. interpreted the Soviet move as a sign of weakness, and refused to budge on the mujahadeen. Gorbachev, in turn, felt compelled slow his pace and make counter-moves in withdrawing, both to shore up the sinking morale of allies in Europe and (especially) the Third World, and to parry the thrusts of a building conservative reaction on his right in Moscow. He also had to contend with long-term tensions between the military and the KGB in Afghanistan, whose conflicting agendas became more acute and paralyzing in the closing years of the war. But while Afghanistan was paradigmatic of Gorbachev's problems generally, it was never really more than a pawn in his losing game before getting pushed aside by Boris Yeltsin, who felt no obligation to prop up Afghanstan once the USSR dissolved in 1991.

Kalinovsky believes Gorbachev pretty much did the best he could under the circumstances, though thinks the last Soviet leader got something of a free pass as domestic criticism of the war as a senseless waste of life grew in an increasingly free media environment. He also believes that the Soviet invasion was, as imperial adventures go, relatively moderate and understandable: Afghanistan, after all, shares a border with the Soviet Union, in a Muslim corner of the world that was increasingly volatile in the last quarter of the twentieth century. (He does not, however, think that Muslim minoriites within the Soviet Union itself were ever really a serious problem.) Moreover, the Soviet occupation was hardly the ideologically driven crusade Cold War conflicts sometimes appeared to be. Real nation-building went on, even if the Soviets did more harm than good.

Still, at the end of the day, the moral of his story holds as true for the 20th century as it does the thirteenth, nineteenth, or twenty-first: you just can't win in Afghanistan.  In his conclusion, Kalinovsky notes that like Gorbachev, Barack Obama is a reformer who inherited a war he wants to end, and who, like Gorbachev, is dallying in doing so. If ever there was a case where history is destiny, this would appear to be it.


comments powered by Disqus