So rollicking was the back-story of the end of the Soviet Union’s ten-year war in Afghanistan that Hollywood made a movie about it. Charlie Wilson’s War (2003) starred Tom Hanks as a raffish, bibulous Texas Congressman in need of an issue in 1980, after a narrow escape from a Rudy Giuliani-led investigation of reported cocaine use. Julia Roberts played the Houston socialite turned talk-show host and world-traveler, who, on behalf of her friend and admirer Pakistan president Zia-ul-Haq, interested Wilson in the cause of mujahidin in Afghanistan.
Wilson had graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1956, and served in Congress since 1972. He shared with the Islamic fundamentalists a deep faith in God, if not their aversion to distilled spirits. Encouraged by a CIA maverick (played in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman), he drummed up support for the Islamic rebellion among his colleagues, eventually supplying the mujahidin with shoulder-fired heat-seeking Stinger missiles needed to blow Russian helicopters out of the sky. After ten bitter years, the Soviets withdrew. The film is based on a 2003 book by George Crile III, a veteran CBS newsman. And, as far as it goes, much of this is true.
Fortunately, another book goes further – much further. Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-1989 (Oxford, 2011) by Rodric Braithwaite, a diplomat who served as Britain’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union and then to the Russian Federation, 1988-1992. “Afgantsy” is slang for the soldiers who fought in that ill-fated ill-regarded war. Braithwaite begins with an epigraph he found in the diary of Private William Olney, who fought for the Union Army in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862, that reflects what Braithwaite learned as a witness to the war in Afghanistan:
Of course, the private soldier’s field of vision is much more limited than that of his general. On the other hand, it is of vital importance to the latter to gloss over his mistakes, and draw attention only to those things that will add to his reputation. The private soldier has no such feeling. It is only to officers of high rank engaged that a battle can bring glory and renown. To the army of common soldiers, who do the actual fighting, and risk mutilation and death, there is no reward except the consciousness of duty bravely performed.
It was an uprising in Herat by Muslim fighters against the Afghan communist government that had seized power a year before that triggered a Soviet occupation in 1979. A new agglomeration, the Fortieth Army, was cobbled together from Army and KGB units. American diplomats, aware of the build-up from satellite images, cautioned the Soviets privately but said little more. Years later, Russian generals blamed the Americans for luring them into a quagmire. It was not much of an excuse, says Braithwaite. Even if it were an American trap, “the Russians should have had more sense than to fall into it.”
The Soviets rolled into Kabul in December 1979 and stormed the palace, killing the Afghan communist president and replacing him with one of their own. President Jimmy Carter, on the ropes from the hostage situation in Tehran and facing an election, asserted the occupation threatened the Persian Gulf and told his cabinet that the Soviet invasion was “the greatest threat to world peace since World War II.” He secretly authorized the CIA to spend a piddling $500,000 on aid to the rebels and called for a boycott of the forthcoming Olympics in Moscow. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher backed him up.
Then began the slog. Soviet allies sought to govern the country in a secular manner, sending its daughters to school. Peasants, mostly faithful to Islam, dug in. Ronald Reagan was elected, the American objective changed. CIA chief William Casey believe the Muslim mujahidin might not just make the Soviets bleed but could now drive them out of the country altogether. Congressional leaders of both parties supported increasing aid, tenfold in Reagan’s second term. By 1991, the Americans has spent some $9 billion supporting the mujahidin, with almost as much contributed by the Saudis.
And those Stinger missiles? Effective though they were in denying the Soviets easy air superiority, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to withdraw a year before the first one was fired in September 1986. It took more than two years for the last Soviet troops to leave, in February 1989, after a substantial number of deaths caused by those missiles. Making political hay out of the deaths of the last soldiers to perish in retreat from a lost war, as in the “bounties” business is shameful. Recipients of our aid killed more Russian soldiers after the towel was thrown in than theirs have ours.