A Lesson from the Soviet War in Afghanistan

I stumbled across Artyom Borovik’s The Hidden War in a Santa Monica used bookstore on Thursday. Not knowing much about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I quickly placed in my stack of must haves. Though I’ve only gotten through the introduction, Hidden War looks to be an excellent read.

Borovik was one of the Soviet Union’s best investigative journalists. Thanks to perestroika he was able to practice his craft to the fullest. In post-Soviet Russia he was an outspoken critic of the Chechen War and ultimately of Putin. He was killed in a plane crash in 2000 while accompanying oil executive Ziya Bazayev. The Guardian wrote of the crash:

‘I don’t think oil magnates use unreliable aircraft,” said Vsevolod Bogdanov, head of the Russian journalists’ union.

Such remarks encouraged speculation that the crash was caused by a criminal plot, though there was no fire or explosion. Commentators surmised that enemies of the oil executive in Russia’s notoriously ruthless business mafias were responsible for the deaths, or enemies of Borovik whose newspapers and television shows crusaded against corruption in Russia’s political and economic elites.

‘Power in Russia is not in the hands of the democrats or the communists, it’s in the hands of organised crime and the mafia,” Borovik once famously declared. He was well connected politically and a respected, outspoken opponent of Mr Putin.

I don’t bring up Borovik to rehash theories of his death. Rather, I wanted to share something he wrote in the introduction of Hidden War. It reads:

Anyone who stayed in Afghanistan for a long period of time, or who was sent there on a regular basis, typically went through four phases.

The first stage (which would usually last up to three months) went something like this: “The war is proceeding on a normal course. If only we can add another twenty or thirty thousand men, everything would be fine.”

Several months later, the second stage: “Since we’ve already gotten ourselves in this jam, we should get the fighting over with as quickly as possible. Adding another thirty thousand men isn’t going to do it. We need at least one other army to shut off all the borders.”

Five or six months later, the third stage: “There is something desperately wrong here. What a mess!”

Then, half a year or so later, the fourth and final stage: “We’d be wise to get the hell out of here—and the sooner the better.”

I went through all these stages too.

I can’t help point out the prescience of Borovik’s four stages. If Iraq replaced Afghanistan and added some lag time (the American polity is still in stage one for Afghanistan) I believe one could say that the Republican leadership is stuck at stage two, the Democrats at three, and the American public, stage four.