Rodric Braithwaite on the Afghan war 1979-89

Rodric Braithwaite, former U.K. ambassador to Russia and the author of the book “Afgantsy. The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89” was interviewed by Olga Smirnova from the BBC Russian Service. The original text of the interview is here: "Афганцы": новая книга бывшего британского посла в Москве. I could not find the English text, so below is an automatic translation made by Google, where I fixed the most obvious errors, trying to make the text a bit easier to understand.

The book "Afgantsy. The Russians in Afghanistan, 1979-89" by Sir Rodric Braithwaite, British ambassador to Moscow from 1988 to 1992, was published in Britain.

After 1992, Rodric Braithwaite was, in particular, advisor to Prime Minister John Major on international affairs and chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

"Afgantsy" is the third book of Braithwaite. The previous one, "Moscow 1941: the city and its inhabitants," was devoted to the Battle of Moscow. The new book continues the theme of the people at war. BBC correspondent BBC Olga Smirnova interviewed the author.

BBC: Why did you choose this topic for the new book?

Rodric Braithwaite: I think there are few good books, especially in the West, about what really happened in Afghanistan. And I am very sympathetic to the Soviet soldiers who fought there. They were strongly criticized outside the Soviet Union and in Russia.

As in my previous book on Russia, I wanted to explain to the Western reader that there is nothing unusual in Russians and that they are people just like us. They are no worse and no better than us. And you can understand Russian politicians, Russian soldiers, Soviet women who served in Afghanistan, and there were many - they can be understood in human terms.

I would like to amend the myths about the Afghan war, which existed during the Cold War.

BBC: What do you think were those myths?

RB: In the West there are two main myths about the Afghan war. The first - that when invading Afghanistan, the Soviet Union pursued imperial aims, that is, that they wanted to expand the Soviet empire and would jeopardize the supply of oil to the West from the Gulf countries.

Of course, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan for very different reasons. The Soviet Union launched the Afghan campaign for defensive purposes. Their concern was the instability in Afghanistan, which bordered on the USSR. The Soviets were concerned, probably wrongly, that Americans would use Afghan territory against the interests of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet leaders were also worried by drug trafficking from Afghanistan.

And it is true that the Soviet leaders hoped to build a better society in Afghanistan.Similar hopes were in Western countries before the recent invasion of Afghanistan.

A second major myth is associated with the reasons why the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan. It did not happen because the Soviet Union was defeated in this war. Nobody won a victory over the 40-th army. The army itself left Afghanistan, because it became obvious that the war was futile, it clearly did not achieve the goals.

The third myth is that a major role in the Afghan war was played by Stinger anti-aircraft guided missiles supplied by the Americans to the Mujahideen. This is totally wrong. Gorbachev invited the Afghan leader to Moscow in 1985 and told him that the Soviet troops are going to withdraw from Afghanistan, and the first Soviet helicopter was show down by a Stinger only 11 months after this conversation. So the weapons supplied by the U.S. had no effect on the political decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Well, probably, the last myth is that the war in Afghanistan was a particularly brutal war. Yes, the Soviets bombed villages, killing many civilians. But what happened in Afghanistan was no worse than what had happened in Vietnam. War is always cruel. And all military interventions are particularly brutal, especially when combined with the civil war, as it was in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

BBC: When writing the book you talked to a lot of veterans. What's new did you discover talking to them?

RB: I was most surprised that the veterans are returning to Afghanistan, where they were fought. They meet the people they fought against. I did not expect it. They return to Afghanistan as tourists.

On YouTube you can watch films they made in Afghanistan. They return to the outposts, where they served for many months. They come to Afghanistan because they love this country and love the Afghans.

BBC: In 2008 you visited Afghanistan. How do they now recall the war of 1979-89?

RB: In 2008 I asked the Afghans, when it was better in Afghanistan - with the Russians or now?

And Afghans always answered: "Why do you ask such a stupid question? Of course, it was better when the Russians had been here."

Even one of the Mujahideen, with whom I spoke told me that "At least, the Russians fought as honest soldiers, and Americans simply destroy us from the air."

BBC: In your book you intentionally avoid comparing the Afghan war of 1979-89, and the current war?

RB: Of course, intentionally, because between there is a big difference between the wars. My book is historical one, not political, and I'm not trying to enter in controversy.

While there are parallels between the two wars, may the readers themselves think about it.

Western politicians are now saying that we will prevail in Afghanistan.

We say that we will leave there, when a strong government and a strong Afghan army will appear in Kabul and then things will be fine in Afghanistan.

The Soviet leaders told the same, but after they had stopped supporting the government of Najibullah, the Afghan civil war started.

One has only to read Clausewitz to realize that military victory does not mean much without a political victory.

BBC: In the book you often rely on the memoirs of Soviet politicians. How reasonable is this, considering that in memoirs the events are often distorted?

RB: Of course, a memoir is an unreliable source of information. But the story in general can not be completely impartial.

Even the archival documents can not be objective, as is thought by historians.

I am a former civil servant, and I know how the documents are written and why. It's not that simple.

BBC: Some of the Afghan Mujahideen claim that the world should be grateful to them, since they, when waging a struggle with the Soviet Union, caused the downfall of communism. In your opinion, are they right?

RB: This is a huge exaggeration. I do not want to belittle the achievements of the Mujahideen. But they failed to win the 40 th Army, which left Afghanistan on their own will, in an organized way.

The Soviet Union dissolved because of many, many factors. And the Afghan war is just a small factor.

It is true that the war in Afghanistan has helped to undermine the faith of ordinary Soviet people in their government. I do not know whether this is true, but Chernobyl had even more influence on public opinion.

BBC: In recent years, several films about the Afghan war were made in Russia, there was a number of publications, particularly during the celebration of the 20 anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Do you think Russia is still trying to comprehend the war?

RB: There are few good films about the Afghan war. Among those the veterans like, a really good movie is "Afghan Breakdown", filmed in 1991. Мне кажется, что он достоверно изображает войну. It seems to me that it portrays the war accurately. Veterans do not like the "Ninth company", which enjoyed success in Russia and abroad.

As for the comprehension of the war, many those who served in Afghanistan, say more and more often that when Yeltsin cancelled the supply of weapons, fuel and food to the Afghan leader Najibullah, it was a betrayal, and led to Najibullah's downfall.

BBC: During the war years of 1979-89 up to half a million civilians were killed in Afghanistan, and three million have become refugees, which is a large figure for a country with 15 million people. В популярных книгах о войне часто происходит обезличивание местного населения вражеской страны и его страданий. In the popular books about the war the local population of enemy countries and their suffering are often depersonalized. And this leads to the fact that cruelty against this faceless population becomes more acceptable. When paying attention mainly to Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan, don't you do the same?

Р.Б.: Я написал эту книгу, потому что Запад обезличил русских солдат в Афганистане. RB: I wrote this book because the West deprived of individuality the Russian soldiers in Afghanistan. And I wanted to repay it, pay attention to them and portray them as people and not as an enemy.

I did not write about the Mujahideen, because many have already written about them before me.

I hope that the reader does not have the impression that I was demonizing the Mujahideen. They were brave fighters. Yes, sometimes they showed the cruelty, as well as Russians did.

I think that in any war demonization of the enemy is inevitable.Then it is easier to get soldiers to fight.

I hope that my book makes it clear my attitude to the war - that war is horrible, but that, unfortunately, the desire to fight is an innate human trait.

I do not think the wars will ever stop, which means that we will continue to demonize the enemy. It's human nature.