The Great Gamble:The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer

In light of the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, I wanted to get a better understanding of its history.  In this pursuit, I felt that it would be advantageous to read a book about another world power that invaded Afghanistan – the Soviet Union.  Gregory Feifer writes about the Soviet invasion and war of occupation in The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan.

The most enlightening fact that I came away with after reading the book was the Soviet Politburo’s total lack of planning for the invasion and eventual occupation.  Feifer writes that the Soviets, led by Premier Leonid Brezhnev, almost stumbled into the decision.  Events moved so fast that before anyone knew it, advanced units of the Red Army and the KGB were in Afghanistan. 

Feifer also writes that unit coordination in the invasion and the war of occupation was abysmal.  There is always confusion in war – things never go as they are planned to go – but, as Feifer relates, the various Soviet units did not know what their comrades were doing and what their respective missions were.  This confusion led to many friendly fire incidents and lack of initiative.

Feifer describes some pivotal points in the Soviet experience that you can easily compare to our current situation in Afghanistan.  The Soviets initially had spectacular success in conquering the country (we led a very rapid defeat of the Taliban).  However, soon after the initial euphoria wore off, the Afghan tribes soon realized that the Soviets were there to stay and to “help” the Afghan government govern.  Many Afghans today were happy to see the Taliban rule end, but they were soon discouraged by the U.S. conduct of “clean-up” operations (the U.S. was content to use high-tech weaponry to save American lives sometimes at the expense of Afghan civilian lives).

Feifer’s writing style is easy to follow and understand – it is a quick read at 290 pages.  In addition, he includes many photographs throughout the text – these include ones of the various combatants and scenes from the war.

This book gives a good perspective of why the Soviet occupation went so wrong and why we need to be aware of the Soviets’ failures in this fascinatingly complex country.

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