Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Soviet-Afghan War 1979-89 (Osprey, 2024)
It would all be very easy, the planners thought. The Soviet Union would invade, seize the capital, knock over the government, establish a new and stable regime, then spread the benefits of this revolution across the country while the military withdrew back over the borders. The result, however, was a decade-long quagmire and arguably the most consequential war of the late 20th Century. Welcome to the Soviet-Afghan War, and in this Osprey Essential Histories book, Gregory Fremont-Barnes will tell you all about it.
Fremont-Barnes traces the roots of Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan to the 18th Century, but it would be in the 19th Century when Russia’s entanglement accelerated. By the 1970s, Afghanistan, or perhaps more accurately Kabul, was securely in the Soviet sphere of influence, though seismic political unrest across the country resulted in the Soviet Union sending troops over the border. But the Soviet army was not set up to defeat the elusive Mujahideen, argues Fremont-Barnes. He runs through the Soviet problems, their tactics and weapons, and their capabilities but has nothing good to say about the allied Afghan army, though he is sympathetic towards them. The Mujahideen, on the other hand, were highly motivated and held many advantages. Not getting dragged into pitched battles was their primary tactic, relying on ambushes and hit and run raids.
Fremont-Barnes begins his narrative with the 1978 coup and its aftermath that brought the Soviet army into Afghanistan. He describes the resultant fighting as a ‘war without fronts’, an apt description considering the kaleidoscopic nature of the enemy’s strategy. The war was divided into four phases, which Fremont-Barnes narrates in turn: the attempt to create stability; a period of major operations and Soviet attempts to suppress the Mujahideen; an effort to make the Afghan army take the lead in combat operations; and the period of staged Soviet withdrawal. He concludes that the Soviets were unprepared and performed poorly. A trip into the world of the Mujahideen follows, with Fremont-Barnes identifying religion as the only bond between a plethora of diverse peoples. Other cultural unifying factors emerge, which led to the intractable force that opposed the Soviets as with any other historical invader with the temerity to poke their nose into Afghan affairs. In the end, the Soviets had to acknowledge their defeat and get out. The puppet government they left behind faltered then fell not long after the Soviet Union had also collapsed. For the latter, the war was an economic and political disaster. For Afghanistan, the war was an utter catastrophe by any measure.
The remit for an Essential Histories book is to tell the reader what they need to know about a conflict. In that regard, Fremont-Barnes has succeeded admirably even if he slants his work to the Soviet side of events, though I suspect that is an unavoidable problem given the paucity of sources from the Afghan perspective. Fremont-Barnes tells the story well and his conclusions appear merited; his scathing analysis of the Soviet performance is particularly well-judged. With the current wave of Russian imperialism in Ukraine in full swing, the Afghan War may seem like small potatoes now, but it was a crucial factor in the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is, therefore, well worthy of this treatment, and Fremont-Barnes does it justice.