Showing the world the hidden war in Afghanistan
Afghanistan: The Soviet War, by Edward Girardet. New York: St. Martin's Press. 256 p. $19.95. If the Soviet Union ever enters into serious negotiations to end its war in Afghanistan, a prospect hinted in some reports from the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, the pressure of world public opinion will be one of the reasons and Edward Girardet will be one of the heroes.
More than any other journalist, he has experienced the dangers of the Afghan war and shared the hardships of the Afghan resistance. In numerous reports, mostly to The Christian Science Monitor, he has told the world of the tragedy that the Soviet invasion has brought that proud people and beautiful land.
Now Girardet has written a moving, powerful book which evokes for readers vivid images of the combat, the life of the resistance, the plight of the Afghan civilian population inside the country and of the millions of refugees in Pakistan, of Soviet strategy and tactics and, yes, of the hardships being suffered by the Soviets themselves.
In one sense, Girardet's story is an optimistic one. He describes in absorbing detail the effectiveness of the Afghan resistance to Soviet rule. One can only marvel at the ability of the Afghans -- under the most extreme physical hardships and lacking most modern weapons -- to resist a superpower. And one can only marvel at their courage and at the devotion to homeland, tribe, and religion which inspires that courage.
But Girardet's account also has important elements of pessimism. The resistance remains fragmented, which is not surprising in the light of Afghan culture, but which at present hampers some military actions and makes a negotiating scenario much more complex. The resistance needs to offer an alternative government at the negotiating table. The depopulation of the countryside and destruction of agriculture -- by Soviet design -- make resistance more difficult. Soviet indoctrination of Afghan youth may make communist rule easier in the longer term, although Girardet may underestimate the negative impressions Afghans will obtain from lengthy exposure to Russian racism.
Girardet makes some valuable suggestions which are too often ignored in the West. One is that more educational and medical assistance be given to the Afghan population in resistance-controlled areas (85 percent of the country). While justifiably praising the French-led medical teams serving in these areas, he rightly believes that resistance groups themselves and trained Afghans now living in the West could do more.
Girardet's book misses the mark in only one important respect. He is insufficiently scrupulous in reporting the developments that led up to the Soviet-supported communist coup in April 1978. For example, having been in the Panjshair Valley on horseback at the time of the ``uprising'' of the summer of 1975, I know that the Pakistan-trained insurgents held parts of the valley for at most a few hours, not for three days.
But the pre-1978 period is not what Girardet's book is about. His is an exceptionally poignant account of a people struggling for survival. His book cries out for help for the Afghans in their moment of need. Would that there were thousands of Girardets telling this story in print and on television. Then the Afghans -- and we -- might have real cause for hope that the Russian empire has met its match.
Theodore L. Eliot was the US ambassador to Afghanistan from 1973 to 1978.