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The Fateful Pebble: Afghanistan's Role in the Fall of the Soviet Empire.

ANTHONY ARNOLD is a retired CIA officer and Soviet specialist who has written two previous books on modern Afghanistan. In this detailed study of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan from 1978, Arnold makes a plausible case that it served as a catalyst for the collapse of the Soviet Union and its break-up into fifteen republics. The failure in Afghanistan, argues Arnold, was one clear proof among many others that the Soviet communist system was not working well.

Incisive introductory chapters on Russian and Soviet history and society set the scene. The morale of three key institutions of the Soviet Union - the Communist Party apparatus, the military establishment and the KGB - was badly damaged by the failure to batter the Afghan people into submission over the decade from the military invasion in December 1979. While the Afghan war did not in itself create the weaknesses affecting the CP, the army and KGB, it did reveal starkly their deficiencies.

Their failure, combined with other dramatic incidents like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, gradually altered and reduced public confidence in these institutions. The image of an all-powerful, invincible party, army and secret police was badly dented. Revelations about the long war in Afghanistan, argues Arnold, were all the more damaging because they usually came from Western radio and newspapers, not the heavily-controlled domestic media. Arnold elaborates a deep irony, that the KGB eventually came to believe in its own disinformation about the Afghan war, while the Russian and Soviet public became much more sceptical at long last about the accuracy and objectivity of reporting in the state media. Among the insidious side-effects of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were drug addiction, corruption and general loss of confidence in the party and regime.

The undeclared and under-reported Soviet war in Afghanistan, the first foreign war in which large numbers of Soviet forces were engaged since the end of World War Two, became the subject of rumours of deaths, casualties and massacres, for the most part widely believed in the Soviet Union, though often exaggerated. The far from glorious performance of the Soviet "limited military contingent" as it was officially described was clearly the most important single factor causing the steady decline through the 1980s in public confidence and pride in the armed forces. As a Pravda journalist reminded the domestic public in 1990, the Soviet soldier before the war began, "in the eyes of the population, was the country's defender, was the very epitome of nobility, dignity and courage. Only recently the military man was the boy's idol."

This book deals only briefly with the war's economic costs for the Soviet Union, heavy in total through steady losses of military equipment and lives, together with expenditure on backing the Kabul government bringing in supplies from Soviet Central Asia. It was the Afghan people, of course, who paid infinitely higher costs in resisting the Soviet-backed regime, with over one million dead, mostly civilians, and terrible destruction throughout Afghanistan. Arnold ends his book with a plea for the international community to recognise these terrible sacrifices, along with what flowed from it eventually in the political strains and final collapse of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, by giving aid generously in helping reconstruction for Afghanistan.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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