Foreign Policy Blogs



Nostalgia is everywhere these days, a far cry from the good old days when we used to live for the future. Woody Allen. South Africa politicians. Even Mad Men are in on the act.

But nostalgia for the Soviet war in Afghanistan?

“Car bombs and suicide attacks, which have become a permanent threat in today’s Kabul, were unknown during the Soviet period”, writes veteran Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele in his reflections of a 1981 trip, “and Afghans went about their daily business without fear of sudden mass slaughter”

“At the city’s two university campuses, most young women were unveiled, as were most of the female staff in banks, shops, schools, factories and government offices. A few wore a loose head-scarf over their hair. Only in the bazaar where poorer people shopped was the burqa common, usually blue, pink or a light shade of brown.”

And, just to twist the knife in that little bit deeper, he adds:

“When I registered with the Afghan foreign ministry, they assigned me – as I had expected – a minder who was to act as interpreter and accompany me on all my interviews. Unlike the British military minder I was required to have in Helmand in 2010, he was unarmed”.

Steele’s new book about Afghanistan is far from perfect. It certainly looks less impressive than ex ambassador Rodric Braithwaite’s magisterial work on the subject, which debunks many of the same myths as Steele’s, minus the puerile leftism, and with oodles more understated class.

But it reminds us that despite the fact that in “a time of brutal economic retrenchment, $2billion a week is being spent to maintain the vast military edifice in Afghanistan, $1million per soldier per year”, little is being shown for it.

The image of unveiled university women is crucial to this, in my mind, correct perception. Whatever else it did or did not do in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union allied itself to a fundamentally humanistic, forward looking political project, designed to turn Afghanistan into a modern and socially moderate country. Today, the US and NATO have no such ballast for their military presence. The government they are propping up has no ideology except its own survival, no vision of society. And that will mean its failure no matter how much the Western powers spend.

Comparing the US and Soviet wars in terms of length, damage and brutality is much less instructive than simply looking at the photo accompanying Steele’s piece.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs