Some of might remember a post I did last July called “Books I’ve Desperately Wanted to Read.” In that post I featured 15 different books I’ve been wanting to get my hands on for a long, long time. One of those books Gregory Feifer’s, The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan has been on my to read list since 2009, when it was first published. After years of making no effort whatsoever to read The Great Gamble, Christmas morning six months ago I decided to treat myself by buying it and a few other books off Amazon. Honestly, I can’t remember exactly when I decided to finally sit down and start reading it, but when I did I immediately took a liking to Feifer’s 2009 book. Once again, I had one of those “why did I wait to so long to read this?” kind of moments I always experience when reading an excellent book I should have read years ago.
The Great Gamble is Feifer’s detailed and highly readable account of the Soviet Union’s costly and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to install and sustain a friendly regime in neighboring Afghanistan. A former NPR Russia correspondent based in Moscow, Feifer made good use of his home abroad and the journalistic connections that came with it to interview those who fought in Afghanistan. Living in Moscow he was also able to utilize Soviet-era archives to help show what USSR’s aging leadership was thinking when it decided to roll across the border two days after Christmas in 1979. Fearing Afghanistan’s latest dictator might withdraw the fractious and horribly impoverished country from the USSR’s orbit of client states, the Soviet inner circle somehow authorized (actual written documentation either no longer exists or was never written down) the invasion as a quick surgical strike by Soviet special forces. Eliminate Afghanistan’s leader, put in the USSR’s chosen successor and go home. Funny how these kind of military operations never exactly go as planned. A decade later a bloodied and disillusioned Red Army would limp home after accomplishing little if anything. On top of that, in one of history’s more striking ironies, several years later the same global superpower that invaded Afghanistan would collapse like a house of cards.
The Great Gamble is an excellent book. Reading Feifer’s accounts of Soviet troops winning individual battles only lose the overall war, shows the near impossible task of defeating a force of motivated insurgents, especially when those insurgents receive international backing including bases in a neighboring county. Personally, my favorite part of The Great Gamble was Feifer’s account of the lack of coordination and communication between different elements of the USSR’s intelligence and elite military services. Soviet spies tried to poison Afghan President Hafizullah Amin once, and when unsuccessful tried again. Ailing and fighting for his life, different elements of Soviet intelligence dispatched a doctor who ultimately saved his life. But alas, it was all for naught when right after that a squad of Soviet commandos stormed the Presidential palace and killed him.
Like I said before, The Great Gamble is an excellent book. So much did I enjoy it there’s a good chance you’ll see it included in my year-end best of list of outstanding nonfiction.