Osprey Publishing continues its “Combat” series with a study on the Soviet Afghan War (1979-89). A Soviet invasion intended to simply pacify the nation ended ten years later with thousands of dead on both sides and an overlooked war which shaped the modern situation in the Middle East. Soviet operations were widely led by their paratroopers, whom were mostly 18 year old conscripts far from home. The Mujahideen, Afghanistan’s anti-communist rebels, fought to reclaim their home and both sides committed atrocious crimes upon one another’s troops in battles through valleys, snowy mountains, and rocky outcrops for years.
The “Combat” series is one of my favourites because it covers so much information. The book is full of photographs of both armies and is accompanied by plates of two soldiers, a split-screen picture, and an excellent illustration of the battle for Hill 3234 by 9th company. The book contains a helpful map of Afghanistan in the introduction with each of the provinces labelled. There are plenty of explanations on the Soviet paras which are very interesting. Lots of quotes reveal the attitude of these young men and illustrates the fear of going to Afghanistan. One of the most harrowing is of Vladislav Tarasov- “when I was in my second year of college they changed the law and took me. ‘Anywhere but Afghanistan’ my mother said.” The book has plenty of descriptions of the brutality on both sides. From Russian hazing of their own recruits, to the Mujahideen human puppets they made out of captured soldiers. There are plenty of photos covering both sides of the war, which is surprising but also quite interesting.
My first and primary concern is a lack of background information on the Mujahideen. The author, David Campbell, has written another book about the Soviets in this series (Soviet vs Finnish Soldier in the Winter War, which is a great read), so it’s clear he prefers writing about the Soviets more. I still could have used some more information on the Afghanis. Major leaders, international support, and certain strongholds would have been very welcome. Yes, it is an introductory book to the subject, but I like balance in books, and compared to other “Combat” books, this one was not as such. The map for Hill 3234 is missing the unit numbers which bothered me. The commanding officers are all present, but I would have liked the unit designation. My last minor concern is the shoes in the Russian plate. I would have loved them to be in sneakers because many soldiers used them instead of boots on the mountains.
This book is a really interesting idea, but in practice, it fell short of expectations. The artwork, photos, and quotes are superb; but a lot feels as if it is missing. This definitely expands horizons and makes me want to explore the Soviet-Afghan War in depth, and I hope you do too.