To start off the New Year, two books on different aspects of war, separated by more than fifty years...
Ghosts of Afghanistan: the haunted battleground, by Jonathan Steele, hardback, 437 pages, ISBN 978-1-84627-430-5, Portobello Books, 2011, £25.
Jonathan Steele has 30 years’ experience reporting as a foreign correspondent, from Afghanistan and elsewhere. His book places the current Afghan war in its historical context and puts the case that foreign intervention there is futile.
The 9/11 attacks were “criminal attacks” by a non-state actor. Afghanistan’s armed forces had not attacked the USA. UN Resolution 1368 called on all member states to bring the perpetrators of terrorism to justice. Resolution 1373 authorised police measures against terrorists. Neither authorised the use of military force, or even mentioned Afghanistan. Instead of a “war” on terrorism we need to deal with terrorism by a mixture of politics and good police work.
64,000 foreign troops were in Afghanistan when Obama took office in January 2009; by 2011, it was 142,000, but there is no military solution. The main recruiters for the resistance are the presence and behaviour of foreign troops, and the Karzai government’s corruption. Similarly, Gorbachev’s troop surge of 1985 did not work either. The war is a stalemate. Between 2006 and 2010 Coalition forces killed increasing numbers of civilians and lost as many troops in 2010 as in the three years 2007-09.
Two British soldiers are killed every week. So the coalition government’s commitment to another three years of war condemns another 300 young British men to death, for nothing, in a pointless, unwinnable war. It has cost us a total £18 billion so far; another three years of war will cost us another £18 billion – figures to remember when the government lectures us about public debt.
Hillary Clinton spoke in February of “reconciling with” the Taliban, but has done nothing to follow this up. The US government wants a bilateral deal to keep US bases and “trainers” there.
Steele writes of “the doomed strategy of building up local Afghan forces to prolong the civil war”. He concludes, “The biggest lesson of recent Afghan history is that it is wrong for foreigners to arm factions engaged in civil war. For foreigners then to intervene with their own troops is even greater folly. The only way to end thirty-five years of war is through a negotiated peace in which the main fighting groups and their political allies are included.” Peace can only be achieved by the complete withdrawal of foreign troops. ■
Stalin’s keys to victory: the rebirth of the Red Army, by Walter S. Dunn, Jr., hardback, 179 pages, ISBN 0-275-99067-2, Praeger Security International, 2006, £27.50; paperback, 208 pages, ISBN 0811734234, Stackpole Books, USA, 2007, £14.50.
American historian Walter S. Dunn has written a fascinating study of how the Red Army won in World War II. He explains how the Soviet Union replaced its manpower, produced its arms and formed new units. He refutes the common myth that its victory was achieved only by throwing thousands of disorganised, untrained men into battle.
He observes, “The improved living conditions in the Soviet Union in the 1930s made dramatic improvements in the health of the population, specifically in the health of potential soldiers.” In World War I, 30 per cent of Russians called up were unfit for service; in World War II, just 5 per cent.
The end of the war: victorious Red Army soldiers raise the Soviet flag over defeated Berlin, 1945
The author notes, “The actual reason the Soviets were able to stop the Germans in late 1941 was an unbelievable mobilization of men and weapons beginning in September 1941, which created a new Red Army. The Soviets formed and sent into combat in a few months more new divisions than the United States formed in the entire war.” By comparison, “the French and British had ample time to create additional armies between September 1939 and May 1940 but chose not to do so.”
Dunn also points out, “Beginning in the summer of 1941, an incredible effort was made not only to form new divisions and other units to replace those destroyed by the Germans, but also to equip them with modern weapons capable of matching German weapons. The herculean effort culminated in the defeat of the German Army at the gates of Moscow, the first defeat inflicted on Germany during World War II.”
He gives the details: armoured vehicle production increased from 2,800 in 1940 to 29,000 in 1944, guns and mortars from 53,800 to 129,500, rifles and carbines from 1,460,000 in 1940 to 4,050,000 in 1942 and Maxim machine guns from 53,700 in 1941 to 458,500 in 1944. “The Russian arms industry produced more than enough artillery despite German occupation of the most industrialised part of its country.”
As a result, as Dunn observes, “Beginning in 1943, there was a sharp drop in the number of killed and wounded in major operations. ... The ratio of rifle divisions and tank corps demonstrates the growing power of the Soviet armed forces.” They were less dependent on infantry attacks.
Lend-lease from Britain and America was helpful but not decisive. “Although lend-lease played a significant role in providing trucks, canned rations, boots, uniforms, radios, and other equipment, the Red Army fought with Russian-made weapons.”
Dunn sums up, “Few nations could have survived such an onslaught. In World War I, Russia had succumbed under much less pressure. Somehow Stalin had convinced the many Soviet nationalities to fight for their country, which the czar had failed to do in 1917.” As he concludes, “Soviet sacrifices to defend their homeland ended Hitler’s threat to the world.” ■