The Faraway War

Report from Afghanistan

by Gérard Chaliand, translated by Tamar Jacoby
Viking/Penguin, 112 pp., $13.95; $4.95 (paper)

In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey

by Jere Van Dyk
Coward-McCann, 253 pp., $18.95

A Hitch or Two in Afghanistan: A Journey behind Russian Lines

by Nigel Ryan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 210 pp., £8.95

Behind Russian Lines: An Afghan Journal

by Sandy Gall
Sidgwick & Jackson, 194 pp., £8.95

Afghanistan and the Soviet Union

by Henry S. Bradsher
Duke University Press, 324 pp., $32.50; $12.75 (paper)

Red Flag over Afghanistan: The Communist Coup, the Soviet Invasion and Their Consequences

by Thomas T. Hammond
Westview Press, 300 pp., $25.00; $10.95 (paper)

Four years have passed since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and we in the West still do not seem to know what to think about it, let alone what to do about it. For most of us it is still, as Czechoslovakia was for Chamberlain in 1938, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” In fact the Afghans are a great deal further away than the Czechs, both geographically and culturally; so our excuse for knowing nothing about them is somewhat better. But at least the Westerner who wants to know something about Afghanistan now has quite a lot to read.

Four of the books reviewed here are the work of Westerners who have been in Afghanistan, escorted by resistance fighters, since the Soviet invasion. Of these only Gérard Chaliand does not dwell on the physical hardships involved in the enterprise. No doubt he was hardened by his previous extensive experience of reporting guerrilla warfare in various continents. Jere Van Dyk, an athlete of international standard, became seriously footsore. Ryan and Gall, middle-aged television executives, used, in Ryan’s words, to a “soft urban lifestyle,” suffered agonies of privation and fatigue. William Branigin, who made the same journey a year later for The Washington Post, refers to part of it as “a nightmare that made me curse my editors, the entire newspaper business and my own folly for ever having accepted [the] assignment.”1 The trip, he writes, “made me painfully aware of a major reason for the relatively paltry international coverage of Afghanistan: the difficulty of gaining access to the country.”2

All credit, then, to those reporters who have made the trip, at the cost of great physical discomfort and considerable physical risk. Their reports make it that much more difficult for us to forget all about Afghanistan. They give the people there faces and names, reminding us that what is at stake is not simply a remote but potentially strategic space on the board of the Great Game. And each year so far they have brought the important news that the war is still going on, and that the Russians are not winning it.

Chronologically, the first of these authors in the field was Gérard Chaliand, who made two trips in 1980. But his book has a misleading title. It contains very little eyewitness reporting and is really more in the nature of a short essay. Whereas his successors have been content to give us an account of their own raw experience, Chaliand uses his experience to help him assess and analyze information from other sources, seeking to place the Afghan war in a global setting—both in the sense of its geopolitical significance and in the sense of comparing it to other guerrilla or liberation wars in other parts of the world. He summarizes his conclusion about the Afghan resistance as follows: “It is an extremely popular movement that has arisen spontaneously among many different kinds of people with varying motives,”…

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