In This Review

Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal
Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal
By Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison
Oxford University Press, 1995, 450 pp.

Harrison, a longtime student of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Cordovez, the United Nations' principal intermediary through much of it, team up to give the first detailed and behind-the-scenes account of how the Soviets stumbled into, floundered in, and worked their way out of the last of the great duels of the Cold War.

Harrison does most of the reconstructing of context, fashioned from a wide array of interviews--with people ranging from Soviet military intelligence operatives stationed in Kabul during the war to senior figures in the Central Committee apparat--newly released Soviet archival materials, and secondary analyses. Cordovez recounts what happened in his long, patient shuttle diplomacy among the Soviets, Afghans, and Pakistanis between 1982 and 1988. Although Harrison brings the advantage of detailed accumulated knowledge to the project, he, like Cordovez, was close to the story, and therefore neither man is revisiting the subject uninfluenced by the arguments he made at the time.

Harrison believed then that the Soviets crossed the line in 1979 not in a deliberate strategy to seize oil fields and ports to the south, but through confusion, inertia, and a wooden, unenlightened sense of national security. In all his reading and interviewing since, he finds that he was right. He and Cordovez believed that the conflicted Soviet leadership was serious early on about trying to find a negotiated path out of its entanglement. These views too have only been strengthened. And both believed that the eventual decision to withdraw made by Gorbachev and the others who inherited the mess was impeded by the efforts of other countries, particularly the United States, to pressure the Soviet Union politically and militarily. This view is also reinforced.

This is not to say the case they assemble lacks conviction. Far from it; theirs is a rich, impressively documented account. On many points they are reluctant to pass final judgment, and Harrison in particular airs views other than his own. Still, even if one grants that Andropov and others wanted to find a negotiated way out, until Gorbachev came to power what evidence is there that it could plausibly have been on terms acceptable to the Pakistanis and Americans?