Sir Rodric Braithwaite (Speaker), Jorrit Kamminga (Speaker), N. Piers Ludlow (Chair)
22 February 2012, Wednesday, NAB 2.04, New Academic Building, 6:30pm – 8:00pm
How do we remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989, and how does history relate to today's state of affairs in that country? The documentary 'Afghanistan, Land of Wonders' (2009) by ICOS Film and Chronoscoop deals with Russian veterans who struggle with the consequences of the war that ended nearly 25 years ago. Jorrit Kamminga, Director for Policy Research at the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), introduced and commented upon his and Johan Zielstra's film. As eye-witness and historian Sir Rodric Braithwaite, former British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-1992, commented.
The full documentary can be viewed here: http://www.imdb.com/video/wab/vi1698955801/
By Harriet Shone
Sir Rodric, British ambassador to Moscow between 1988 and 1992, and Jorrit Kamminga, Director for Policy Research at the International Council on Security and Development, discussed the Soviet experience in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989, drawing parallels with the current NATO mission.
Jorrit Kamminga introduced an extract from his recent documentary entitled Afghanistan: Land of Wonders, stressing the human dimension of war, which he referred to as the 'beauty of war'. He emphasised the connections forged by veterans of that conflict, both within the Soviet-Afghan coalition army and beyond, connections that remain strong today.
The twenty minuted extract from Land of Wonders beautifully illustrated the bittersweetness of the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, which was a brutal conflict but also one that veterans look back on with fondness and, often with misplaced nostalgia. Particularly poignant were the comments made by Soviet veterans on Afghanistan today, one of whom described it as 'a hornets nest in which you should not stick your head'. These veterans appeared clearly chagrined at the lack of lessons learnt from the Soviet decade in Afghanistan.
Sir Rodric then emphasised the difficulties faced in studying the personal experience of war, underlining the reluctance of many Afghani and even Soviet soldiers to relate their experiences. By definition, the people with whom you are speaking are the people who want to be spoken to. He then challenged the view that the Communist government of Afghanistan was entirely brutal and emphasised the progressive focus on social issues, including the role played by women in public life and infrastructure. However, Sir Rodric cautioned against the view that the West was foolish to support the Mujahideen. Such a position is too heavily born of the benefit of hindsight and loses sight of the priorities and options available to Western governments at the time. He concluded by expressing his deep concerns and pessimism for the future of Afghanistan, criticising the NATO decision to remain in that country for such a long period, the same mistake made 25 years ago by the USSR.
The question of whether the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a victory of a failure remains hotly contested today. The speakers were not hopeful that the same will not be said of the Western mission 25 years from now.
Sir Rodric Braithwaite joined the Diplomatic Service in 1955. He had postings in Jakarta, Warsaw, Moscow, Rome, Brussels (European Union), and Washington. He was British ambassador in Moscow from 1988-1992.
Jorrit Kamminga is the Director for Policy Research at the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) and a PhD candidate at the Department of Constitutional Law, Political Science and Administration at the University of Valencia. He has extensive work experience in Afghanistan.
Dr N. Piers Ludlow is Head of the Cold War Studies Programme and Reader in International History at the LSE.
NAB 2.04, New Academic Building, London School of Economics. Map.