The Soviet-Afghan War helped bring down the Soviet Union and encouraged the rise of Al Qaeda and Islamism. The films about this war have been sponsored by both Western governments – Britain, the USA and Israel – and by Russia. This week I look at these films, their state sponsorship and how they portray both the Red Army and the Mujahideen, with some surprising results.
The Soviet-Afghan war is, in my mind, the most important war of the second half of the 20th century. More important than Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Israel and Palestine, the Iran-Iraq war that was going on at the same time. The Soviet-Afghan war fundamentally reshaped the world in a way none of the other conflicts did. It helped bring down the Soviet Union and helped the rise of Al Qaeda and Islamism, without which we would not have the world we have today. And yet, like NATO’s war in Afghanistan that is still going on, this is a war that most people have forgotten about or never knew about in the first place.
So, before we get into the films I will first remind you of a brief bit of history, to give some context for understanding the cinema of the Soviet-Afghan war. In the middle of the 20th century Afghanistan was a relatively stable and prosperous country under the monarchy of Mohammed Zahir Shah. Kabul was known as the ‘Paris of Central Asia’, where women wore Western fashions including mini skirts. In 1973 there was a coup against the King while he was out of the country receiving medical treatment. The new government lasted only five years before the Afghan Communist party the PDPA overthrew it in a bloody coup, leading to Mohammed Nur Taraki and Hafizullah Amin taking charge.
The Communist government, like the one they had overthrown, struggled to implement their reforms. The idea of converting a country to Communism when most people are religious is hard enough, but there was little in the way of national media and most of the population couldn’t read so the schools weren’t much help either. The following year, 1979, there was another coup as Amin ousted Taraki and had him executed. What goes around comes around.
The Soviet Union, who had been becoming more friendly with Afghanistan for decades, were propping up the government while Taraki was in power but they did not trust Amin. Afghanistan is an interesting country in that it has no great natural resources and has never had particularly well-developed infrastructure. However, it lies at (or near) the centre of the world’s largest land mass, Eurasia. It is the quintessential buffer state, lying South of Central Asia, North of the Indian subcontinent, east of the Middle East but west of the Far East. As such, even though the country itself was not a significant prize, geography dictates that superpowers have vested interests in what happens there.
So, the Soviets wanted Afghanistan to remain Communist but they didn’t think Amin was up to the job. Then they found out he was reaching out to Pakistan and the United States to try to gain new influence, so they put it about that he was secretly working for American intelligence. As absurd as this sounds, in the autumn of 1979 the Soviet Union had nothing better to do than accuse the President of this newly-minted proxy, client Communist state of working for the CIA. However, they tried to work with Amin and get him to behave himself for a few more months, though this failed to produce the desired results.
Meanwhile, there was a large but not at all unified resistance to the central government in Kabul from the religious rural tribespeople who didn’t want to be Communist. In the summer of 1979 the US formally begin covert support to this resistance, though there are indications it had begun before that. This febrile situation let to the Politburo deciding to remove Amin from power so initially they tried poisoning his food. This too, failed to produce the desired result, leaving the Soviets no option but to invade, remove Amin from power, execute him and install their own government leadership. This they did in December 1979, with the Soviet tanks arriving in Kabul on Christmas day 1979 and hitting the world media in the following 48 hours.
This produced over 9 years of war between the Soviet army, alongside the army of the central government of Afghanistan, against both the domestic and international resistance forces backed by Iran, China, Pakistan, Britain and the United States. And to a lesser extent by Israel and Egypt. This resulted in a stalemate, so the Soviets withdrew and left a Communist government in power in Kabul. Because this did nothing to resolve the fundamental conflicts in the country, and then the Soviet Union collapsed anyway, the government in Kabul fell quickly and was replaced by the Taliban.
So, this was a particular set of domestic and geopolitical circumstances that brought about this war. There are two populist, simplified versions that always overlook most of the facts which I want to warn you against. First, that this was the result of Soviet aggression and ideology. It wasn’t. The Politburo didn’t think Communism or Socialism had much of a chance in Afghanistan, they were quite realistic about the odds of it succeeding. This was a case of the Soviets overreaching, but only because they tried several other methods first and they all failed.
Second, that the CIA and Zbigniew Brzezinski cunningly lured the Soviets into their Vietnam and thus brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. This version is always, invariably and without exception, based on an interview Brzezinski gave to La Nouvel Observateur in 1998. The peddlers of this conspiracy tripe always ignore the fact that Brzezinski himself has renounced that interview and said that his words had been rearranged by the editors to misrepresent what he said. Furthermore, the original interview is in French so everyone is reading it in translation anyway. To base your entire view of the origins of this war on a translated interview that has been refuted by the interviewee himself is just stupid and dishonest. So, I warn you not to trust anyone who tries to sell you this version of events because they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they do and they’re wilfully trying to deceive people. Instead, I strongly recommend the book Ghost Wars by Steve Coll and the National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book 57, along with an hour long discussion Steve Coll did on this topic. They don’t have the sexy, attention grabbing simplification of anti-Soviet or anti-American conspiracy theories, but at least they’re based in reality.
Government involvement in the Cinema of the Soviet-Afghan War
With that lengthy prelude out of the way let us turn now and look at the films depicting the Soviet-Afghan War because there are a few and every single one was state-sponsored in some way or another. The reason I picked this topic is that I am currently working on a piece for an American journal for an edition devoted to government involvement in entertainment. Pearse and I were approached last summer about helping to put this together so we will both be contributing pieces to it, along with some other authors that long term listeners will be familiar with. There will be more on that closer to publication time but the piece I have been writing is on fiction about the Soviet Afghan War including a couple of novels that we won’t be looking at today – Tom Clancy’s Cardinal of the Kremlin and Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan. Note, Clancy was friendly with the CIA and Forsyth was a part time agent for MI6.
But today we’re talking about films, and they come in two batches. We have The Living Daylights (1987), Rambo III and The Beast of War (both 1988) and Afghan Breakdown (1990) in the first set. In the second we have The 9th Company (2005), Charlie Wilson’s War and The Kite Runner (both 2007). To make this simple I’ll start by outlining the government involvement in these productions before we look at what these films tell us and how accurate or inaccurate they are.
The Living Daylights is a James Bond film and thus is based on the books by former British Naval Intelligence officer Ian Fleming. We needn’t get into Fleming in detail but he definitely continued working for British intelligence after WW2, was good friends with Allen Dulles and generally quite friendly with the CIA. Most of the others who created the Bond film franchise had either worked in the military or intelligence agencies, or had worked closely with them to produce movies during and after WW2. Specifically, The Living Daylights was partly filmed on British Ministry of Defence property – the opening sequence on Gibraltar was almost entirely shot on MOD land. The production also borrowed planes from the Spanish Air Force and it seems from the American Air Force too. As per usual, Morocco was the stand in for Afghanistan.
The Beast of War, which is a far less well-known movie employed former US Marine Dale Dye in one of the first movies he ever worked on after leaving the Marine Corps. Dye also worked on several Oliver Stone films, Wag the Dog, Rules of Engagement, Tropic Thunder and other movies that we have examined before or will be examining in the future. On the website for his company, Warriors Inc, Dye recalls:
An interesting aspect of our work on The Beast was my early mission to Israel during which I was given negotiable securities and ordered to purchase two captured Soviet tanks from the Israeli Defense Forces. Fortunately, I had some personal contacts in the IDF from active duty days and I was able to negotiate a deal for two T-55s over a couple of beers in the bar of the King David Hotel in Tel Aviv. I hadn’t realized until that moment that working as a military advisor on films might employ me as an international arms dealer.
Just as the CIA bought Soviet arms from Israel to help arm the mujahideen the producers of this film bought two captured Soviet tanks from the Israeli government. The Beast of War was primarily filmed in Israel with the permission of the government, and they borrowed an Aérospatiale Super Frelon helicopter from the French military.
Rambo III, easily the dumbest movie ever made about the Soviet-Afghan War, was also state sponsored. I know that some of you will have listened to a recent podcast by someone who shall remain nameless but who peddles the simplistic anti-American conspiracy theory mentioned above. He said he could not find any evidence of government support for Rambo III, which to my mind just shows you how this self-proclaimed producer of ‘open source intelligence news’ doesn’t have a fucking clue what he’s talking about. If only he’d bothered to watch the credits for the film he’d have noticed that the producers thank officials from the US senate, the State Department, the Treasury and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A little digging yields the fact that they filmed extensively in Israel and much of the Soviet weaponry and vehicles were provided by the Israeli government. It’s remarkable what you can find out if you actually do open source research rather than just rip off other people’s stuff, call it open source and try to take the credit for yourself.
Rambo III came out just days before the Soviets began withdrawing from Afghanistan and at the same time the Soviet Union were producing their own version of the Soviet-Afghan War, Afghan Breakdown. This began production in 1988 as the Soviet army started to withdraw. The director visited Kabul and Kandahar to research the project and the film was produced with the full co-operation of the Red Army who provided vehicles and technical advice, and many of the soldiers seen in the film were played by real Soviet troops.
15 years later the first of our second set of films was also produced with the help of the Russian government. The 9th Company was produced with the assistance of the Russian Federal Agency of Culture and Cinema and the Ministry of Culture. The Russian military loaned numerous tanks, armoured personnel carriers, helicopter gunships and other hardware. Despite costing only $9,500,000 the resulting movie has the production values of a Michael Bay directed Hollywood film made with full Pentagon co-operation. It is very much the Russian equivalent of that sort of film, without being as dumb or irritatingly filmed as a Michael Bay movie. President Vladimir Putin publicly endorsed The 9th Company, and according to the BBC ‘Fedor Bondarchuk is the first film director to have been invited by the president to his residence to watch the film together’. The 9th Company was the highest grossing production in Russia in 2005 and the second-highest grossing Russian film of the whole post-Communist era.
A couple of years later we saw two very different American productions – Charlie Wilson’s War and The Kite Runner. Charlie Wilson’s War was supported by the CIA, both Chase Brandon and former CIA officer Milt Bearden were technical advisors on the production, as was Charlie Wilson himself who is a former CIA asset. The Kite Runner, by contrast, was made with the help of the Chinese government and for once it is Chinese mountains and deserts that are the substitutes for Afghanistan. I don’t think any of these movies were actually made in Afghanistan itself, which tells you something about the chaos that country has endured in recent decades. The Kite Runner also had troubles because of controversial scenes in the movie, including one where a young Hazara boy is raped by a teenage Pashtun bully. The producers hired former CIA agent John Kiriakou to assess the threat to the young actors in the film, and his recommendation was that the children be relocated out of Afghanistan. Rich Klein, the DC lawyer, helped to get the kids moved and enrolled in a school in the United Arab Emirates.
The depiction of the Soviet-Afghan War in movies
The similarities and differences between how these films portray the Soviet war in Afghanistan make up most of the essay I am writing and it would take too long to discuss all of that so I’ll draw out a few salient points for you. All of the American government-sponsored films portray the Russians terribly. They are frequently referred to as genocidal in intent, trying to wipe out the Afghan people. They are always brutal and cruel and even take pleasure in the cruelty. Rambo III does this in a ham-fisted way in scenes like this:
The Living Daylights is a little more subtle and even quite funny, especially in the scene between the Russian jail warden and the mujahideen prisoner.
By the time we get to Charlie Wilson’s War we’re back in dunderhead mode where you’re almost slapped in the face with how evil those Commie bastard Ruskies are.
The Beast of War is somewhat different. It tells the story of one tank crew near the start of the war who get separated from the rest of their unit and lost in the Afghan desert. While the Russians are not portrayed well, they are a lot more complex than in most Western made films. It is the tank commander who is the real bastard, he brutalises his own crew almost as badly as he does the Afghan villagers that they slaughter indiscriminately. He then murders the Afghan Communist soldier who is part of his crew, leading to one of the Russian soldiers threatening to report him. The commander then abandons the Russian soldier, tied to a rock in the middle of the desert with a live hand grenade behind his head as a kind of booby trap in case anyone tries to help him. The soldier is eventually rescued by the mujahideen and he joins them, helping to find and destroy the tank.
Naturally the two Russian-sponsored films portray the Soviet soldiers in a somewhat more human way. Afghan Breakdown shows them being excessively violent to the Afghan population and shows the Russian military subjecting new recruits to hazing rituals, but no one is left to die tied to a rock with a grenade behind their head. Ditto in The 9th Company the treatment of the soldiers is sometimes harsh but never psychotic. Nonetheless, even these two films do not make out like the Russians are a lovely, warm, sympathetic people. Instead, in keeping with a lot of Russian literature, they all suffer and the admiration of the audience comes from their strength in the face of this suffering. So this isn’t an absolute contrast between the Western-sponsored films and the Russian-sponsored films.
Likewise there is the depiction of the mujahideen in these films, on the other side of the war. Rambo III and The Living Daylights both go with by-the-books portraits of the Afghan resistance as freedom fighters, which is how they were presented in news media at the time. The reality, that most considered themselves to be fighting a jihad to protect Islam, which doesn’t really have anything to do with the concept of freedom, is consistently ignored in these films.
Contrasting this we have the mujahideen in the Russian films, where they are mostly generic Reel Bad Arabs, just bearded brown guys with guns trying to kill Russians so the Russians have to kill them. In fact if you compare the portrayal of Arabs in Afghan Breakdown and The 9th Company to their portrayal in Rules of Engagement you will notice they are very similar. It seems that Reel Bad Arabs is not just a Hollywood phenomenon but also one that manifests in Russian cinema too.
The Beast of War, the one about the Soviet tank crew, is the only film out of this bunch that portrays the mujahideen as humans. When Koverchenko is abandoned tied to a rock by his commander he is first discovered by a group of women from a local village. They stone him until he cries out ‘nanawatai’ – a Pashtun term referring to a principle whereby even an enemy should be given shelter if he asks for it. The women relent and then the mujahideen arrive and give him sanctuary. This is the only film where an aspect of Afghan culture is critical to the plot. While other films portray the mujahideen positively this is mostly because they are good cannon fodder and fight alongside a Western hero and assist in his aims. The Beast of War actually acknowledges that Afghans have a character, culture and values of their own that might be relevant to understanding the Soviet-Afghan War. This is not only rare in fiction about the Soviet-Afghan war but in fiction about the Middle East in general.
Indeed, while Charlie Wilson’s War, Rambo III and The Living Daylights could all be said to portray the mujahideen positively, this is only because they’re doing what we want them to do – kill Russians. They are still Reel Bad Arabs – a bunch of bearded religious fanatics who are only good at fighting. They are still being reduced and stereotyped in line with Hollywood’s entrenched racism towards Arabs. In reality, the only difference between their portrait in these three Western-sponsored films and the two Russian-sponsored films is whose side you are on. They are no more human, no more complex or realistic in the films portraying them as good than in the films portraying them as bad.
Ahmed Shah Massoud in Cinema
I could go on at length about these films but I won’t, instead I will promise to let you all know when the journal edition is published so you can read my full analysis for yourselves. But there is one more element that I want to highlight for you that’s more bizarre than anything else. One of the most important mujahideen commanders in the Soviet-Afghan War was Ahmed Shah Massoud. Unlike most of the major figures in the Afghan resistance, Massoud was a Tajik from the North of the country and fought there. Most of the resistance were Pashtun and fought in the South.
One of the main reasons for this is that external support for the mujahideen mostly flowed through Pakistan. This is true both in the form of money and arms and equipment paid for by the US and Saudi Arabia, and in form of the Afghan Arabs, the international mujahideen who came from other countries to join the fight. Hence, there was easier access to money, medical supplies, equipment, weapons and fighters in the south of the country than in the North. Nonetheless, Massoud was an important leader who did receive help from foreign governments in taking the fight to the Soviets.
According to Steve Coll’s book Ghost Wars it was MI6 who supported Massoud, because the CIA were largely running their end of things from Islamabad in Pakistan. MI6 had more access to the Northern part of Afghanistan so they liased with Massoud. One of the reasons I like this guy is that he also fought against the extremists in Afghanistan, both before and after the Soviet-Afghan War. He was the subject of numerous assassination attempts throughout his adult life, finally being killed two days before 9/11 by two Al Qaeda operatives. They were apparently Belgians who, using a stolen French video camera, went to Afghanistan to interview the leaders of various groups and organisations. When they got in to see Massoud they blew up explosives inside the camera, killing themselves and fatally wounding Massoud.
Thus, it’s a little odd that the mujahideen commander who James Bond teams up with is called Kamran Shah. It’s even odder that he deals heroin to the Russian military in order to raise money to buy weapons, which is reportedly what Ahmed Shah Massoud did. It’s almost as though the writers of The Living Daylights knew about Massoud and what was going on in Afghanistan – the secret stuff, not just that there were some freedom fighters struggling against the Commies. But if they knew, so did the writers of Rambo III. The mujahideen commander Rambo teams up with is called – no joke – Massud, and he fights in the Panjshir valley, exactly where the real Massoud was based.
So you get the idea of how there is a lot going on in the cinema of the Soviet-Afghan War, even now. The one film that manages to avoid most of these pitfalls and propagandistic dead-ends is The Kite Runner, which is the only film that begins before the Soviet invasion and the only film that continues after the war is over. It is also the only film where Afghans are the central characters. That is not to say it is the only good film out of this selection, I really enjoyed The Beast of War, it’s like Das Boot but in a tank in Afghanistan. Very realistic, gritty portrait of war with some powerful drama. It made no money but it is something of a cult classic and I can see why. So, if you are looking for something more sophisticated than NATO or Russian-sponsored propaganda I recommend The Beast of War and The Kite Runner as the best – both politically and artistically – of the cinema of the Soviet-Afghan Afghan War.