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How not to end a war

Mikhail Gorbachev called Afghanistan “our bleeding wound”. Why hasn’t Nato learned from the Soviet U

In May 1985, two months after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, he sent one of his cleverest generals to Kabul on an urgent, secret mission. The name of General Zaitsev is unlikely to be well known to today's Nato commanders, but perhaps it should be. Back then he was the Red Army's most senior military planner and logistics expert, and Gorbachev ordered him to provide an honest answer to the question: can the USSR win the war in Afghanistan? He returned to Moscow swiftly with a simple answer: no.
Zaitsev concluded that the only way the war could end on Soviet terms would be to seal Afghanistan's border with Pakistan and thereby prevent the movement of arms and "terrorists" from the mujahedin - the Army of God - into the country. At this point, the Soviets had already committed 100,000 troops; the leadership in the Kremlin was told that about a quarter of a million more would be required to trap the guerrillas inside the country.

Politically, that was impossible. After six years of a war that party bosses in Moscow had been told would be a "surgical operation", over in a few months, more than 7,500 soldiers had died. It was draining resources at a time when the USSR was in an acute financial crisis because of plummeting oil prices. Gorbachev and other Kremlin leaders were inundated by letters from families of troops on duty in Afghanistan, and from the general public, asking why "our boys" were dying in a faraway land about which the Russian people knew little.

In all the debates about the west's role in Afghanistan, politicians, soldiers, diplomats and academics rarely refer to the Soviet experience of a war that lasted nearly a decade. Barack Obama and Gordon Brown are known to be wide readers, but one wonders if their bookshelves hold any of the numerous memoirs by Soviet generals about the USSR's Afghan war.

They should, as today's conflict is eerily reminiscent, right down to battles and skirmishes taking place in the same areas, such as Helmand Province. The Soviets could never pacify the south of the country. Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand and a base for Nato troops now, repeatedly changed hands during the war. For long periods during the 1980s, there were intense battles in nearby districts: in Nad Ali, Nawzad and around Marja, a vital centre for Afghan poppy production then, as now.

Listen to a Nato commander talking about the difficulties of fighting the Taliban and you could almost think it was a Soviet soldier from 25 years ago speaking. "Much of the territory stays in the hands of the terrorists. We control the political centres, but we cannot maintain control over
territory we seize . . . Our soldiers have fought incredibly bravely in adverse conditions. But to occupy towns and villages temporarily has little value in such a vast land where the insurgents can just disappear into the hills."

It could easily be the voice of a Nato spokesperson on the Today programme. In fact, these are the words of Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, commander of the Soviet armed forces, at a meeting of the Soviet Communist Party Politburo on 13 November 1986.

The Soviets searched over many years for an "exit strategy" from Afghanistan, as well as for something that could be described as a "victory". Both were elusive. Critics of current western policy argue that our leaders face similar dilemmas but don't know what the answers are. Yet the Soviet experience is, at the very least, an object lesson in how not to end a war.

Gorbachev used to call Afghanistan "our bleeding wound", but he could not staunch it without losing face or - so he thought - damaging the prestige of the USSR. Newly revealed material from Russia shows how the Soviet leadership dithered and prevaricated fatally. Gorbachev repeatedly made what he said was “a firm decision" to pull out the troops, but then found reason to delay. "How to get out racks one's brains," he complained in the spring of 1986, according to Politburo minutes. "We have been fighting there for six years and if we go on like this it might be another 20."

Withdrawal was a long-drawn-out agony over four years. By the time the last troops left, in February 1989, more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers had died and so had roughly 750,000 Afghans. Gorbachev was haunted by the humiliating image of the last Americans leaving Saigon by helicopter from the roof of the US embassy. "We cannot leave in our underpants . . . or without any," he wrote to one of his aides towards the end of 1988. And like all politicians, he was concerned about how he could spin defeat into something less embarrassing. "We must say that our people have not lost their lives in vain," he told the Politburo.

It was the only war that the Soviet Union lost, and the defeat had far-reaching consequences. The military disaster in Afghanistan was one of the main reasons that first the Soviet empire in Europe, and then the USSR itself, fell. It meant the Russians were no longer prepared to send their troops into battle anywhere. It fuelled the dramatic revolutions in the autumn and winter of 1989 when communist regimes collapsed in a dizzying few weeks. Defeat in the hills around Kabul led directly - and swiftly, within months - to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Victor Sebestyen's book "Revolution 1989: the Fall of the Soviet Empire" is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson (£25)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War