Afghanistan is one of the most backward countries on earth. Its population about 16 million. National income per head is less than $150 a year. Between one and two million people were nomads even before the Russian invasion created four million refugees.
The biggest town, the capital, Kabul, has a population of a million; the next biggest, Kandahar, a bit more than 100,000. More than 85% of the people live in the rural areas. Only 10% of males and 3% of females are literate. The land is massively underutilised. Only about 20% of the country is arable but of that less than half is cropped. According to figures given cut by the government after the 1978 coup 82% of the peasants owned 35% of the land, while the biggest landowners, 5% of the rural population, owned 45%. Industry and handicrafts employ about 6% of the working population, but (according to estimates published by the US Department of Commerce in 1970) output in handicrafts was reckoned to be three to four times as large as factory-scale industry, though such industry had grown in the 1960s.
In 1970, factory-scale industry still accounted for only between 2 and 3% of Gross Domestic Product. The working class that could emerge in such conditions was bound to be both weak and socially unformed, even if we add in the 2% of the labour force in mining and construction. (The labour force is reckoned to be 25% of the population). There is nothing remotely like the conditions that allowed the Russian working class — small relative to Russia, but proportionately and absolutely much bigger than Afghanistan’s, and concentrated in large-scale industry — to lead a socialist revolution in 1917 against pre-bourgeois conditions. In Afghanistan, any attempts to organise trade unions seem to have met with harsh repression.
Capitalism in Afghanistan is mainly merchant capital and usurers’ capital, enmeshing the rural poor in its net. There is some private ownership of the factory-scale industry (for example in cotton), but everywhere, in so far as there is industrial capitalism, the government, using foreign aid and acting through the ministries of mines and industry and of commerce, had to undertake the role of state capitalist. There were no railways until the invading Russians started building one — which is still unfinished — to tie Afghanistan closer to the USSR. One result of this underdevelopment is that nothing resembling a nation state has developed.
The borders of the state were defined by the rival pressures of the Tsarist Empire in the north (which reached the present Russian-Afghan border, as it expanded in Central Asia, in 1875) and the British Empire and Persia. In the later 19th century Afghanistan emerged as a buffer between the Russian and British Empires. The population consists of over 20 ethnic groups in all — of which the biggest accounts for only about half the population. Afghanistan not being knitted together by the development of a national economy, there are naturally many localisms and regionalisms and a deep tradition of resistance to any central government. The only “national” institutions have been the institutions of the state machine.
This society, which escaped both long-term imperialist occupation and disruption by capitalist penetration, has proved remarkably durable and resistant to change or development. In the 20s King Amanullah attempted to emulate Turkey’s reforming leader Kemal Ataturk, and to transform and modernise Afghanistan from above. But fierce opposition and tribal revolts forced him to flee to Europe in 1929, and this despite the fact that politically the king and the royal clan held a complete monopoly of power (then and until well into the 60s. A form of constitution emerged in 1964). Afghanistan was paralysed by a technological, cultural, political and social archaism which stood between most of the country and the 20th — or the 18th! — century.
One of Afghanistan’s central paradoxes lay in this, that apart from the people running the small islands of modern industrial technology transplanted to Afghanistan to extract natural gas and valuable minerals there, the armed forces — the only major national institution — were the part of Afghan society most in contact with and best integrated into the modern world. The skills and training needed to run a modern army and air force took those who went abroad to acquire them very far from everyday Afghanistan with its nomads, priests, handicrafts, illiterate tribesmen and submerged female population. In fact, Afghanistan’s army and air force were both well-trained and well-equipped, and comparatively large.
In April 1978, there were 100,000 men in the army, and 10,000 in the air force. (In addition there were 30,000 gendarmes). This most modern part of Afghan society was the creation of the USSR. From the middle 50s the equipping of the army and air force, together with the training of their officers and technicians, was entirely in the hands of the Soviet Union, towards which Afghanistan gravitated in reaction to the close links of its rival, Pakistan, with the USA. Russia is credited with donating two-thirds of the $1,480 million in foreign aid received by Afghanistan between 1958 and 1978. The relationship was similar to that of the USA with some of its South American satellites and client states. The fact that the equipping, education and training of the entire officer corps of the armed forces on which the security of the corrupt and backward rulers of Afghanistan rested were, for quarter of a century, in the hands of the USSR, and that it did not create impossible contradictions, is surely a profound comment on the nature of the system in the USSR itself, and on the psychology, life-style and mores of the “Soviet” ruling caste and its military sub-section. THE
In a brief “liberal” experiment in 1951-2, a student and youth opposition emerged. Led by Nur Mohammed Taraki (who became president after the April 1978 coup) some of them went on to found the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), a sort of “Communist Party” oriented to the Soviet Union. It appears to have been reorganised, or recreated, in the mid-’60s.
The PDP was as limited as the Afghan society which nurtured it. It does not appear even to have managed to put down roots in the countryside as many parties of its type in other backward countries have done. Most of its leaders were of petty bourgeois origin. Taraki himself came from a peasant/herdsman background, and had been a domestic servant before making his way to India, where he studied economics. The PDP was an ambivalent party, not unlike Cheddi Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party in Guyana. It took part in international Stalinist junketings, but at home it rigorously denied that it was any kind of communist or Marxist party. It continued to deny it even after the 1978 coup.
In 1967, a split that was to last for 10 years broke the PDP into two organisations called after their journals Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (Masses). Parcham, led by Akbar Khyber, was more a direct agent and tool of the Soviet Union than Khalq and its leaders were willing to be. Both PDP organisations recruited in the army and air force. They did well among army and especially air force officers trained in the USSR and alienated by their own ruling class. In many underdeveloped countries, in Latin America for example, the armed forces have to substitute and compensate for a socially feeble ruling class.
Being centrally responsible for controlling, dominating and repressing the masses, they are often the essential force binding the state together. Because of this social role they develop a distinct corporate identity. Groups develop within these armed forces powerfully aware of their own societies’ backwardness and desiring development and modernisation. Military takeovers by such groups of officers are extremely common in the Third World. Their model for the modern society they want to midwife is normally, though not always, that of Western capitalist society. It was to the USSR that the Afghan officers looked.
In Afghanistan the officer corps would naturally be friendly to the Soviet Union, and all the conditions of its experience and training would lead it to think of the USSR’s society as a model to copy. It is of course possible for such privileged and elite groups as the air force and army officers of Afghanistan to think of the USSR’s model as suitable for their own societies without having to think of abandoning their own social privileges. In these circumstances a sort of political symbiosis seems to have grown up between both factions of the PDP and sections of the officer corps. A majority of the highly skilled and educated air force officers became “communists”.
By its very nature, this alliance reproduced the essential characteristic of all such Third World modernisation drives originating from within the existing state apparatus: the conception of “revolution from above” and an essentially bureaucratic and elitist attitude to the masses, towards whom the leaders are capable of being murderously repressive. The heavy focus of the PDP on the army — which was uniquely fruitful because of the direct Russian influence — was in itself a “programmatic” declaration of its conception of the role of the masses, and of the nature of the revolution it wanted.
The PDP had little other support apart from sections of the middle class in Kabul, and so the army was to be their chief instrument for carrying through a revolution in Afghanistan. But it was an utterly unsuitable instrument. In Afghanistan the cities and towns are islands in a prehistoric sea, and the officer caste is a highly elite group within the towns. They could not organise or mobilise the masses, nor compete with the priests for influence an them. The character of the Afghanistan army and air force officer caste’s relations with the masses — its organic inability to lead or mobilise them — made it an especially unsuitable and even counterproductive instrument for revolutionising Afghan society. It could make coups. It proved unable to make a bureaucratic revolution after it seized power in 1978.
Its savage brutality after the 1978 coup was essentially a function of its relationship to the masses of the people and its unsuitability as a revolutionary instrument. COUP The so-called “communist” coup of April 1978 was in fact the second stage of a movement that began five years earlier. In July 1973 a coup led by Lt Col Abdul Khadir, a Russian-trained MIG pilot and then deputy commander of the air force, abolished the monarchy and the constitution, and put Mohammed Daud in power as president. Daud, a past prime minister, was in fact a member of the royal family, cousin and brother in law of the deposed king, Zahir Shah. Daud’s was considered to be a “pro-Soviet” coup. But once in power Daud veered to balance between Moscow and the West. He systematically demoted those in the air force who had led the coup. Khadir was first made head of the air force and then demoted to being head of the military abattoir. Rehabilitated in 1977, he had returned as deputy commander of the air force by April 1978.
Daud did little to change the condition of the country, though he started a land reform programme. He was tied by family and interest and sentiment to the ruling class and to much of the existing system. For example, he protected the vast properties of the exiled king, his cousin. Parcham joined Daud’s government, reportedly on the instructions of the Soviet Union. Khalq and its leaders refused to do Moscow’s bidding, apparently insisting that the Daud regime could not transform Afghanistan because of its organic ties to the old ruling class and its system. As a result, Parcham participated directly in the government’s persecution of Khalq from 1973 to 1975 (when Parcham was pushed out of power).
Khalq would repay them with interest after the summer of 1978. When Daud kicked Parcham away from him in 1975, moves began that led to the reunification of the PDP in 1977. The PDP linked up with those in the army who had made the July 1973 coup but were bitterly disappointed by Daud or had been treated badly by him. Repression — assisted, according to some reports, by SAVAK, the secret police of the Shah of Iran — was severe. Many of the PDP leaders were jailed. Daud seemed to be launching a major attempt to eliminate the PDP and its supporters. The PDP struck first. When the leader of Parcham, Akhbar Khyber, was assassinated in Kabul, probably by extreme right-wing Muslims, there were large-scale demonstrations by students and others on the day of his funeral.
They presaged and set the scene for the April coup.
On the day of the coup, tanks commanded by Col Aslam Watanjar, head of the tank regiment in Kabul, attacked the presidential palace. After a bloody battle, the insurgents took control, killing Daud and his family. The coup against Daud was made essentially by those who made the coup that put him in power. Like the 1973 coup, the 1978 coup was headed by Lt Col Abdul Khadir. One of the first acts of the new military rulers was to release the leaders of the PDP — including Babrak Karmal, Hafizullah Amin, and Nur Mohammed Taraki — from jail, and to appoint Taraki, the PDP’s secretary general, as president. This was an approach to a party, not just to individuals. The PDP leaders were later to point to the way the high command of the air force held together, and to claim that both the air force and the tank regiment had been under PDP leadership and control, which is probably true.
The high ranks of some of the PDP-inclined officers, stopping short only of marshals and generals, is notable and symptomatic. A revolutionary council mainly consisting of civilians was set up to replace the military council which had organised the coup, and it appointed a largely civilian government.
The government contained only two military men, one of them Khadir, who was defence minister. The top leaders were from the Khalq though Babrak Karmal, now leader of Parcham, was one of three deputy prime ministers. A purge of army officers and top civil servants began immediately. In its public accounts of itself the new government denied that it was communist or Marxist. It solicited aid from sources other than Russia. Their Russian ties, the new leaders said, would be no greater than Daud’s. Their country was “free and neutral”. They insisted they were Afghan nationalists, concerned to modernise and develop the country. They denounced Daud’s backsliding after the 1973 coup — indicating a different approach but also no doubt the views of Khalq, which had never been with Daud, and of the disillusioned army and air force officers who had made both coups. The government declared itself devoutly Muslim.
One article of the credo of State — a continuation of an article in the Daud constitution — said: “Internal policy is based on the foundations of the sacred Islamic religion”. “We are free and move ahead according to the circumstances prevailing in our society”, a press conference was told in Kabul in June 1978. Guarantees were offered to private property, bank deposits were declared inviolable by the government. But from the beginning the government committed itself to land reform. Taraki said the “present stage” was one of national democratic revolution.
But whatever about the PDP’s dogmatic Stalinist talk of “national democratic revolution” as the “first stage” of their revolution, what was new and decisive after April 1978 was that the Stalinist party, together with the decisive section of the old state apparatus — which was closely affiliated with it and linked also by many ties to the neighbouring USSR — had taken power in Afghanistan. To the extent that they could stabilise that power and “purify” it by purging alien and hostile elements from the state apparatus, replacing them with their own people, they and they alone would decide from day to day what “stage” the revolution was at. Or at least, if the state actually controlled Afghanistan they would decide.
They would decide how long or how short a rope to give to private capital and to the various other segments of the archaic ruling classes of Afghanistan — or, for that matter to the peasants, who might be “given” the land in the “first stage” and forcibly collectivised at the second, as in other Stalinist revolutions. But while the PDP and the pro-PDP officers firmly controlled the state, they did not, as events would show very soon, control Afghanistan. The PDP and the officers had only made a coup, not a revolution. Conditions in Afghanistan were such that they would soon learn to know the difference between a coup and a revolution.
Central to the tragic events that followed the April coup and, step by step, led to the Russian occupation, was the conception of what they themselves were held by the PDP and its officers after they seized power.
Taraki talked of Afghanistan pursuing a “new road” to revolution. They didn’t know the difference between a coup and a revolution. They had power only in the cities. Afghanistan was a traditional society where suspicions of the central state power ran deep, and where men bore arms and lived in a vast expanse of mountains and hills from which in the past both central government and foreign invaders — the British as late as 1919 — had been resisted.
Almost like a tribal medicine man who dresses in green because he thinks that is the way to bring back the spring, the PDP in power mimicked the Russian bureaucratic elite. They seem to have thought that within certain limitations — like making a few would be bamboozling noises about their respect for Islam — they could behave as an all-powerful bureaucracy like the Chinese and Russian bureaucracies. They acted as if the government could command the forces and tides by its decrees, as if the “Revolution” were already made and harnessed as in Russia.
The PDP leaders might ape the Russian bureaucrats and aspire to replicate them. But the PDP stood on one side of a revolutionary social transformation yet to be achieved, while their Russian bureaucratic model stands on the other side of a deep and thorough revolution made by the worker and peasant masses. The USSR bureaucrats erect their caste power on that revolution’s political grave but also on its socio-economic achievements and accomplishments. That difference was qualitative. Partly because of things peculiar to Afghanistan, as outlined above, the Kabul government was in a radically different position from the Kremlin regime, and yet they acted as if they didn’t know it.
They acted as if they thought that they, like the rulers of the USSR, China, North Korea, etc, could do anything they liked with an atomised and defenceless population. But the population was not defenceless. Essentially because of their elitist notion of the “revolution”, the PDP leaders seem to have gone through the months between April 1978 and December 1979 as inept and increasingly desperate people, suffering from a hopelessly confused perspective on history, misunderstanding both their own and the Russian bureaucracy’s place in it. The story is worth telling in outline before describing it in detail.
Because the army was not fully the PDP’s, purging it was a feature of the regime from the beginning. PDP commissars were appointed. Yet this army was the central, indeed the only strong, instrument of the government. The regime lacked popular support. The PDP leaders claimed sometimes after the coup that their organisation had 50,000 members, but this is doubtful. Their problem of building support in the population was never overcome. A youth movement was initiated and there was a drive to build “trade unions” (controlled by a policeman and forbidden to strike).
Both were to be overseen by PDP units. The regime also lacked a material and technological base for transforming the backwardness from above; and it never had and never managed to call forth a sufficient basis of active or even passive support in the population to compensate even in part. For example, when it decreed the peasants’ debts to usurers — a major yoke on their necks — abolished, the first reported result was an immediate drying-up of credit for the peasants. The government was not in a position to organise an alternative. Despite its public proclamations and readings from the Koran, the government immediately fell foul of the Muslim religious leaders. Its first offence seems to have been insufficient consultation with them.
But in fact the unavoidable conflict was rooted in the fact that many of the religious leaders were landholders likely to be affected by land reform. Centrally, also, the government’s attempts to degree equality for women struck at the most deep-rooted beliefs and prejudices of the Muslim population. 99% of Afghanistan’s people are Muslims, 85% Sunni and the rest Shiite. By contrast with Iran, where the Shiite hierarchy formed a powerful cadre, of a virtual mass party, the clergy in Afghanistan are not organised hierarchically and therefore are less of a coherent national force. Nevertheless they are a very powerful force, and from very early on the regime was opposed by a clergy commanding huge influence and wielding it in alliance with the landlord class and the royalists.
When the government decreed drastic land reforms without having mobilised rural support, the clergy was able to rally mass opposition and the government had only the army to back it up. The purging, soon to be accompanied by large-scale bloodletting, was not confined to the army and air force. Within three months of the April coup, all the Parcham leaders were pushed aside and exiled to diplomatic posts in Eastern Europe. Soon they were recalled on charges of high treason. But they didn’t come, nor did their hosts send them back. The purging of the army now became intertwined with the successive purgings of the PDP. To the army’s other inadequacies as an instrument for changing society was soon added an inevitable collapse of morale. As the Muslim revolt became serious, and right through to the Russian intervention, purge followed bloody purge, like an amalgam of Robespierre’s reign of terror during the French Revolution and Stalin’s destruction of the officer corps of the Russian Army in 1937. In the next part we will examine these events in more detail as they unfolded between April 1978 and December 1979.
Within six weeks of the April 1978 coup, armed Muslim tribal bands were reported to be in rebellion against the new regime. But at first the rebellion was small-scale. Opposition to central government, normally a stable part of the outlook of the Sardars (chiefs), now became opposition to the “pagan” and “infidel” regime. What fuelled and spread the revolt, and ultimately put the skids under the government, was its reform decrees — decrees that should have benefited many millions of Afghans. That is the tragic paradox of the PDP regime.
The Taraki government decreed drastic changes in three areas: abolition of peasant debt to the village usurers; drastic land reform; abolition of the practice of charging a bridal price for women, and educational reforms involving women. In response most of the upper layers, the “lords temporal and spiritual”, of Afghanistan’s semi-feudal and rigidly hierarchical society moved into opposition to the central government; and the revolt slowly spread until it threatened to overthrow the PDP regime.
Had the ruling classes been able to overcome their endemic tribal and other divisions, and unite in opposition to the government, then the weight of the potentially overwhelming forces opposed to the PDP and prepared to take up arms against it would probably have brought the PDP regime down by mid 1979. In the event the old ruling class groups have not managed to achieve unity even today, seven years later. Despite their divisions, the upper layers seem to have carried with them most of the lower orders of the social and regional hierarchies of which they were at the head. It would be a mistake in judging such a society from outside (or from “above”, which is probably the point here) to assume a seething rebelliousness (as distinct from grievances) at the base of society. Far from it.
Living as they do in rural isolation and medieval backwardness, the Afghan rural masses would have to make an immense mental leap to reach the possibility of even conceiving of a different arrangement of society, let alone of committing themselves to a struggle to attain it by breaking up the existing social structures. That would be true even for the most oppressed of them and even for those who felt themselves to be oppressed. And of course the fabric of such a society is woven from many ties of mutual responsibility and personal and family loyalties between the members of the different hierarchical layers, ties that seem largely to have remained intact after April 1978. To revolutionise such a society, to wean the lower layers from the existing structures, more than decrees were needed.
The tragedy was that — apart from brute force — only decrees were available. The revolutionary regime had not been installed by a revolutionary uprising of the masses. Not even the example and the prodding of substantial bourgeois areas in Afghan society, of areas that had developed beyond the semi-feudal level, was available.
No part of Afghan society had achieved sufficient bourgeois/capitalist development to give the government an adequate base-area from which to begin to revolutionise rural society, to suggest or provide alternatives to the semi-feudal relations (including even usurious capitalist relations) around which the lives of the rural masses were organised. The central government, as we have seen, did not even have the resources to organise an adequate alternative credit system when it decreed peasants’ debts abolished — an act which should have benefited, and thus affected the attitudes of, 11 million peasants. Thus the decrees of the “infidel” central government and its disorganising “interference” appeared mainly as a threat to the rural masses.
Because the government failed to ignite the rural masses against the upper social layers, it had no alternative but to continue to rest, fundamentally, on the army. Even the land reform, designed to benefit the 700,000 landless peasants and millions of others, does not seem to have polarised rural Afghanistan or to have rallied a strong layer of the rural masses to the government which made the revolutionary decrees. It did not even generate passive support or tolerance. Land holdings were declared limited to a maximum of about seven hectares — an extremely drastic levelling which alienated all the leaders of rural society. With the help of the priests those leaders were able to mobilise most of those due to gain from the land reform against the government, using slogans about the defence of Islam against the infidel government.
With such battle-cries, the Sunni Muslim priests, and the landlords and royalists, rallied the masses against the government before the government’s decrees could even begin to achieve a class polarisation in the rural areas. The government’s lack of a serious base in the population must have been decisive here. To try to compensate, the Stalinist government attempted to compete with the priests for the Islamic banner. On important occasions Taraki publicly prayed for the revolution in Kabul mosques. The 1,410th anniversary of the Koran was celebrated officially throughout the country. The regime felt sufficiently sure of its standing to denounce the Muslim Brotherhood for “un-Islamic activities”. They declared a Jihad (holy war) against it in September 1978, pretending to regard it as the only enemy.
Soon, after the revolutionary decrees on land and women in the autumn of 1978, the forces against the government had gained sufficient strength to be able to declare their own “Jihad” — on the government, in March 1979. The striking way in which the material interests of the ruling class were mixed together with the prejudices of the Muslim faith and with the enormous ignorance of the rural masses (over 90% of the people of Afghanistan are illiterate) was captured by an anonymous writer in the Economist. “In fact no restrictions had been imposed on religious practice: the mosques were always open, and were particularly thronged with worshippers during the Eid festival last weekend.
The Shora courts continued functioning. “The acts that were interpreted as anti-Islamic measures included the fact that the new regime ignored the religious leaders, the introduction of the red flag (removing the green of Islam), the enforced education of women (a first step, the mullahs claimed, towards their being sent to Russia to live lives of shame), the land reforms (many of the mullahs are landowners), and the use of the words ‘comrade’ and ‘hurrah’ (this cheer word, the mullahs said, was really the name of Lenin’s mother)” (1 September 1979). (But maybe they’d heard about the “Lenin” mausoleum and the obscene quasi-religious cult centred around the remains of the great revolutionary...) The priests were encouraged by events in Iran.
A Muslim priest told a Daily Telegraph reporter that they would fight with the Koran in one hand and a gun in the other. For they were “fighting a pagan regime which has no place in Afghanistan... This Jihad will surely mean the end of the Communists, and the triumph of Islam, just as it has triumphed in Iran and Pakistan”.
Beginning as a series of limited local revolts in summer 1978, the rebellion spread until by the end of 1979 the Muslim insurgents could plausibly claim to dominate 22 out of Afghanistan’s 28 provinces.
A big factor in this process and in the speed with which the Muslim masses were polarised against the reforming government must have been the brutality with which the government reacted. From the summer of 1978, that is from the first and extremely limited revolts, the government bombed and strafed tribal villages.
Eventually, by mid-1979, it was using napalm on the rebels and engaging in military sweeps which pushed many thousands across the border. It is not clear how much of the land reform was carried out before the government called it off in mid 1979. But when the government did finally abandon land reform, with the obviously untrue claim that it had been completed already (six months ahead of schedule!), it was left with no possible means of appealing to the lower orders of traditional Afghan society against the landlords and the priests. Now it could rely only on the arguments of the MIGs, on helicopter gunships, and on napalm against the vast majority of the Afghan population.
Long before the Russian invasion the government of Afghanistan behaved as if it were a hostile government of occupation, using the methods that the US used in Vietnam. In a sense that expressed the vast gulf between urban and rural Afghanistan. The initial policy of reforming decrees plus repression soon became just a policy of more and more unrestrained repression, simply to enable the government to survive. The very early resort to savage repression flowed from the lack of an adequate base of support for the government. But it inevitably increased and deepened the government’s isolation.
The Muslim revolt spread and grew. In late March 1979 there was a mass uprising in the town of Herat, during the suppression of which perhaps 5,000 people were killed; it seems likely that some at least of the insurgents were Afghan workers who had recently been expelled from Iran. Army mutinies occurred and sometimes whole army groups deserted to the rebels. In June there was fierce fighting around the strategically very important town of Jalalabad. In August a four-hour battle with mutineers took place in Kabul itself: they were routed by tanks and helicopter gunships. In July the Muslim groups, of which the biggest was the “National Front for the Rescue of Afghanistan”, claimed to have set up an alternative government (though in fact they remained incapable of co-ordinating their combined forces). More and more of the countryside was controlled by the rebels, and the government securely controlled only towns, garrisons, and wherever its army had asserted physical control at a given time.
The war of attrition between the government and a large part of the population became more vicious. The number of refugees who crossed the border into Pakistan tells its own story. In December 1978 there were 10,000. In March 1979, there were, according to Pakistani government figures, 35,000 refugees in Pakistan. In June it was 100,000. By July there were 150,000; and some of them had napalm burns. By the end of 1979 the Pakistani government was citing a figure of more than 400,000. (Unofficial figures were usually higher than those of the Pakistani government).
Other than the Russian involvement, and long before the full-scale Russian invasion and the reactions to it, the Afghan civil war had already developed international ramifications. The anti-government forces were allowed to base themselves in Pakistani territory, across the border from Afghanistan, and to train and arm there. Money from the Gulf states helped finance the Muslim Brotherhood. Emissaries toured Muslim capitals to get suppers and money for their holy “anti-communist” war. Places they went to included Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By February 1979 the leaders of Hizb-i-Islami claimed they had so far raised and spent £400,000 on weapons. The Muslim insurgents had Chinese rifles, and the Chinese government sent soldiers to Pakistan to train them. “... When (Pakistani) drug enforcement agents spotted some Chinese in the tribal border areas, an urgent message was sent to the Pakistani government demanding immediate action. The official reply was that the Chinese had nothing to do with drugs and were to be left alone. ‘Members of Pakistan’s narcotics control board later learned that the mysterious visitors had been sent by Peking to train Afghan guerrillas” (Economist, 23 April 1979).
The same issue of the Economist gave details of just how accommodating to the needs of the Afghan reactionaries the Pakistani government was being. “... The war inside Afghanistan does seem to be financed increasingly with the proceeds of the illegal opium trade. Feudal Afghan landlords, whose holdings are threatened by the Taraki government, are bringing their poppy crops into Pakistan and using the proceeds to buy arms in the town of Darra, where rifles, machine guns, explosives, even cannons, are available to anyone with cash in his pocket. “The arms merchants of Darra report that business is booming” (Economist 21 April 1979). Guns also came from Iran: “... a burgeoning opium-for-guns trade with dissident groups and Baluchi tribesmen in Iran has built up... Narcotics experts believe that an increasing amount of the 300 tons of opium produced annually along Afghanistan’s southern fringes is being funnelled into meeting the growing demand from Iranian addicts, and for refining in Iran to supply Western markets for heroin. In return many of the guns seized from Iranian armouries during that country’s revolution are finding their way into Afghanistan, probably with the knowledge of some Shi’a Muslim clergymen who want to help the overthrow of the ‘kaffir’ or infidel regime in Kabul” (Economist 19 May 1979). What about the CIA?
No doubt they were involved. But the available evidence is that CIA involvement was small-scale until the Russian occupation.
The PDP had accepted office from the officers with whom it had collaborated to overthrow Daud. It had enough support and members among them to give it so secure a grip on the armed forces that it could purge these forces and make its continued control certain. However, as we have seen, it found that it did not have the strength or the influence to carry through serious reforms, and reaction mobilised a big proportion of the Afghan masses against the PDP government. No armed force coup could remove the government, yet neither could the “infidel” government move Afghan society. It became a bloody war of attrition in which the PDP regime, with its too narrow social base, found itself progressively pitted against everything else in Afghanistan. It began to tear itself apart.
Parcham and Khalq had a history of bitter conflict. The fragile unity broke down three months after the April 1978 coup. Parcham was ousted and persecuted, as were its supporters in the army. Lt Col Abdul Khadir, leader of the April coup and minister of defence immediately after it, was arrested and accused of plotting a coup against Taraki, who himself now took over the ministry of defence. Khadir “confessed” to anti-revolutionary activity and treason after one month in custody, and his confession was published by the ministry of defence, now headed by the other hero of the April coup, Abdul Watanjar.
By July 24 1978 Taraki could announce that now all army commanders were supporters of Khalq. The others had been purged. The previous history of the two tendencies and subsequent events lend weight to reports published in 1978 that they differed on the extent of the Soviet Union’s role in Afghanistan. They may also have differed in that Parcham, reflecting the Russians, advocated a slower and more cautious approach to reform. Soon this division would re-emerge within Khalq itself and lead to more bloodletting.
Faced with growing and spreading revolt, the one-year-old regime made new attempts to conciliate Islam and to annex for itself the trappings and symbols of the religion, undoing its “offences” where possible. Offending words like “comrade” and “hurrah” disappeared. The regime now saturated itself even more thoroughly in the Muslim faith, and tried to legitimise itself according to it: prayers and Koran reading accompanied everything; every public announcement opened by invoking the name and, hopefully, the approval of Allah and the sympathy of some of his Afghan devotees in the here and now. In August, an Assembly of some 100 leading ulema (mullahs) was convened to declare that the government’s revolutionary deeds were in accordance with the teaching of the Koran.
Obligingly they made a ruling — quoting the Koran — that all believers had a duty to fight those opposing a regime that has done good to the common man. But most Afghans continued to prefer the call for a holy war and a different interpretation of the Koran — that made by a vast majority of priests. The government also back-pedalled on its reform policies. In July the land reform was abandoned. It tried a general attempt at conciliation. In June Taraki appealed for a return of the refugees and declared an amnesty until July. 1,300 political prisoners were released. The government made much-publicised approaches to mullahs, tribal elders, and traders. In August the pay of officers and NCOs was doubled. This turn was Russia’s policy for Afghanistan. In July and August, according to the Western press, the Russians were eagerly signalling to the west that their policy was for concessions and attempts to broaden the base of the government (and the PDP), even to the extent of including royalists in it. In fact the reactionary revolt continued to spread and to become more threatening, and the PDP began to rip even more deeply into its own vitals.
Publicly Khalq was united on the policy of concessions. But as the civil war continued to worsen, divisions on similar lines to those between Khalq and Parcham re-emerged within Khalq, under pressure of events and of the USSR. They centred on president Nur Mohammed Taraki on one side, and Hafizullah Amin, who was becoming increasingly prominent, on the other. Amin took over as prime minister in March 1979, retaining the position of field marshal and becoming vice-president of the supreme defence council. Taraki remained president and supreme commander of the armed forces, though now he reportedly devoted a lot of his time to a luxurious style of life in the royal palace, which had been renamed the People’s Palace.
Publicly Amin, who had organised the Khalq cells in the armed forces, was most identified with the mailed fist approach. He was the “strong man” of the regime. Before the turn to conciliation, he had advocated a “no concessions” policy. He was considered to have been the prime mover in pushing through the divisive reforms — against Russian advice for caution — and also as the man responsible for the purges in which thousands had died and the morale of the armed forces had been shattered. In July Amin took over the ministry of defence from Watanjar, in what was then thought to be a move to forestall the threat of a new Russian-inspired coup. Sure enough, on September 14 the Russians attempted their coup against Amin.
On September 11, Taraki passed through Moscow on his way back from the so-called “non-aligned” states meeting in Havana, and was publicly bear-hugged by Brezhnev. Three days later he was dead, killed after a gun battle with Amin and some of his supporters in the Peoples” Palace. The evidence suggests that it was Amin who was to have been removed, and scapegoated in the well-known Stalinist style, because he was the most hated representative of the brutal and politically bankrupt regime. Probably he really was partly or wholly against the Russian policy of concessions to broaden the regime, and did really believe in a policy of slugging it out with the entire population of Afghanistan if necessary.
Summoned by Taraki to give an account of his purge of three ministers including Lt Col Watanjar and Major Masdooryar, who had been the leaders of the assault on Daud’s palace, prime minister Amin went, apparently under a safe-conduct from the Russian ambassador. He was fired on as he approached, but he and his supporters came out on top in a ten-hour gun battle that followed. It was Taraki and not Amin who drew the role of scapegoat. Amin now denounced Taraki publicly, blaming everything bad on him. He did not do what the Russians seem to have wanted — broaden the base
of Khalq. Amin released a few hundred non-political prisoners and a list of 12,000 people who had “disappeared” — and with the rebels operating safely a few miles from Kabul, continued to purge and to shoot armed forces officers and members of the PDP on a large scale.
Amin’s victory did lead to a new primary reliance on the firepower of an army increasingly demoralised and fragmented. The army was beginning to melt away. Its ranks were unreliable conscripts on a wage of £1.20 a month, who would naturally be affected by the Muslim revolt. After Amin’s coup, despite the elimination by shooting of many officers, including the chief of staff, most remaining officers were considered hostile to Amin. The rebels were 15 miles from Kabul. In late October, Amin made a military sweep against the insurgents, victoriously driving 40,000 people — mostly non-combatants — across the border into Pakistan. At the end of 1979 there were 400,000 refugees, mostly in Pakistan. But the regime was still not stable.
Russia had had many hundreds of civilian and military advisers in Afghanistan even before the April 1978 coup, and their numbers were increased in the months after the coup, during which more than 30 trade and aid agreements were signed. On 3 December 1978 a new Soviet-Afghan friendship treaty was signed, by which time an estimated 5,000 Soviet advisers, half of them military, were in Afghanistan. To the degree that the post-April regime was weak against the Afghan population, the Russians became directly involved to shore it up. As the Taraki/Amin regime decimated, disrupted and destroyed its own base in the army and the PDP, the Russians progressively substituted themselves and their resources for the native regime. In the first place they progressively assumed responsibility for its military forces as the purges decimated the officer corps.
For example, there were 2,000 air force pilots in April 1978. By July 1979 there were only 500 of them left. Russian pilots made up the difference. By late 1979, western observers put the number of Russians in Afghanistan at anything up to 20,000, including combat troops. The main air force base was protected by Russian troops; the air force, now with many Russian pilots, was effectively under Russian control. There are powerful parallels with the process whereby the USA was drawn deeper and deeper into Vietnam, beginning with “advisers” and ending with half a million troops committed. Towards the end of the Amin regime, there were virtually two state machines in Afghanistan: what was left of the original one, and a parallel structure directly controlled by the Russians. The full-scale Russian occupation was the logical finale.
Over Christmas 1979, the Russians flooded in troops, and on 27 December took complete control. The leaders of Parcham were flown in and put in charge as Russia’s puppets, with their first chore to “invite” into Afghanistan, retrospectively, the Russian troops on whose tanks they ride to power. Babrak Karmal became general secretary of the PDP, and in return for his “invitation” to the Russian troops, Leonid Brezhnev publicly congratulated him on his “election”. “I warmly congratulate you on your election to the post of general secretary of the central committee of the PDP and to the highest state posts in the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’!
Amin and his associates were naturally denounced as agents of American imperialism, as tyrants and as adventurers and demagogues who had run a “fascist regime”. They were “tried” and shot. The Russians explained that their soldiers had been sent to “defend the revolution against outside interference”. It is important to be clear about one central thing at this point. Despite the prominence of Parcham leaders like Babrak Karmal, Dr Anahita Rabtezad, etc., and the semi-miraculous reappearance of Lt Col Abdul Khadir out of Taraki’s and Amin’s dungeons, the regime in Afghanistan after December 1979 was not a continuation of that established by the April 1978 coup. The Russian takeover marked the end of that chapter. The invasion registered the failure of the PDP/army experiment by moving in Russian troops to bury it before the Muslim insurgents did.
What class ruled in Afghanistan from April 1978 up to December 1979 when the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy became Afghanistan’s ruler? “Communists” certainly held state power after April 1978. But their political opinions cannot be taken as the determinant of the class character of the state. For a certainty the intention of the PDP regime was — at their own pace — to replicate the USSR’s system, installing themselves and their middle-class and army-elite supporters in the position of a privileged Stalinist-type bureaucratic caste. But the class character of the state is not determined by such intentions. They did not manage to fulfil their intentions, or even come near to. This failure to replicate in Afghanistan the system which has existed in the USSR since the Stalinist political counter-revolution in the 1920s was central to the whole experience. The level of nationalisations and state involvement in the very backward economy after 1978 tells us nothing one way or another about the class character of the state, since — quite apart from the important question of whether nationalisations alone can ever be the main criterion — the same level of nationalisations existed under the previous regime. What then was the class character of the state?
It was a bourgeois state, heavily relying like its predecessor on state-capitalist measures. Summarise the experience of the PDP in power and you get an unmistakable outline picture. The regime was based essentially on the army, where the ruling party installed in 1978, the PDP, had a large base. The PDP had won political hegemony over the decisive sections of the officer corps. The officers’ view of their own future was as an elite, like the USSR bureaucracy, on the basis of a serious social transformation. Because of the absence of a mass base for the PDP outside the armed forces, the “revolution” unfolded as an attempt at reform from above, stamped throughout and limited in every-respect by its military-bureaucratic origins and the limitations of the PDP. The PDP attempted to use the armed forces as the instrument of a social transformation which proved obnoxious, for varying reasons, to the big majority of the population.
Despite its unusually close links with the bureaucracy of the degenerated workers’ state, the regime never got beyond the stage of being a military-bureaucratic state-capitalist regime attempting to carry through the bourgeois programme of land reform, education reform, and some easing of the enslavement of women. They failed more or less completely to realise any of these reforms. Their methods in relation to the Afghan masses were never other than military-bureaucratic: the bombing and strafing of villages, including the use of napalm, from the first weeks of the regime, and the figure of 400,000 refugees by the end of 1979, graphically sum up the military bureaucratic regime’s relationship with the Afghan masses. It is difficult to get accurate information about the degree of support the PDP-army regime did have. Some fairly big demonstrations were staged in Kabul after the coup.
Nevertheless the known course of the Muslim revolt, the difficulty of the PDP-army regime in standing up to it, and the incapacity of the regime to rally even significant, let alone decisive, masses of the population in support of reforming decrees that should have benefited millions, provide us with a clear proof of the feebleness of whatever support the PDP had outside the army. It does not even seem to have been able to muster a fraction of the support from urban petty-bourgeois and plebeian forces achieved by Jacobin formations in 18th century Europe, although the conflicts in Afghanistan have many points of comparison with those between such Jacobin regimes and peasant opposition.
Socialists in Afghanistan would have had to give critical support to specific measures of the state-capitalist regime, but in no sense could they have supported the regime as such. It would have been necessary to maintain class independence; to aim at dismantling and destroying the state apparatus; to criticise and expose the brutal military-bureaucratic methods of the regime as both counter-productive in relation to the reforms and expressive of the class character of the regime. Socialists would have faced the repression of the one-party PDP-army regime. They would have directed their fire against the reaction, and in that sense only would have “supported” the PDP-army regime — while maintaining political and if possible military independence from it, and striving to overthrow it.
Russia invaded: • Because it lacked confidence in the “leftist” and intransigent Amin regime to stabilise Afghanistan. * Because the defeat of the PDP-army regime would have placed in power a hostile regime on the USSR’s borders (though the importance of this should not be exaggerated, the invasion has made Pakistan hostile and alarmed, and has led to its being rearmed and reinforced by imperialism). * Because for the USSR to allow the defeat of its client could undermine its relations with other client states like Ethiopia. * Because — and this is probably the fundamental thing — the disarray and weakness of imperialism following its defeat in Indochina and the [then recent] collapse of Iran as a military power seemed to allow the possibility of the Russian bureaucracy expanding its area of control with military (though not political) impunity, in a strategically very important area.
Further expansion through Baluchistan (in Pakistan) to the sea may well be in the minds of the Russian bureaucracy. In the 40s it seized and plundered territory in Eastern Europe and Manchuria, with the reluctant consent of imperialism. Does this mean that Russia itself is imperialist? The USSR is not imperialist in the sense of being based on monopoly capitalism, with its inherent drive to expand and divide up the world — but the bureaucracy does seek to gain and plunder new territories, and seizes what it can. As Trotsky indicated nearly half a century ago: “The driving force behind the Moscow bureaucracy is indubitably the tendency to expand its power, its prestige, its revenues. This is the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes’”.
The foreign policy of the USSR today is that of a relatively stable bureaucratic degenerated workers’ state. Since World War Two it has increasingly been the co-equal of imperialism in terms of military power, in a world where the H-Bomb has led the rulers of imperialism and the bureaucracy so far to rule out full-scale war as a means of trying each other’s strength. In that period the bureaucracy has been the twin pillar of world counter-revolution, the other being American imperialism. In a large part of the world the USSR bureaucracy is the first-line or second-line direct enemy of working-class socialism. It has taken opportunities to expand its area of control as it did after World War Two.
Competition with imperialism has led it to support a number of autonomous, mainly Stalinist-led, Third World anti-imperialist movements of a relatively progressive character. In underdeveloped countries, the USSR’s non-capitalist social system, created by the October Revolution, has given the Kremlin bureaucracy the possibility of relating to revolutionary movements in a seemingly positive way. Its own social structure has allowed it to seem in line with the anti-imperialist and even anti-capitalist objectives of the revolutionaries. It has “evoked” revolutionary movements in areas such as Eastern Europe — and almost immediately or simultaneously, strangled them, imposing a repressive totalitarian regime as the social instrument which serves the maintenance of the rule of a parasitic bureaucratic caste, on top of the revolutionary transformation it has carried through or helped through. It has repeatedly shown itself to be capable of being revolutionary, against imperialism and capitalism, but always it has been simultaneously counter-revolutionary against the working class, striving to set up its own type of bureaucratic regime.
Where it has aided revolutions, as in Cuba, it has at the same time shaped and moulded the resulting regime to its own totalitarian pattern.