For nine years, the army and air force of the bureaucratic ruling class of the Soviet Union waged a brutal war of conquest against the peoples of Afghanistan. They napalmed villages and burned the crops in the fields. They devastated the countryside, wrecked the primitive economy, and drove as many as five million refugees — one quarter of the entire population — over the borders into Pakistan and Iran.
Yet they never even came near conquering the people. Western military experts calculated that a full conquest would have taken at least three times as many as the 100,000 soldiers and flyers whom the Brezhnev regime committed to Afghanistan. They would have had to slaughter a large part of the population and terrorise the rest. Unprepared for an imperialist operation on that scale, the Kremlin made murderous but inconclusive war for a decade. Now  it withdraws its army and air force. Why?
Essentially because Gorbachev wants to concentrate resources for the drive to modernise the economy. The new ruler, the reforming Tsar, wants to liquidate the costly blunder made by his predecessor, and he can even admit that it was a “mistake”. Pulling out the USSR’s army is also a useful gesture in USSR-US diplomacy. But the withdrawal of the Russian army leaves the native Afghan forces of progress and modernisation in dire straits.
Those fighting the Russian occupation were always backward-looking and reactionary. But the fact that the big majority of the people of Afghanistan are medieval in their thinking does not cancel out their right to self-determination. It could not justify the Russian invasion, nor make progressive the bureaucratic state-monopoly system they fought to establish. When the overwhelming majority of the people of Afghanistan fought to drive out the Russians, they were entitled to the support of all socialists. Now that the Russians have gone, the question is posed differently.
The question now is what attitude we take to a civil war in Afghanistan — a civil war which is likely to be in large part a war between the cities and the countryside, between the men and women of the towns, with their relatively modern outlook, and the viciously reactionary and medieval forces which have been the main organisers of Afghan resistance to Russian imperialism. The question has to be posed like that, because no working class exists in Afghanistan strong enough to transform the situation.
A similar civil war predated the Russian invasion. It was subsumed into the conflict between the USSR and the people of Afghanistan. In April 1978, the Afghan Stalinist party, the PDP, took power by way of a military coup. The Afghan air force and army officers who formed the core of the PDP believed that it was their mission to drag Afghanistan into the twentieth century. Army officers in many underdeveloped countries have undertaken the same mission.
The difference in Afghanistan was that the air force and army officers had, from the mid 50s, been trained and educated in the USSR. They took the USSR as their model of development. The PDP was essentially an urban middle-class movement — and a movement of a middle class trying to turn itself into a state-monopoly bureaucracy. It could make a coup; lacking mass support, it could not make a revolution.
When the government passed progressive laws against usurers and landlords and in favour of women, the landlords and the Muslim priests roused a large part of the countryside against them.
Similar things had happened in Europe at the time of the French Revolution, with the Catholic countryside roused against the Jacobin towns in Belgium and France — except, that in Europe the forces of progress were strong, and in Afghanistan the Stalinist middle class was feeble.
The PDP regime responded with savage violence against the people of the countryside. The air force was dropping napalm on rebel villages within weeks of the coup. In the subsequent 20 months the reactionary opposition to the regime grew and spread. At the same time the PDP tore itself apart in faction-fighting. By December 1979 the Russians became convinced that their client regime would be overthrown unless they intervened. The Russians invaded, purged the PDP, and set out to conquer the country. They failed. Muslim reaction became much stronger. At the end the Russians had a grip only on the towns, and that an insecure one. They leave a native government in power which, though well-armed, is far weaker than its predecessor which the Russians replaced in December 1979.
The Muslim reactionaries have been subjected for over a decade to the napalming war of the Russians and their Afghan allies. They have good reason to be vindictive. Large-scale massacres of the townspeople are certain if the Mujahedeen conquer the cities. One issue alone is sufficient to indicate that socialists should take sides in this horror, and tell us which side we should take: the position of women.
In the towns some — middle-class — women have escaped the inhuman bondage decreed for women by Islamic fundamentalism. They will be slaughtered, and all women in Afghanistan thrown back to the Dark Ages, if the Mujahedeen win.
Before the Russian invasion — as we wrote in 1980 — socialists in Afghanistan would have had to give critical support to specific measures of the regime, though in no sense could they have supported the regime as such.It would have been necessary to fight for the class independence of the tiny working class; to fight to dismantle and destroy 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.
But 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. Now that the Russians have gone, the same basic arguments hold. The main enemy is the Muslim-landlord reaction.
Tragically, it looks very much as if the result of the decade of Russian occupation is to make certain the victory of the Islamic medievalists. The years of the Russian-conducted bloodbath are likely to be crowned by the slaughter of most of the people who form the elements of a modern society in Afghanistan. There is little or nothing that socialists in the West can do about it — except understand the unfolding tragedy, and tell ourselves the truth about the why and how of it.
22 February 1989