All the horrors that engulfed the peoples of Afghanistan in the last quarter of the twentieth century were called down on them by the Stalinist "Great Saur Revolution" of 27 April 1978. It triggered the bloody 23 year cycle that ended with the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001. A new cycle now opens with an uneasy coalition of warlords installed as the government in Kabul.
By Sean Matgamna
"Two conditions, at least, are necessary for a victorious social revolution - highly developed productive forces and a proletariat adequately prepared for it. But in 1871 both of these conditions were lacking. French capitalism was still poorly developed, and France was at that time mainly a petty-bourgeois country (artisans, peasants, shopkeepers, etc.). On the other hand, there was no workers' party; the working class had not gone through a long school of struggle and was unprepared, and for the most part did not even clearly visualise its tasks and the methods of fulfilling them. There was no serious political organisation of the proletariat, nor were there strong trade unions and co-operative societies..."
V I Lenin, In Memory of the Commune, April 1911
"The predominating type among the present 'communist' bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own countries the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army, because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule".
Leon Trotsky, The Comintern and the GPU, August 1940.
"Comrade Taraki had appraised the Afghan society on a scientific basis and had intimated [to] the party since the 1973 [Daud] coup that it was possible in Afghanistan to wrest... political power through a shortcut, [inasmuch] as the classical way in which the productive forces undergo different stages to build a society based on scientific socialism would take a long time. This shortcut could be utilised by working extensively in the armed forces. Previously the army was considered as the tool of dictatorship and despotism of the ruling class and it was not imaginable to use it before toppling its employer. However, Comrade Taraki suggested this too should be wrested in order to topple the ruling class." From the official biography of Noor Mohammed Taraki, a leader of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, published in August 1978.
The "Great Saur Revolution" - "Saur" means April - was in fact a military-Stalinist coup d'etat. It put a very tiny Stalinist party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which may have numbered only three to four thousand members, subdivided into two groups murderously at odds with each other, in a position to attempt to make a "revolution from above".
In some of its features the "Great Saur Revolution" was unique. The PDPA had first won over the decisive layers of airforce and army officers and then seized the state. There was considerable bloodshed in the April 1978, but it was inflicted by one section of the old state on another, in a conflict involving only the military.
Nonetheless, in its essentials, what happened in Afghanistan between April 1978 and the Russian invasion of Christmas 1979 reprised, in a concentrated and intensified way, the experience that, together with the convulsions of world capitalism, shaped the history of the 20th century - the many attempts to make anti-capitalist revolutions from above in unripe societies.
Afghanistan's Great Saur Revolution was the last of the 20th century Stalinist revolutions from above* - at one and the same time the epitome, caricature, and reductio ad absurdum of all the others, in Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere. It was all the 20th century revolutions from above summed up, reprised, and pushed to conclusions truly terrible for the people of Afghanistan.
What happened in Afghanistan cannot be understood outside of Afghanistan's close relationship with the USSR from the 1950s onwards, and the symbiotic relationship that developed between sections of the Afghan elite and the bureaucratic ruling class in the USSR. The war of colonial conquest into which Russia was drawn in Afghanistan in turn helped bring about the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR.
What follows is an attempt to analyse the "Great Saur Revolution" in its connection with the international experience of Stalinism and the problems posed to Marxist socialists by Stalinism, and an account of what happened afterwards in Afghanistan, from April 1978 to the fall of the Taliban. First we need to examine the pattern of Stalinist revolution from above, of which the Great Saur Revolution was part.
Revolution from above in the 20th century
THE dichotomy, "revolution from above", or revolution from below, stood, for anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialists from the 1940s onwards, at the heart of a cluster of vexed questions about the nature of Stalinism. What was its relationship to the working class? Its place in history? Its relationship to the Marxist conception of the "shape" of history? The appearance of Stalinist states in backward countries, in the first place the USSR, seemingly finding their own unexpected non-capitalist route to modernisation and development, had thrown that conception into disarray.
From above or from below? That way of posing the difference between Marxists and Stalinist anti-capitalists was the pressing into new usage of an old dispute between anarchistic and "statist" socialists. The anarchists emphasised the anti-state element in revolution, the Marxists insisted that the state could not be dispensed with and that a workers' state would play a positive role in the emancipation of the proletariat.
It was also the pressing into use, for understanding the 20th century, of the experience of the 19th century European bourgeoisie. After the abortive 1848 revolutions in Europe, as Frederick Engels would later summarise it: "The period of revolutions from below was concluded for the time being; there followed a period of revolutions from above" (Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, 1895). He had in mind the way that the state under Bismarck in Germany, had pushed through essentially the same bourgeois transformation as was worked by people's revolutions in France and England, but had done it "from above", from within the existing power structures.
For socialists in the mid 20th century, "from above" or "from below" was really too abstract a way of posing the issue. Pro-Stalinists posed it like that, because it left the question begging: what was it that was done "from above"? Was it really the same, in essence, as what a working-class revolution would do "from below"? Those Marxists, the best known of whom was Isaac Deutscher, who insisted that the working class too could make progress by way of (Stalinist) "revolution from above", implied that, just as Bismarck's reforms in Germany had worked a variant of bourgeois social revolution, so also what the Stalinists made was some variant of working-class social revolution.
That was the view reluctantly accepted by the big majority of revolutionary Marxists, or Trotskyists. It was the point of the phrase "revolution from above" used by such as Deutscher. The revolutionaries in the Marxist tradition who now used the old anarchistic emphasis on revolution from below did so as a means of insisting on such ABC principles as that expressed in Karl Marx's dictum that the task of emancipating the proletariat belongs to the working class itself.
"Revolution from below" meant simply what "the socialist revolution" used to mean - the self-liberation of the working class at the head of other working plebeian layers of the population; replacing the rule of a minority bourgeois class by consistent democracy in society and the economy. "The emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself."
"Revolution from above" was what the Stalinists did, in different ways but according to one basic pattern. In more or less backward countries - societies far from what Marx or Lenin would have recognised as having outgrown capitalism, and some of them mainly pre-capitalist - closed-in elite formations, varying in their origin and in their degree of mass support, seized the state power or destroyed it and set up their own state power, entrenching themselves as a new exploiting upper class. Working from inside a totalitarian state, they used immense concentrations of force and power to reshape society "from above". The totalitarian state became the owner of everything in society. But who owned the state? As Trotsky put it (The Revolution Betrayed, 1936), while the means of production belonged to the state, "the state, so to speak, 'belongs' to the bureaucracy", organised as a collectivist elite.
The Stalinists said this was working-class rule, but everywhere it was the rule of an exploiting bureaucratic class who subordinated everything to economic development. Their special technique of development was the intense exploitation and super-exploitation of the proletariat and other working people, who stood defenceless before the totalitarian state which deprived them of the right to trade unions, political parties, free assembly and free speech.
By 27 April 1978, when the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan embarked on its own "revolution", using the armed forces as its instrument, "revolution from above" had already taken a rich variety of forms.
In the USSR at the close of 1928, the Stalinist bureaucracy, having effectively suppressed the Bolshevik party and politically expropriated the working class, embarked on Stalin's "Second Revolution". The whole population was driven by a mixture of terror and totalitarian-millenarian propaganda out of the old society, which was deliberately uprooted and overturned by decision of a state grown gigantic in relation to society.
Over 100 million peasants were driven into collective farms. New state industries were created with tremendous speed, human cost and recklessness. Isaac Deutscher, an inveterate apologist for the Stalinist system and incorrigible romancer about what it was and would become, described what had happened vividly in his 1949 biography, Stalin:
"The whole experiment seemed to be a piece of prodigious insanity, in which all rules of logic and principles of economics were turned upside down. It was as if a whole nation had suddenly abandoned and destroyed its houses and huts, which, though obsolete and decaying, existed in reality, and moved, lock, stock and barrel, into some illusory buildings, for which not more than a hint of scaffolding had in reality been prepared; as if that nation had only after this crazy migration set out to make the bricks for the walls of its new dwellings and then found that even the straw for the bricks was lacking; and as if then that whole nation, hungry, dirty, shivering with cold and riddled with disease, had begun a feverish search for the straw, the bricks, the stones, the builders, and the masons, so that, by assembling these, they could at last start building homes incomparably more spacious and healthy than were the hastily abandoned slum dwellings of the past. Imagine that nation numbered 160 million people; and that it was lured, prodded, whipped, and shepherded into that surrealistic enterprise by... a man who established himself in the role of super-judge and super-architect, in the role of a modern super-Pharaoh. Such, roughly, was now the strange scene of Russian life, full of torment and hope, full of pathos and of the grotesque..."
This radical overturning of existing society by an all-powerful state, driving and coaxing the people and then exploiting them mercilessly, is what happened in varying degrees in all the Stalinist revolutions-from above. In Maoist China, to give another example, the "Great Leap Forward" of 1958-61 turned the country upside down, and perhaps thirty million people died in the economic disruption, chaos and famine that followed.
The Stalinist revolutions-from-above outside the USSR came in two basic varieties*:
1. Where an indigenous Stalinist formation took power without dependence on outside help - in Yugoslavia (1943-5), China (the Chinese Stalinists held power in backward parts of China from the 30s; they took control of China in the civil war of 1946-9), Vietnam (1954 and then 1975), Cambodia (1975).
2. By military conquest and annexation to an existing Stalinist state. The USSR thus conquered, and transformed in its own image, 10 countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and East Germany) in Eastern Europe. China extended its control to Tibet, formally in 1950, in substance from 1959 onwards, in a savage still-continuing war. The "agencies" of the revolutions-from-above in Russian-occupied Eastern Europe were Stalinist parties acting as the nucleus around which were grouped splinters of other parties and elements of the old state personnel (including, for example, in Hungary, pre-1945 fascists), fused together under pressure to create replicas of the USSR.
With the exception of Czechoslovakia and perhaps East Germany, all the East European and Balkan Stalinist states were economically and socially underdeveloped. The Communist Parties in the Eastern European states "structurally assimilated" to the USSR after 1944 were typically tiny and unrepresentative. The purging of elements in the Stalinist organisations unsuited to their new role was a feature of the early life of most of the new Stalinist states. The general pattern was that CP leaders who had been in the underground at home - Poland's Gomulka or Hungary's Rajk and Nagy, for example - were purged at Russia's behest as unreliable and nationalistic, to be replaced by those who had spent the war years in Russia and came back beside the Russian Army with, as the saying went, "pipes in their mouths", that is, as Russian puppets, aping Stalin's style and manner.
In this way, from Communist Parties and other parties, from elements of the old state and the old owners and managers, and from elements of the working class and old labour movements, the new ruling class was selected and fused together in a hierarchical, bureaucratic discipline, misleadingly called a party, centred on the state.
Where Stalinist revolutions were made by forces that did not depend on the Russian state, they were made by militarised army-parties based on the peasantry and led mainly by declassed intellectuals and some declassed workers. Thus Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam*.
These "revolutions from above" pitted entrenched militarised states of varying origins against the people and against "organic" social development. The arbitrary bureaucratic craziness - Trotsky, in the early 1930s, called the social theory of the Stalinists "bureaucratic raving" - which Deutscher describes during the forced collectivisation in the USSR had countless smaller manifestations in all the Stalinist states. The degree of consent and of concern with moving and mobilising the people by way of millenarian propaganda varied from case to case and from time to time, but the reserve power of coercion, adroit or crude, select or all-pervasive, was there always. Thus were created societies modelled after that created by Stalin's "Second Revolution" in the USSR - decreed from above, from the heights of authoritarian and totalitarian state power.
That was essential to the project because what characterised all of the societies thus transformed was that they were underdeveloped and backward, sometimes very backward, and unripe for any large collectivisation of industry and agriculture other than that imposed from above as a special form of organisation for totalitarian state exploitation.
In almost all poor countries, in the second half of the 20th century, state enterprise "from above" was a major driving force in industrial and economic development. Development was driven by bureaucratic, military or even aristocratic elite groups, spurred on by foreign example, pressure and competition, rather than by a bourgeoisie which grew up "organically", in the interstices of the old pre-capitalist order. Even early in the century, Trotsky remarked that capitalism emerged in Tsarist Russia as a creation of the state.
That sort of development had many variants: what made it a "reformism from above", in contradistinction to the Stalinist "revolutions from above", was that it was the work of the old ruling circles (or a decisive section of them), rather than of a new force which broke up the old state (or at least its top layers) and installed its own totalitarian power instead. Afghanistan in the 20th century would see both "reformists from above" - notably King Amanullah, in the 1920s, and Mohammed Daud, in the 1950s and the 1970s - and then a unique and extreme, indeed caricatural, form of attempted Stalinist "revolution from above".
A mature socialist society that has grown out of developed capitalism; one where the productive forces have been liberated by a working-class revolution from the limitations imposed on them by private ownership; where labour productivity has been raised higher than capitalism can attain - such a socialist society would be able to guarantee a high standard of living impossible under private industry. The level of productivity attained by working-class democratic collectivism would be such that the breaking up of the integrated, collectivised economic system would mean social decline (an analogy would be to collapse the present levels of labour productivity, created by market capitalism, back into its historical antecedent, feudalism). Stalinist collectivism in underdeveloped economies is the opposite of that. Its primitive collectivism is not the organisation of a level of labour productivity unattainable to privately-organised industry, but a historically specific form of exploitation of the producers.
Socialism, understood as working-class self-rule, comes out of advanced capitalism; its collectivism is the logical and necessary organic culmination of mature capitalism's tendency to socialise production; it is made and sustained by the working class. Stalinist "socialism", by contrast, comes by way of more-or-less arbitrary. revolution from above. The collectivism it imposes is a primitive, bureaucratic collectivism, forced on societies unripe for democratic collectivism (and sometimes unripe even for large-scale capitalism). It has to be set up and sustained by force, not only or primarily against the old ruling class, but against those whose interests it purports to serve. The state power is its strength, not popular support, though it may at times enjoy popular support. Even after great complexes of collectivism have been created, the entrenched state power, standing above society, remains essential to its continuation. Totalitarian state power is the lynch-pin without which the system falls apart.
No society was less "ripe" for revolution - even bureaucratic Stalinist revolution - than Afghanistan in the 1970s. It was one of the most backward pre-capitalist societies on earth. Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, quotes this mythic traditional description of Afghanistan.
"When Allah had made the rest of the world, he saw that there was a lot of rubbish left over, bits and pieces and things that did not fit anywhere else. He collected them all together than threw them down on the earth. That was Afghanistan".
Afghanistan's borders are artificial in relation to the population, and they cut through the ethnic groups. The territory of the state was determined by the farthest points reached by its neighbours rather than by the natural limits of anything in Afghanistan itself. British India, the Tsarist Empire, Iran and China, but decisively Russia and British India, formed the matrix inside which was held a conglomerate of ethnic groups, incipient nations. There was no integrated Afghan society, no intermeshing Afghan economy.
There are scores of languages in Afghanistan. Pashtu is the native language of about half the people. The other widely used language is Afghan Persian, Dari. There are perhaps eight million of the Afghan Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group and the dominant one. They are subdivided into two basic tribal confederations, Ghilzais and Durranis, and those in turn are sub-divided.
Except for a nine-month interlude in 1929, and a four year period between the fall of Najibullah in 1992 and the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, Durrani Pashtuns have ruled for over 200 years. Afghan originally meant Pashtun. Other ethnic groups, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc., tend to refer to themselves by these names and to Pashtuns as Afghans.
Tajiks are the second biggest ethnic group, three to four million strong. Far less tightly enmeshed tribally than Pashtuns, they form a disproportionate part of the town population as traders and administrators. There are about one million Uzbeks, who have tended to be merchants and artisans. Hazaras (descendants of Mongol invaders), Kirghiz, Aimaqs, Turkomans, and Baluchis are the most important of the many other ethnic groups. Some "nationalities" in the Eastern mountains are said to be only a few hundred strong.
Three quarters of the Afghan people have tribal kin across one or other of the borders. There are as many Pashtuns and more Baluchis in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. The USSR had, and its Central Asian successor states have, far larger populations of Turkomans, Tajiks, Kirghiz and Uzbeks than Afghanistan. For a long time the borders of Afghanistan were of no significance to its peoples. Afghanistan's only natural border, separating separate peoples, is its 40km border with China. These people prized the self-respecting independence of the American Indian tribesmen we read about in James Fenimore Cooper and the Scottish clans depicted by Walter Scott. Many of them were habitually armed. Traditionally they regulated their lives by the Islamic code (Shari'a), by tribal custom and by decisions of the community or tribal assembly (Jirga). The latter was absolutely binding: there were no "minority rights". Decisions of Kabul government were filtered through the Shari'a, tribal custom and decisions of the assembly. Where disobedience to Kabul was indicated, they disobeyed.
Common ethnicity, even where it exists, is anyway no more than the raw material of nations. A nation is formed and knit together economically, linguistically and culturally through a historical process. Nothing like that happened in Afghanistan. The state emerged in the 1740s as a loose empire under Ahmed Shah Khan known, after the dominant sub-section of the Pashtuns, as the Durrani Empire. In 1818 the Empire collapsed into a series of principalities: Herat, Kandahar, Kabul, Peshawar, corresponding to ethnic divisions. Unification of sorts was again achieved in the mid 19th century under Dost Mohammed (1826-63), around the Kabul principality.
In the first British-Afghan war (1838-42) the British failed to extend their Indian Empire northwards. In January 1842, 16,500 British troops and their camp followers were forced to leave Kabul; only one man made it to Jalalabad a week later. In the second British-Afghan war (1878-80) Britain also failed to prevail, but succeeded in reducing Afghanistan to the level of a protectorate whose foreign affairs were controlled by Britain. In a third war with Britain, forty years later (1919), the new emir or king, Amanullah Khan, defeated another British invasion and re-established Afghanistan's full independence. In that war fighting erupted in British India too, Pashtuns supporting Pashtuns in Afghanistan.
From that point on, Afghanistan began to come under Russian influence - initially that of the Russia ruled by the Bolsheviks. Afghanistan and Russia gave each other mutual recognition in the dangerous year 1919, and Lenin and Amanullah exchanged ceremonial greetings.
In the 19th and 20th centuries Afghanistan had stood on the fringes of the civilised world. It was "bits and pieces" in terms of ethnic groups, and also "bits and pieces" of different civilisations, different eras of civilisation and different levels of development. Hundreds of years of historical development separated the towns from the countryside.
In early medieval feudal Europe, the towns become oases of the merchant bourgeoisie and of handicrafts, and places of refuge for fleeing serfs - the first shoots of a new bourgeois world that would take centuries to grow to dominance over the antagonistic countryside. As wide a gap and a similar antagonism existed between the towns of Afghanistan and the countryside. And almost as large a span of time and development separated the towns from their equivalent in more advanced countries.
In terms of its levels of development, Afghanistan was on the very edge of the modern and modernising world - and yet it was inexorably pulled into that world's orbit. It faced unsuccessful intrusion and attempted conquest by the armies of the most advanced society on earth in the 1840s, partially successful invasion in the 1880s, defeated invasion and the winning of full independence in 1919. Inevitably over time it was impressed on those who ran the state and on a section of the urban elite that they had to learn from the outside world and acquire as much as possible of its military technology.
Ideas of modernisation and of economic development found roots - shallow roots - in the urban crevices of Afghanistan. To keep up with the rest of humanity, Afghanistan needed to develop its forces of production beyond nomad herding (which was how about two million of its people still lived in 1980), big landlordism and debt-ridden peasants, tribal sub-division, merchant capitalism in the towns, and handicraft production.
In terms of its own social forces and processes, Afghanistan was very far from such development. State initiatives and outside resources therefore came to seem to successive layers of the elite and of those who controlled the state to be the only way Afghanistan could develop. The condition of Afghan society placed the onus of reform on the state. Reform and revolution from above are the central themes of Afghan history in the 20th century. Elite groups looked for outside patterns and models. Repeatedly they failed in their initiatives. Naturally the reforming emirs saw the strengthening and modernisation of the state itself, that is of their own power vis-a-vis society, as the key to everything else. Standing against them were the structures of an archaic tribal-feudal society where power lay in the ethnic groups, the nobility, and the priests.
The economy developed, but very slowly and very unevenly. The territory came nowhere near to the prerequisite of a capitalist state - being knitted together economically. Weak modernisers met with defeat. The pattern was repeated, again and again, feeble or strong but unmistakably the same, from the emir Abdul Rahman Khan, who tried to modernise under the stimulus of Afghanistan's partial defeat in the second Afghan-British war, right through to the blundering Stalinists after the Saur (April) Revolution of 1978.
Abdul Rahman, who ruled from 1880 to 1901, created a standing army, with British subsidies, and attempt to raise the central state above society. He fought internal wars of conquest on which the claims of Kabul in the 20th century to rule Afghanistan were erected. He set up colonies of rebellious Pashtuns among hostile peoples in the North and massacred non-Pashtuns.
Over the decades, the state was strengthened - the state of the 1970s was not the state of the 1880s - but the Afghan state never attained the sort of power vis-a-vis society that the different types of European state have had for centuries.
King Amanullah (1919-29)
Amanullah, the king who exchanged greetings with Lenin in 1919, continued Abdul Rahman's work. He had had links during his father's reign with a modernising movement called "Young Afghanistan". He enacted serious reforms in the early 1920s.
He abolished slavery and the slave trade; tried to create a modern secular legal system to replace Islamic Shari'a law and the multiplicity of tribal and clerical jurisdictions; proclaimed equality before the law; encouraged the opening of an academy for girls in Kabul. However, his writ did not run far. Amanullah was a feudal king, an enlightened despot, presiding over a weak central state, with little power to reshape society when he did not have the consent of those who ruled in all the layers of Afghan society and of the Jirgas (councils), feudal assemblies of Khans, priests and "estates" at different levels up to the Loya Jirga (grand council).
Already in the 1920s, links with the USSR were important. Russia would become Afghanistan's main trading partner; and the USSR already did such things for Afghanistan as set up a telegraph line, cotton processing plant and an electric power station. In the mid 1920s the Soviet Union already provided not only teachers but pilots for the modernising king in putting down tribal revolts.
King Amanullah paid a two-week visit to the USSR in 1928, part of an eight-month tour outside Afghanistan, on the eve of Stalin's second revolution. He also visited Iran and Turkey. Inspired by what he saw of the achievements of the Ataturk regime which had reconstructed and begun to modernise Turkey, when he returned to Afghanistan he embarked on a vigorous new drive for reform and modernisation.
What happened then prefigured what would happen fifty years later, after the Stalinist Saur revolution. The revolutionising, enlightened monarch Amanullah attempted to strengthen the central state by putting the feudal-tribal leaders and the priests under government control. It was what was done in England under Henry VII in the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century, and in France under Louis XIV in the late seventeenth century. He proposed to create a modern army, a conscript army to which no-one would be allowed to send substitutes. The king's dilemma was that in order to proceed he needed first to make the state strong enough to overcome resistance to change. Fatally, he tried to proceed without first having adequately built up a central state capable of imposing the king's will against the tribal leaders and the priests.
In October 1928, Amanullah proposed the setting-up of joint schools for boys and girls. Women were freed from purdah (limits on when they could leave their homes, and the obligation to be heavily covered up when they did). A minimum age was decreed for marriage - that is, for when girls could be taken as sexual partners. Amanullah tried to create a political instrument to carry out this revolution. He set up a revolutionary party, called "Independence and Revolution".
Amanullah reflected the interests and desires of some merchants and intellectuals, but he and they had too narrow a base of support to carry through even this revolution. Perhaps most importantly, Amanullah, like the PDPA fifty years later, had no support among the farmers. Unlike the PDPA, Amanullah offered them nothing. The poor peasants had endured a 45% rise in land tax in 1924 and had nothing to gain from Amanullah's "bourgeois" reforms.
This was an attempt at a bourgeois reform-from-above where the bourgeoisie was feeble and divorced from the countryside. The Afghan merchant bourgeoisie, with their "enlightened despot", the weak king ruling a weak feudal state, were still far weaker than their English or French equivalents had been in the Middle Ages.
A broad anti-Amanullah coalition was formed. At its core were the religious leaders. They rallied the tribal khans, and behind them the entire rural population, including the peasants. By November 1928, after Pashtun tribes in the eastern provinces had raised the standard of revolt, rebellion was spreading quickly throughout the country. Amanullah simply had no forces with which to attempt to defeat it. In January 1929 he abdicated in favour of his brother Inayatullah Khan.
The country was in uproar. On 15 January Tajik rebel forces took Kabul. Their low-born, illiterate peasant-bandit leader Habibullah, nicknamed Bacha-I-Saquo ("son of a watercarrier"), was proclaimed Emir of Afghanistan, as Habibullah Khan.
For the first time in nearly 200 years, Pashtuns did not rule. But this was no plebeian revolution. Habibullah was a reactionary and traditionalist, albeit a usurping, part of the feudal counter-revolution. Amanullah's reforms were annulled - the department of justice was closed down, law remained exclusively a matter for the religious courts, and the schools were closed. The possibility of economic modernisation through the state was greatly weakened*.
Anti-Pashtun revolution and social counter-revolution had briefly been fused, but Habibullah did not last out the year. With the help of the British rulers in India, Mohammed Nadir Khan organised an expeditionary force of 12,000 men - Pashtuns - and united the tribes against the usurper. They took Kabul on 15 October 1929. The presumptuous non-Pashtun Emir surrendered and was shot. Nadir Khan became Emir. He would be assassinated in 1933. His son, Mohammed Zahir Shah - the old man now in Rome - would be king until his first cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammed Daud, organised a coup and declared a Republic 40 years later, in 1973.
In the story of Amanullah the basic pattern of modern Afghanistan is there in full: outside prodding by example, stimulation, aggression and painful contrast leads the elite or segments of it to attempt to modernise and develop Afghanistan. The central state is too weak to override the conservative forces and the forces of reaction. Those pushing for change are socially weak and are unable to resist, still less defeat, the powerful forces of reaction which they stir up.
At the core of the situation is the weakness of the bourgeoisie and of the tiny working class. The bourgeoisie was a weak merchant class. Under Amanullah in the mid 1920s, merchants increased their influence and power in society at the expense of the landlords, but they remained weak. So did the central state which sought to aid them and which, by modernising, would have strengthened them. The merchants traded mainly with the USSR. The working class was still rudimentary. A few factories, and many small workshops, produced a numerically and socially weak working class. There were no big enterprises, such as there had been in Tsarist Russia, which would concentrate proletarians and give them the social and political weight to affect what happened. When, by the 1960s, workers engaged in strikes, they were politically hegemonised by the Stalinists.
Modernisation or revolution from above was impossible; movements from below were movements of religious and social reaction, even regression. They followed traditional leaders and traditional ideas, and were locked for the most part into traditional social structures. Amanullah was an Ataturk that failed: so, in the 1950s and 1970s, would be the initially more successful Mohammed Daud, the most important of all the reforming royals; so too would be those who made - or rather failed to make - the Saur revolution after April 1978.
Aspirations to modernisation after Amanullah (1929-53)
After the fall of Amanullah, trade relations with Russia remained close and grew. Russia imported Afghan luxury agricultural goods and provided "modern world" things for Afghanistan - helping, for example, to create a cotton processing industry. Agitation for modernisation, and essentially for Amanullah's programme, would go on among tiny segments of the Afghan elite, but it had no way forward. Either the state would pioneer a transformation, or no forces in Afghanistan could. After Amanullah, for a generation, no-one at the centre tried to.
Supporters of Young Afghanistan organised terrorism in the early 30s. One of them killed the king in 1933. The terrorism reflected the weakness of what they represented - essentially, what Amanullah had represented, and what future reformers would represent. They wanted to replace the Islamic code as the basis of the state by secular law. They were Pashtun nationalists, demanding Pashtun-occupied territory from then British-occupied India. Later, after 1947, their co-thinkers would demand it from Pakistan, with momentous consequences.
Attempts by Afghanistan in 1919 and again after 1945, as Britain prepared to leave India, to renegotiate the Durand Line border, which arbitrarily cut the Pashtun people in two, would meet with dismissal. Pashtun nationalism would, by pushing Afghanistan into the Soviet orbit, shape Afghanistan's history in the second half of the 20th century. Young Afghanistan had links with the USSR. But after 1933 they ceased to be a force.
In the 1930s, Afghanistan took some German credit and German goods; and in 1937, Afghanistan joined Turkey, Iran and Iraq in the Saadob Pact, to resist Russian expansion. But in the 1939-45 war Afghanistan remained neutral, and on the USSR-British side. In 1941 it expelled German and Italian diplomats.
A national bank which regulated trade had been founded in the 1930s, but Afghanistan remained underdeveloped and stagnant. Another modernising movement, in its ideas the heir of its predecessors such as Young Afghanistan, came into existence in reaction to Afghanistan's stagnation in the years after the Second World War. This movement was called Awakened Youth ["Wikh-e-Zalmayan"]. It too was made up of educated middle and small bourgeois, members of the intelligentsia and offspring of the elite, even of the large royal clan. These were the sort of people who made up the early Russian revolutionary movements of the 19th century, the Decembrists of the 1820s, and the populists of the 1870s and after, who "went to the people". And, like their Russian analogues, they would prove incapable of transforming the social situation they were trapped in.
The programme of this movement was broadly the same as those of its predecessors: modernisation, developing the economy, and strengthening the state, which also meant strengthening the towns - islands of half-modern life in a prehistoric sea - against the countryside. It was Amanullah's programme, or a variant of it. Some of the people in Awakened Youth would turn into Stalinists. Out of Awakened Youth or from its periphery came "Democratic Reform", which had a radical left wing led by Noor Mohammed Taraki, who would organise the Saur Revolution of 1978 and become President of Afghanistan. They talked of "democratisation" and of rising living standards; they won a number of deputies to the "People's Council".
Another such movement (1950) was Watan ("Homeland"). It had a broader political and economic programme: democratisation of political institutions; removal of political restrictions; a free press; free parliamentary elections; the right to form political parties; and economic development, which meant state economic activity.
One faction of Watan, calling itself Voice of the People ["Nida-I Khalq"] organised a political party in Summer 1951; it was quickly declared illegal. The insuperable problem of all these movements, with their similar programmes (though these post-war movements, lacking proposals for equal treatment for women, lagged a little behind Amanullah) was that the class that might elsewhere have pursued and fought for their ideas was very weak. Their weakness was illustrated by the cardinal fact about Nida-I Khalq: it had a cadre of ten men, just ten, and was mainly active amongst medical and law students at Kabul University.
The oppositionist "movements" of disgruntled elite youth naturally enmeshed and overlapped with the ruling elite. As Amanullah had been involved in Young Afghanistan, so now Sardar Mohammed Daud, the king's first cousin and later brother-in-law, was in and of the elite modernising movements of the 1940s. When he became prime minister in 1953 - he had already been a minister for some years - Daud, the most important elite reformer/revolutionist-from-above in 20th century Afghanistan, would play a decisive role in developing Afghanistan and putting it into qualitatively closer relations with the USSR.
When, in the elections to the 8th National Assembly, in April 1952, none of the oppositionists managed to gain election as a deputy, the protests by students at Kabul University against election-rigging were led by Babrak Karmal. The son of a general, he was the future head of the government that the Russians would install in 1980.
The government began to crack down on the opposition, doing so with the customary Afghan mix of benign and savage repression. The youth organisations were banned, some leaders were arrested and jailed, others were exiled on government service. Noor Mohammed Taraki, who would become Afghanistan's head of state after the "Saur Revolution", was exiled to Washington as press attaché at the Afghan Embassy there. But progress did not depend on victory for the opposition - something unthinkable - nor did their being banned and persecuted rule it out.
Into the USSR's orbit (after 1953)
In 1953, when Mohammed Daud became Prime Minister, he vigorously took up the old cause of modernisation and development. He proclaimed "guided elections", instituted a five-year economic development plan and took Afghanistan closer into the orbit of the USSR. It is important to understand how and why this happened. Without it the 1978 Stalinist coup would not have been possible.
Pashtun nationalism was central to the upper-class modernising "opposition" movement that emerged after the Second World War. They demanded that the Pashtun districts of Afghanistan and of Pakistan be unified as part of the Afghan state. They insisted that the Durand Line dividing Afghanistan and British India (since 1947, Pakistan) was arbitrary and wrong, artificially dividing the Pashtuns. In the mid-1940s, as Britain prepared to leave India, and before India and Pakistan divided, the Afghan Pashtun elite tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with Britain for their "Pashtunistan". By 1950 Afghan-loyal guerrillas were active in the Pashtun areas against the Pakistan state; and by the early 50s, there was considerable tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan over the question.
The USA needed Pakistan as an ally in the region against both Russia and China, where the Stalinists had consolidated their control in 1949. When Daud tried to get US arms in 1953, the USA said no and told Daud to settle Afghanistan's quarrel with Pakistan. Essentially, the USA took sides with Pakistan. In the bipolar world of the Cold War, that left the USSR as ally and model for Afghanistan.
Russia was coming out of the inflexible foreign policy of the first years of the Cold War. It was seeking influence in Third World countries. The USA and Russia would soon compete in offering aid in a bid for clients and friends. Later in the decade, Egypt, refused western aid to build the Aswan High Dam, would turn to the USSR and for over a decade move into the USSR's orbit. The USSR established friendly links with other "progressive" rulers such as Sukarno in Indonesia and, after 1958, Kassem in Iraq.
So, after 1953, insulted, Afghanistan turned for aid to the USSR, already a very important trading partner. One account of it is that Mohammed Daud, knowing that the USA would favour Pakistan, wanted to be insulted by the USA so that he could whip up support for the turn to the USSR he wanted to make anyway, and wrongfoot conservative opponents of such a turn. Daud was engaged in a new drive to modernise Afghanistan and in an attempt to strengthen the state and the army, on which everything would depend. Like other Third World rulers, he was willing to learn from the USSR experience of using state power to organise economic development.
In 1955 the USSR granted Afghanistan a long-term loan of $100 million. Afghanistan already got most of its manufactured goods from the USSR - for example, 50% of imported machinery, and 85% of petroleum goods. Now the USSR would undertake to equip the Afghan armed forces with planes and tanks and artillery, and train Afghans to run and maintain those modern machines of war. It would organise Afghan telecommunications and air communications; build trunk roads and bridges; install hydro-electric power; and construct elite housing enclaves in Kabul. In all these things, but most significantly, in connection with operating and maintaining modern ground and air war machinery, Russian advisers and technicians came to Afghanistan to train Afghans. Steadily growing numbers of Afghan officers went to the USSR for education. The USSR thereby gained a shaping influence on the key layers of the officer corps of the air force and the army and tank regiments which it now undertook to equip and train.
To the feeble merchant bourgeoisie was added a more modern-minded element, and a more dynamic one - yet one rooted not in the development of Afghan industry and technology, but in the importation into one of the most backward societies on earth of advanced military technology.
If the cities were islands in a prehistoric sea, a thousand years ahead of the countryside, the armed forces, flying and maintaining modern planes and running tanks and modern artillery, were the representatives and embodiment of a technology 100 years ahead of the average level of the towns. Tsarist Russia had imported capital and Western industrial technology, and created giant concentrations of workers who shaped the future of Russian society; but the workers, though a small minority of Russia's population, were themselves numerous, and had contact with the peasantry from which they had emerged. Afghanistan imported military technology and gained a comparatively narrow layer of educated military technicians. They too would shape the future of their society, though in a very different direction. The officer corps was numerically small, and it tended to be detribalised, and thus to have even less contact with the people than the bourgeoisie and the royal modernisers had. Its relationship with the numerically large rank and file of the armed forces was one of a hierarchy of command, not of political leadership.
By the end of the 1950s, Russia, which in November 1957 had put the first man-made craft into orbit around the Earth, had great economic prestige. For the educated layers of a country like Afghanistan, even those who would not become "Communists", Russia's statised economy offered, in whole or in part, a model of quick development and modernisation. The lure of the Russian model was powerful. And so Daud initiated the closer links with Russia that led ultimately to the Saur Revolution. He was concerned to strengthen the Afghan state against internal and external opponents: of course, he hoped to keep control, but he found that at the end he did not control the state. People working closely with the Russian state were able to use parts of "Daud's" state to make a strange coup-revolution.
Stalinism in Afghanistan (from the 1950s)
Stalinism in Afghanistan cannot be understood outside of Afghanistan's interaction with the USSR. But it also cannot be understood except as the heir of all the movements - from "below", or at least from not quite the top layers, by the youth of the elite, and from above, by those who controlled the state itself - for modernisation and development. In its aspirations, it was a mutant variant of what the non-Stalinist reformers sought, taking the USSR as model of what was "modern" and "developed"; in its origins, driving forces, and brutal bulldozing methods once in power, it was a direct outcome of their repeated failures. In Afghanistan, movements for reform "from below" - in the sense that they sought to build a political opposition - tended to come from among the upper reaches of society, amongst the young and sections of the intelligentsia. The reformers-from-below had virtually one recurring programme, and that was identical with the programme of the reformers-from-above - development, and one degree or other of "democratisation". Young elite reform movements from "below" tended to divide into those whose origins, family and connections already overlapped with the establishment and the personnel of the state, and who evolved into reformists-from-above, the only possible sort of practising reformer - from Amanullah to Daud - and those who remained outside and really "below". Many of those became Stalinists.
There were Stalinists and Stalinist sympathisers in Afghanistan in the 1930s and 1940s. In the 1950s, one immediate consequence of the agreements with Russia was a loosening of repression against pro-Russian Stalinists. That was when the nuclei of the future Stalinist parties took shape in the form of "discussion groups", though a Stalinist party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was not founded until 1 January 1965. Within two years of the founding of the PDPA, the organisation would split into two groups, both claiming to be the PDPA and distinguished by the names of newspapers their organisations briefly published in the 1960s, Parcham (Flag) and Khalq (People, Masses). After a decade at war with each other - during some of which, after 1973, Parcham was part of Mohammed Daud's republican government which persecuted Khalq - they united again in 1977 to prepare for the April 1978 coup. Within weeks of the coup they had split again, bloodily.
Probably the distinction between Parcham and Khalq existed in the "discussion" groups of the 1950s. In any case the PDPA was never more than two brief and unstable conjunctions between two distinct parties.
Because of Russia's direct influence on layers of the Afghan elite, both PDPAs, Khalq and Parcham, were unique among Stalinist organisations. These were not to any degree working-class or peasant organisations. They were both rooted in sections of the Afghan state elite and bits of the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. They were organisations of segments of the urban elite, of the ruling class - segments distinguished from the rest of their class by belief in a "Russian" way forward for Afghanistan and commitment not to a bourgeois model of Afghanistan's development but to a bureaucratic Stalinist model. They aspired to switch Afghan history on to the Stalinist track of development; already part of the Afghan ruling class, they wanted to transform themselves into a bureaucratic elite after the model of what existed in Russia. They had many things in common with, for example, the bureaucratic elites selected as their satraps by the Russians when they transformed the East European societies into replicas of the USSR, but they were selected in a unique way because of the close relationship that had developed between the USSR's ruling class and the rulers of Afghanistan. They never developed anything remotely like a mass following. They could make the Saur Revolution only by winning over the key segments of the military elite.
In the passage quoted at the head of this article, Leon Trotsky truly wrote of the leadership of the Stalinist parties that:
"The predominating type among the present 'communist' bureaucrats is the political careerist... Their ideal is to attain in their own countries the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU..."
The degree to which that "type" would "predominate" would vary from party to party, and within the parties from layer to layer of the party leadership. There never was a Stalinist party - and not only the leadership of the party, but the whole organisation - that corresponded more closely to what Trotsky wrote in 1940 than did the Stalinists of Afghanistan.
The leading figures of Afghan Stalinism had a considerable political history by the mid-1950s. Noor Mohammed Taraki, future leader of Khalq and President of the People's Democratic Republic of Afghanistan proclaimed after the Saur coup, was a Ghilzai Pashtun, born about 1917 into a semi-nomadic family of livestock dealers. The Ghilzai were hostile to the ruling Durrani Pashtuns. Taraki worked in India in 1935-7. Possibly he was even then sympathetic to the Communist Party of India, and he may have joined it.
What "communism" meant even in comparatively underdeveloped India, where there was a proletariat and a bourgeoisie, bore some relationship to what it meant in Europe. But what did "communism" mean in tribal-feudal Afghanistan, where both proletariat and bourgeoisie were feeble segments of urban islands in one of the most backward countries on earth? Did it mean that "communists" would support bourgeois progress? Aspire to make a working-class revolution?
In fact, by now the Stalinists everywhere in backward countries - and not only in backward countries - stood for bourgeois-democratic revolution. In China already, and soon in Yugoslavia, Albania, and other countries, armed Stalinists would aspire to power, using "bourgeois-democratic revolution" as a flag of convenience. But for Afghanistan even the aspiration to a bourgeois-democratic revolution seemed insanely ambitious.
Taraki studied law and political science at the Kabul college for government employees, from which he graduated in 1941. Employed by the Ministry of Economic Development, he was a protégé of Abdul Majid Zabuli, Afghanistan's leading merchant and founder in 1934 of Afghanistan's first investment bank. He worked for Zabuli as a private secretary around 1937. Zabuli dealt much with the USSR and naturally had connections with Stalinist state officials. Even at the top of Afghanistan's merchant capitalist class there was already a considerable interpenetration with the USSR, Afghanistan's major trading partner.
Taraki fell out with Zabuli. He was, it seems, accused, but not charged, with stealing Zabuli's property. No longer Zabuli's protégé, he was fired from the Economic Development Ministry. He then worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder of the government Press Department, becoming Deputy Chief of the official Afghan News Agency in the 1940s. In 1951 he became involved with Awakening Youth and worked on its paper, Angar (Burning Ember), which was banned after four issues. The paper advocated the right to form legal political parties, free elections and a democratic constitution.
By now Taraki had some reputation as a poet and story writer. In the repression that, after the recurrent Afghan pattern, soon followed the period of "liberalisation", Taraki suffered only banishment - to Washington, as press and cultural attaché. When prime minister Daud recalled him in 1953, he asked for political asylum in the USA. This was refused. He called a press conference to denounce Daud. Then he disappeared for three years; he may have been in the USSR. Back in Kabul he worked as a translator. By 1962 Taraki was working as a translator for the US Embassy! He was a full-time organiser for the incipient PDPA by 1963.
Taraki was the leading writer and theorist of Khalq, and also a representative figure of the social composition of its leading layer. A first-generation-literate intellectual from a poor background, who had had to struggle for an education, he never lost the attitudes of rural Afghanistan to women, and had the "outsider" attitudes of a Ghilzai Pashtun towards the Durrani Pashtun elite and the Durrani Mohammedzai royal clan who held, dispensed, and manipulated power. Taraki lived as an intellectual in a too-slowly moving society - a writer in one of the two dominant languages, in a society with only five per cent of town dwellers and two per cent of rural Afghans literate - connected, of necessity and for his living, with the civil service and the commercial bourgeoisie.
Babrak Karmal became the central leader of Parcham when his predecessor, Mir Akhbar Kyber, was assassinated - possibly by Khalq - on the eve of the April coup of 1978. His background and political history is as emblematic of Parcham as Taraki's was of Khalq.
He was born in January 1929, the son of an army officer, who retired with the rank of General in 1965. He was a Dari-speaking Pashtun from an urban pro-Mohammedzai royal family. He was suspected of being of Tajik origin, "passing" for Pashtun. The family was wealthy, and Karmal had the best education possible in Afghanistan. He helped form a student union at Kabul University in 1950, which was banned after a few months. He was jailed for three years in 1953, but he spent his time not where he would probably have died, in the killer medieval common jail, but, as befitted one of his class, in a well-furnished private room.
After two years as a conscript in the army, he returned to the university and completed his degree in 1960. Like Taraki, he studied law and political science. Karmal was an orator, not a writer. He too worked as a translator - from German, for the Minister of Education. He also worked for the Ministry of Economic Planning (Afghanistan had its own five year plans). He became a full-time political organiser in 1964, on the eve of the proclamation of the PDPA. Karmal lived in the large USSR-built housing enclave (Mikrorayon) near Kabul, which housed state bureaucrats and army officers.
From the mid-1950s, when the proto-PDPA came into existence, as discussion groups in Kabul, people like Taraki and Karmal had connections with students and armed-forces officers. But these "communist" discussion groups were not opponents of the Daud Government, which had turned its face decisively towards "friendship and cooperation" with the USSR. Communist Parties in countries friendly with the USSR were everywhere working with the "progressive" local rulers - with Sukarno in Indonesia, Kassem in Iraq (1958-63), and Nasser in Egypt. That phase of Russian policy for Third World states would shape Afghan Stalinism before 1965, when the declaration of the PDPA signalled a change of tack. Though he acted in the name of the King, Daud had effectively been dictator. In terms of achievement, he is the most important of all Afghan reformers. Daud got rid of the compulsory veil for women. It was a milestone in Afghan social history when Daud, one day in 1956, appeared in public alongside the women of his family demonstratively unveiled. He built up the conscript army - that is the independent power of the state, raised autonomously above society, and potentially a force by way of which the towns could hope to subdue the countryside. He built up the economy using state resources, state planning and foreign help. He drew systematically closer to the USSR, thereby, to be sure, seeking to pursue his own goals.
For those in the proto-PDPA, Daud was doing pretty much what they wanted done - though not enough of it, and not fast enough. He was perhaps more satisfactory from the future Parcham's point of view than the future Khalq's. Daud was surely to Russia's satisfaction, and Daud's overthrow in 1963 was, for the Russians, decidedly unsatisfactory.
Daud was dismissed in 1963 by the King, who now took over the actual power for the first time. Though thirty years on the throne, Zahir had never ruled. His uncles, a repressive and then a more liberal one, and then his first cousin Daud, had ruled in his name. But Zahir too was now a reformer. In October 1964 he produced a new "democratic constitution". There would be an elected parliament, under universal suffrage. Women could vote and be candidates. The right to organise legal political parties was promised. Members of the royal family other than the king were legally banned from holding political office. Thus was achieved one of the goals of the old reform movements from below, the breaking of the Mohammedzai extended royal family's monopoly of power.
Elections were held in 1965. Four women were elected to parliament. However, only a tiny fraction of those eligible to vote, voted. The people were still enmeshed in the pre-state structures and limited "democracy" of the ethnic groups and their councils. The voting figures were a measure of the relationship of the towns to the countryside and of the central state to the Afghan people: the central government did not loom large in their concerns, and it had little impact on their lives. In fact, Zahir's new constitution was still only a half-and-half system; the king, not parliament, would in fact rule.
The dismissal of Daud in 1963 was seen as a blow to Russian interests in Afghanistan; one consequence of that was the drive to form the PDPA from the "discussion groups". Yet nothing fundamentally changed in Afghan-USSR relations. Major changes would come only after Daud's return in the mid-1970s. The response then, by the organisation created in response to Daud's fall in 1963, would be the Saur coup that buried Daud. With the formation of the PDPA the old question of creating a strong state able to lever or dictate to society became fused with the Stalinist drive to create a totalitarian state. The "Great Saur Revolution" of April 1978 marked its seeming triumph. Its manifest failure then led to the Russian invasion, after which the drive to create a state strong enough to reshape Afghanistan against the will of its people then fused with Russia's attempt to replace the Afghan state by a state of the invaders and their collaborators. "Modernisation" moved from an Afghan attempt at strengthening the state to an attempt to replace it by foreign totalitarian rule, driving to revolutionise Afghan society not only from "above" but from outside. The outcome would be the utter destruction of the Afghan state, and the collapse of Afghanistan into warlord fiefdoms. But that is to anticipate.
The formation and splintering of the PDPA (1965-7)
The PDPA was founded at a conference of 27 men, held on New Year's Day 1965 at the home of Noor Mohammed Taraki in a upper-class district of Kabul. None of those present were military men. Taraki was elected General Secretary, with Babrak Karmal as his deputy. The programme they adopted was one of national reform and development, a programme that was identifiably in continuity with traditional Afghan drives for reform and modernisation.
The congress called for "democratic change", for "democratic government serving the people", and for a non-capitalist way of development. The party's brief-lived publication Khalq put it like this: the PDPA "aimed to unite the people in their struggle against despotism and reaction, to show the working people the way to a free and democratic society." (April 1966)
"Democratic" was the "brand name" for what was done by Stalinist rulers who held that they themselves embodied "the people" and could substitute for them: when they ruled, the people ruled. "Non-capitalist" meant more than one thing here. It meant taking the USSR as a model of "socialism" and of a "free and democratic society". It also meant state enterprise such as Daud had organised, but more of it. Different parts of the PDPA would perhaps understand the term "non-capitalist" with, at least, different emphases. Some of them differed from Daud in degree not kind, or, anyway, saw what Daud had done as a weaker variant of their own statist policy. That there was an overlapping and blurring of lines between Daud's programme and one section of the PDPA (Parcham) would, as we shall see, be important for the future.
Afghanistan was then experiencing something of a public debate on models of "national development". It was a time of almost universal faith in the state as the only possible force for modernisation and development in the Third World. The PDPA's programme was one - extreme - variant among others of a statist model of development for Afghanistan. There was no difference between the PDPA and non-Stalinist Afghan devotees of statism on the necessity for a privileged elite in the future. The only argument was about its character. The leaders of the PDPA saw themselves as an elite like that of the USSR, the rest had a more bourgeois - or maybe "Egyptian", that is, bourgeois-bureaucratic hybrid - notion of the elite.
It should be noted that the PDPA was not explicitly secular and it was not avowedly Marxist. It talked of a "National Democratic Front" to work for "progressive reform". The sprawling extended royal family of Mohammedzai, despite the limitations imposed on its members in politics by the reforming king Zahir, still monopolised lucrative posts, blocking advancement for those outside the big and ever-increasing ruling clan. Here the upper class, bureaucrats and bourgeoisie, still had reason for discontent: it fed into the PDPA as it had fed into the earlier reform movements of which the PDPA was a mutant, Stalinising, continuation and descendant.
Though the Khalq/Parcham identities did not emerge until 1967, the distinction probably existed in a more or less defined form from the beginning. The National Committee elected at the founding congress had more or less parity of future Parcham and Khalq, and it would be strange if this was an anticipatory accident and not a deliberate attempt to accommodate known distinctions. The open Parcham/Khalq distinction within the PDPA emerged around the question of how "oppositional" the PDPA should be. The Parchamis accused the Khalq of ultra-leftism.
It came about in this way. When in late 1965, a new press law legalised opposition papers, it was only one more round in an already familiar cycle of liberalisation followed by repression. As in 1951, repression would come close on the heels of licence. State control of the press was not in fact lifted. Harrying censorship continued. When the PDPA published the newspaper Khalq (People, Masses), it was suppressed after only six issues (May 1966). It was thereafter succeeded by occasional illegal publications. The response of the future Parchamis to the ban broke the PDPA in two.
Inside the PDPA, Babrak Karmal criticised Khalq for having been too openly "communist". The future Parchamis advocated more caution, more circumspection, more skilful camouflage. Daud and his faction were now in opposition too, and Karmal saw the PDPA as simultaneously competing with the Daudites for the more "advanced" layers of the reform wing of the establishment and collaborating with them. Caution, moderation, close links with the Daudites, that was how the PDPA should work: it was the old policy, applied now with Daud out of office. "Leftism" was the main danger here. "Leftism" had lost the party its newspaper. It was only a year after the military-Islamist backlash that followed a botched Stalinist half-coup had killed hundreds of thousands of Communist Party members in Indonesia. Caution was in order.
A small majority of the PDPA Central Committee rejected Karmal's criticism. Taraki then tried to secure his majority by co-opting some of his supporters to the Central Committee. In spring 1967 the PDPA became two bitterly hostile PDPAs. The split would last ten years.
Though the Central Committee divided almost 50-50, the majority in the PDPA were probably Parchamis. Neither of the two PDPAs was repudiated by the USSR. Each group made bitter public denunciations of the other and, what must have caused confusion and embitterment, both claimed to be the PDPA. The differences expressed in the dispute around the banned newspaper Khalq reflected radical social and political differences and a difference in orientation - between working with the Daudite section of the establishment or working on it from outside; between a reformist orientation, in essence a continuation of the old reform movements, despite the Stalinist dimension of Parcham, and a revolutionary, or more revolutionary, approach to getting done what they all agreed needed to be done. It is not at all likely that even the Khalqis at this point thought it even a remote possibility to go for the full Russian model that they would go for in April 1978.
The Parchamis were more cautious not only because they were more "establishment" in background and connections, more "traditional" in orientation, overlapping heavily with the Daud opposition forces, but also, it seems, because they were closer to Russia. In accordance with its conception of its "tasks", Parcham was more loosely structured than Khalq. Khalq were more "outsider" in composition and attitude.
Before they became groups whose most important segment was airforce and army officers, both PDPAs, Khalq and Parcham, were a movement of the Afghan intelligentsia, of students and teachers in a country where the literate were only five per cent of the urban and two per cent of the rural population. Within that layer, Khalq tended to attract the unemployed and less well-connected, though even here there was no absolute distinction: Parcham had a militant phase in the late 1960s. In 1978 Taraki said a majority of the members of the PDPA were teachers. In this lay the continuity with the earlier reform movements and the importance of the perennial activity among students - privileged student scions of the elite. In the 1960s and 1970s these were the main forces taking part in the PDPA-organised demonstrations.
After teachers, journalists on the official press and radio were the second most important group for the PDPA.
Increased state economic and other activity would create jobs for the educated unemployed or underemployed with no other prospects: such people would therefore have a natural bias towards a statist, or even the full USSR, model of economic development, even when they themselves were not directly trained or educated in Russia or by Russians. That is shown most clearly in the career of the PDPA-Khalq leader Hafizullah Amin - the organiser of the April 1978 coup, Prime Minister from June 1978, and President after September 1979. Amin was an educationalist by profession, principal of schools and colleges. Like a number of other leading PDPAers (for example Taraki and Dr Anahita Ratebzad) he spent time in the USA, where he worked for a doctorate. Before he focused in the 1970s on organising military officers for the PDPA, Amin organised in Pashtun boarding schools and among teachers.
Let us finally try to sum up what distinguished the two Stalinist parties from each other. It was by no means clear-cut and stark on all points, but in general the two parties differed in the layers, upper or lower, of the old elite in which they originated, and in their connections with specific segments of the existing establishment.
The leading Parchamis were people whose origins tied them to the upper layers of the state bureaucracy, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and the armed forces. They were urban in origin and, like the state bureaucracy, included non-Pashtuns. They intermeshed with the layers engaged in "reform from above" to such an extent that they became part of the government set up after Mohammed Daud's republican coup in 1973. Conversely, in the Saur coup of 1978, they could pull some of those same upper-crust reform forces, disappointed with Daud, into the experiment of a different, Stalinist, attempt at reform from above.
Parcham was of the two parties the closer to the Russians; it was very much a Russian puppet. Parcham was the hybrid linking the "progressive" Afghan elite and the Russian bureaucracy. It was essentially a group of insiders, dealing in power, within and outside Afghanistan - always more reformers-from-above than revolutionaries. The "revolution" they made together with Khalq, though the prelude to an energetic attempt at reform from above, was only a "revolution" in the state apparatus. Within that attempt Parcham represented a cautious, long-term approach that, in fact, differed not all that much from Daud's approach.
Parcham was also more generally "modern-minded" than Khalq. It had a civilised attitude to women. It had women members and one nationally prominent woman leader, Dr Anahita Ratebzad. Here too they were flesh of the flesh of the non-Stalinist reformers from above, who in terms of women's rights, made the most important reforms in Afghanistan's history, in the 1960s - reforms that, unlike what the post-Saur-Revolution Stalinists would decree, came into effect, and had more than a paper meaning.
Though Khalq was composed of people of the same social groups as Parcham, they were from their lower layers - teachers for example - and people of rural, and entirely Pashtun, origin. Though in power they would show a startling lack of astuteness in dealing with rural Afghanistan, they had more connections than Parcham with the countryside. More "outsider", less enmeshed with the upper class reformers-from-above, more distant from power than Parcham, their ambitions were correspondingly more radical, more "left", and more "revolutionary". Perhaps because they were more rural in their roots, they were also, notably, less "modern-minded in relation to women. There were no prominent Khalq women, if there were Khalq women at all.
But these were very small organisations. Split or united, the PDPA would never be other than a small organisation. In 1973 professional US observers and analysts of "communist" phenomena put both Parcham and Khalq at only a few hundred members each.
After the PDPA split (1967)
In the late 1960s, foreign aid declined, there was an economic downturn, and job prospects worsened, especially for the educated aspirant state employees. It undermined the king's experiment in hybrid constitutionalism. The PDPAs grew. It was the time of spectacular student militancy all over the world, from the USA to Rome, London and Warsaw. It found echoes in Afghanistan. The students wanted to modernise Afghanistan and secure their own futures. They demonstrated for changes in the law and also for the pass mark at the university to be cut to 50%. Both PDPAs were involved*.
The student segment of the Afghan elite were at this time what the military officers would be in the late 1970s, the striking force of the PDPA. For example, in October 1965, Karmal organised mass student demonstrations and a student occupation of Parliament.
The issue was opposition to the king's candidate for Prime Minister, Dr Mohammed Yussef. The king was forced to retreat and appoint someone else.
There was also unrest in the small Afghan working class in this period. For example, there were 19 labour strikes and demonstrations in May-June 1968. Trotsky once observed of the student unrest in Russia at the turn of the 20th century that the students were to the workers as the leaves at the top of the tree to the rest of the tree. The leaves at the top move first in a gathering wind, but eventually the tree moves; the student "leaves" at the top of the tree were but harbingers of the deeper working-class movement. The working class moved in Kabul, but it was a tiny force, puny in relation to cities which were puny in relation to the country. It did not develop independent working-class politics. Working-class aspirations to transform society were not sustainable in 1960s Afghanistan. That fact was one of the preconditions for what happened in the 1970s.
Even in its most militant phase, Parcham was tied closely to the forces around ex-prime-minister Daud. During the student demonstrations of 1969, the most militant in the long history of Afghan student unrest and dissatisfaction, Parcham acted as a link between Daud and the more militant students. For example, Parcham arranged for Daud to come in his Rolls Royce behind student demonstrations. This was thought likely to deter police violence - and it could not but help to build support for Daud. It is an example of how Parcham overlapped with Daud.
Parcham's paper was suppressed in June 1969 after a massive student strike and government lock out the previous month. Parcham collaboration and interlacing with the Daudites were now comprehensive and would lead to Parcham joining Daud's government after the 1973 coup. It would also lead to Parcham losing out in the competition with Khalq, which, remaining far more independent, would grow decisively while Parcham was tied to Daud.
Towards Mohammed Daud's coup (1973)
The post-1963 regime had run into difficulties by the late 1960s. The king had raised hopes he could not fulfil and thereby had bred only disillusion and disappointment. As we have seen, there was economic decline, less foreign aid, and jobs and job prospects for students and graduates were correspondingly cut back. By the end of the 1960s, political stability had been shattered. Afghanistan's rate of growth and development gave no one grounds for satisfaction. In 1971-2 the country experienced drought and, in some areas, famine. The forces that created the PDPAs had been quiet while the "pro-Russian" Daud ruled, but now they were in active opposition, allied to Daud, helping whip up and organise the latest of the recurrent student and intellectual opposition movements into a strong movement of mass demonstration and strikes. That was part of the ferment that led to Daud's 1973 coup.
Daud had for ten years been out of power. The legislation banning members of the royal family other than the king from political high office forbade his return to power. Yet around Daud dissident layers of the Establishment grouped themselves, most importantly a group of airforce and army officers, many of them educated by the USSR. The conflict between Zahir and Daud divided the ruling class elite more seriously than at any time since 1929. The opposition was broad and powerful. About 50 key officers took part in discussions between Daud, the Parcham leaders and the USSR-trained airforce and army officers on what had gone wrong in 1953-63. Many did not yet feel obliged to choose between Parcham and Daud, whose forces overlapped.
Daud, though he was about to lead a sort of "bourgeois revolution" from above in the 1973 coup, operated still as a feudal chief: this modernising current was a primitive, pre-modernist, personalist movement around the Sardar, the chief. Daud relied on personal loyalty, not on ideas or programme, to hold his forces together and in step. He would be disabused. By the 1970s other factors, other modes and determinants, were loose in Afghanistan. After experiencing Daud in power again, an important section of the Daudite military would go over to the PDPA, propelled by views about what had "gone wrong" before 1963 and in 1973-8 and seeking a firmer and more comprehensive drive towards "socialism". That would be a big factor in making the Stalinists' April 1978 Saur Revolution possible. Of the non-communist Third-World "pro-Russian" leaders of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Daud would be the only one eaten up by his one-time partners. There was another sort of opposition too - Islamic political fundamentalism. There had been ferment amongst urban Muslim intellectuals since the turn to Russia in the mid 1950s. Like the Stalinists of the proto-PDPA in the first Daud period (1953-63), they too had had their "discussion groups", and an important base at Kabul University. In May 1970, the Muslim Brotherhood organised rallies and demonstrations in Kabul, calling for a jihad against socialism and democracy. There was also a feeble strand of "progressive" political Islam organised around certain mullahs. In 1971-2 the PDPA led a wave of strikes. But the working class dimension was an utterly subordinate element in the build up to Daud's and Parcham's 1973 coup. Neither the 1973 nor the April 1978 "revolution" was shaped, led, made, or influenced by the tiny working class. Economic downturn, disappointment with the 1963 reforms, a ruling class more seriously divided than at any time since 1929: in some respects, Afghanistan in 1973 approximated to Lenin's definition of the three prerequisites for revolution. The rulers could not go on in their old way; key sections, at least, of the people did not want to go on in the old way; and there was a viable alternative, driving for revolution. The future would be shaped by the ways in which Afghan reality differed from Lenin's formula.
Lenin's conditions for revolution were there in urban Afghanistan - in Kabul and the bigger towns. But the towns were not representative of Afghanistan. They were centuries ahead of most of the country. If during the French Revolution of the 18th century, important sections of backward rural France embodied counter-revolution - the Vendée - and suffered massacre and repression in their war with the revolution, in this case the whole of rural Afghanistan was an enormous Vendée waiting to be ignited. Afghanistan also diverged from Lenin's formula in that those driving for revolution were part of the old elite. They had more in common with enlightened despots and modernising rulers such as Frederick, Peter and Catherine (all called "The Great") then with any popular revolutionary movement. The urban forces of revolution were not a mass movement, or a movement able to evoke, rouse, or lead, a mass popular revolution. This fact expressed and defined the essential nature of Afghanistan's 1973 republican "bourgeois revolution", as of its April 1978 bureaucratic Stalinist continuation and successor.
Sardar Daud's republic (1973-8)
On the night of 16-17 July 1973, officers led by Mohammed Daud and backed by the PDPA organised a more or less bloodless military coup. King Zahir Shah abdicated and Daud - the king's first cousin and brother in law - declared Afghanistan a Republic. He became its President.
A Republican Central Committee would rule. The symbiotic interpenetration of all layers of the elite in Afghanistan is made clear by two facts. The Minister of the Interior before the 1973 coup, the person whose job it was to prevent such a coup, Nehm Atullah Pazhwole, was a - secret - member of the Parcham PDPA! And the key organisers of the 1973 Daud coup would also, in 1978, be the organisers of the Stalinist coup, the "Great Saur Revolution".
1973 was a species of national bourgeois revolution, the best the progressive section of the Afghan elite could do. Parcham helped organise it, and some of Daud's officers were also Parchamis; indeed Parcham's leaders were central to it. Perhaps as many as 50 people in Daud's entourage were, loosely, Parchamis. Daud abolished the Constitution, suspended parliament, banned political activity. The ban on political activity was partial, however. Parcham could open a public headquarters. Parcham was in government; half of Daud's ministers in 1973 were Parchamis. President Daud's first Deputy Prime Minister, Hassan Sharq, was Parchami.
Khalq, though it offered its support to the government (and in 1974 combined this with urging the exclusion of Parcham), was excluded from power. The relation between the Daudites and Parcham at this point was, though the details differ, reminiscent of the symbiosis between the Chinese Communist Party and Chiang Kai Shek's Guomindang in the Chinese Revolution of 1926-27 - but with a radically different outcome. Chiang Kai Shek slaughtered the Communists in 1927; in Afghanistan, as we shall see, ultimately the PDPA would slaughter Daud.
Daud, back in power in crisis-ridden Afghanistan, was at first the old pro-USSR Daud. For the Parchamis it was back to the pre-1963 days, except that now they had a substantial though subordinate share of power. Links with Russia had never been weakened, but now, at first, they were intensified. By 1977 115 enterprises were being built with Russian help and 70 were already in operation. In 1974, Daud signed a mutual "most favoured nation" trade deal with the USSR; in 1976 a long-term trade agreement was signed. Cars, cotton processing machinery, etc. came to Afghanistan from the USSR. and of course Afghans continued to be trained in civil and military technological skills in the USSR. Sections of the educated Afghan elite were already symbiotic with the bureaucratic elite in the USSR. That would increase. Between 1971 and 1974 500 Afghan students went for higher education to the USSR; 22% of Afghan specialists educated abroad went to the USSR. By now most Afghan medical doctors had been trained in the USSR. By 1977 3,700 officers had been trained in the USSR.
As we have seen, conflicts with Pakistan over "Pashtunistan" had been much more important than geographical proximity to the USSR in determining the closeness of Afghanistan's relations with the USSR. After 1973, Daud's foreign policy, too, was at first what it had been: he pursued not only "Pashtunistan" - the cause which had pushed Afghanistan into Russia's Cold War orbit - but also "Baluchistan". (Baluchis, too, live on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border).
Militant commitment to Pashtunistan, which had been central to the modernising oppositions such as "Awakening Youth", had defined Afghan nationalism - and defined it as Pashtun nationalism. It was also central to Afghan Stalinism. Both Parcham and Khalq were Pashtun and very much partisans of "Pashtunistan". But in the mid-1970s Daud began to shift away from a central concern with Pashtunistan. After a quarter-century of animosity, he attempted to establish friendlier relations with Pakistan. This implied a loosening of relations with the USSR, or even a sharp turn away. Daud, of course, was neither Stalinist, nor a willing USSR puppet: he had his own goals and intentions. Deliberately he began to distance Afghanistan from the USSR. He began to weaken the power of Parcham.
The evidence suggests that Daud, as he strove to lessen Afghanistan's dependence on the USSR, seriously misunderstood how things stood, and failed to anticipate that a decisive segment of the airforce and army could be taken over by the PDPAs. Daud sought and was promised an Iranian subsidy to the tune of $2 billion (in fact it was never delivered). Iran, which shares a border with Afghanistan, was then a regional "sub-imperialist" great power, and the USA's ally. Daud asserted Afghanistan's independence from the Russian bloc by condemning Cuba's "intervention" in Angola where, financed by the USSR, it acted as Russian proxy. In September 1975 Daud dismissed 40 USSR-trained officers. He sought facilities for training Afghan military offices in England and Egypt. The head of the airforce and a key organiser of Daud's coup, Colonel Abdul Kader, was disgraced and dismissed for saying that Daud's progress towards socialism was too slow. His demotion to the position of head of the Kabul military slaughterhouse was one of the decisive acts on the road that would lead to Afghanistan itself being turned into an enormous slaughterhouse. By late 1974, Parcham leader Babrak Karmal was under de facto house arrest, though the full break was still two years away.
After the Afghan pattern of hard and soft repression, alternating and combined, Parcham people were demoted and dismissed, some exiled overseas in Afghanistan's diplomatic service. But it was a selective purge to weaken Parcham's power and increase Daud's freedom of action: until 1976 there would still be Parchamis both in the government and in Daud's personal entourage. Daud would finally kick Parcham away early in 1977. (There is a curious symmetry between Parcham's experience of being kicked away by Daud after they had helped install him in power, and what Khalq did to them after the 1978 coup). But this was no longer the same USSR as the one with which Daud had safely allied in the 1950s and 1960s. Nor were its devotees in Afghanistan, the PDPA, what they had been. As a result of the USSR's long-time influence, they now had, and were rapidly augmenting, special assets - de facto control of important sections of the Afghan state machine.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Russian influenced Third World Communist Parties had docilely seconded "progressive" rulers and, in Egypt, they even dissolved its own organisation in deference to the Nasserite party. The policy of the Afghan Stalinists in their pre-PDPA phase had been a variant of that pattern. But by the mid-1970s Russia was in an aggressive, expansionary phase. Stalinist victory over the USA in Indochina, and the setting up of Stalinist states there, seemed to have changed the balance of power against the USA and its allies. Quasi-Stalinist "anti-capitalist" revolutions and quasi-Stalinist USSR-client regimes had emerged in Africa. Just as the US military effort was collapsing ignominiously in Indochina, a Russian-financed Cuban Stalinist army crossed the seas to Africa to intervene in Angola. In Ethiopia, Angola and South Yemen - in fact, everywhere it thought it safely could - Russia pursued, with seeming success, an active expansionary foreign policy, linking up with client regimes that appeared to be following the Cuban pattern of radical-dictatorial regimes not initially Stalinist moving towards the USSR model and alliance with the USSR. The full-scale invasion of Afghanistan would be the culmination of this phase of Russian foreign policy.
The PDPA coup of April 1978 was also part of it.
Preparing the "Great Saur Revolution"
Parcham had shared power. Khalq had not. In fact, when Khalq had been harried by the government, the Parchamis had actively participated in the persecution. In power, Parcham had forfeited the advantages of opposition. Trading acceptance of responsibility for only a share of power, and not the decisive share, Parcham inevitably suffered from disillusionment and impatience which undermined the Daud regime. Khalq had no such problem. Though it would have joined Daud's government if it could, in fact it had not.
While Parcham was enmeshed with Daud and part of his government, Khalq, with Taraki as theorist and politician and Amin as organiser and main practical man of business, built the decisive forces that would make the "Great Saur Revolution". They recruited the decisive leaders of the most important sections of the armed forces, those who could control Afghan state power. The proto-PDPA before 1965, and then the PDPA, had military connections, and probably some military cells; Parcham had the initial successes in organising officers. But from the 1973 Daud coup, Khalq, concentrating almost exclusively on the military, reaped the harvest that the Russian connection had sown.
The goals of modernisation and development, and acceptance of a central role for the state in the economy, were common ground in Afghanistan's elite: differences concerned the extent of statification. That common ground, together with disappointment at the failures of Daud after 1973, helped convince many of the military elite that Khalq, and then the reunited PDPA, offered a solution. The USSR wanted a coup; for them, the situation was by the mid-1970s not only ripe but overripe. Khalq's ability to recruit Daudite officers shows how ripe conditions were.
Khalq's concentration on military recruitment was part of a project, a plan for a special sort of revolution. A party as small as the PDPA, in a non-revolutionary situation, could realistically steer in a straight line for "revolution" only if the projected revolution did not depended on its own forces. As we saw in the passage from his official biography quoted at the head of this article, after April 1978 Taraki would boast that he had conceived of and carried out a new form of revolution. In fact it was a very old form - military coup - but with the tiny PDPA in control of the military.
The reunified PDPA (1977-8)
Once Parcham was out with Daud, once the whole orientation towards Daud had ended as it had, the reunification of Parcham and Khalq became a possibility. The Russians wanted it, and insisted on it. By now, Parcham was by far the lesser force both among PDPA members and, most importantly, in its implantation in the officer corps. It was not Parcham but Khalq that that reaped what the Russians and modern Afghan history had sown.
All the moves in this period strongly suggest systematic preparation of the "instrument" that would carry out the Saur coup. The coup was probably the USSR's project, or a project of a section of the USSR state - maybe the KGB. It was, in that respect, and at the other end of the Stalinist Empire, a variation on what had happened a decade earlier, in 1968, when Czechoslovakia had looked set to loosen its ties to the Stalinist bloc. Only the mechanics, the techniques, were, at first, different. In Czechoslovakia the invasion came first.
When the Russians had invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 the Russian ruling class had proclaimed the "Brezhnev Doctrine". Where "socialism" had been established, the USSR and its "Warsaw Pact" would not peacefully let it be overthrown. Afghanistan had effectively been a client state of the USSR. With the active participation of Afghan Stalinist forces, Daud, the pro-USSR dictator of the 1950s and early 1960s, had made a "pro-USSR" coup in 1973. Having got that far, the USSR would not just let Afghanistan move out of its orbit. The countdown to the Stalinist coup began once Daud's new international direction became clear.
In July 1977, exactly four years after Mohammed Daud's coup and just nine months before the "Great Saur Revolution", the two PDPAs held a unification conference. Though Khalq was three times bigger than Parcham, a Central Committee with equal numbers of Khalq and Parcham was created. This was a Russian-enforced shotgun marriage.
Secretly, they set their goal as the deposition of the royal Republican Daud. They decided to create "mass organisations" of women, peasants and youth. There are no reliable figures for the numbers involved in the joint Parcham-Khalq PDPA Mark 2, but nine months later, after the coup, the PDPA claimed to have 8,000 members. The CIA and other professional Stalinist-watchers put the figure at not more than half of that.
The PDPA was not only a creature of the towns, but disproportionately Kabul-centred, though very small even in Kabul. Ninety per cent of the population of Afghanistan lived in villages. More than that: politically the party was politically underdeveloped and primitive. The PDPA's leaders, writers and speakers and their deeds in power testify to that. Its ignorance of the countryside - and specifically Khalq's ignorance, though Khalq had stronger rural connections - would be a factor in what happened when they seized state power.
The "Great Saur Revolution" (April 1978)
On 27 April 1978, Afghan Stalinism launched its bid for power in the form of another military coup. Indeed, organised by the same leading military men, it looked remarkably like the same military coup as that of July 1973, but this time against Daud. There was about it something of military leaders taking back what they had given Daud, to bestow it elsewhere.
With the PDPA also there was an element of seizing now for itself what it had in the past bestowed on Daud. Five years experience had politically reshaped some of the formerly Daudite officers, and not only those who were already PDPA or close to it in 1973. Daud had moved too slowly towards "socialism". He was not fully committed to the USSR model, and of course he had begun to veer away from the USSR itself. The inadequacy of what Daud had achieved, coming to power amidst economic collapse, measured against what the urban elite urgently felt Afghanistan needed - that was the spur. That widespread feeling among not-quite-PDPA officers is what gave the tiny PDPA and its officers the initiative. The founder of Parcham and its political-theoretical leader, Mir Akhbar Kyber, was assassinated on 17 April 1978 in Kabul. Two men came to his home and shot him dead. It is likely that Khalq, or the Amin segment of Khalq, killed him. Bitter hostilities and rivalries between Khalq and Parcham were still rampant in the "united" PDPA. Those denounced for the killing by Daud's police, the brothers Mir Siddiq Alemyar and Mir Aref Alemyar, would be given high office under Amin, and would later be shot by Parcham, in June 1980.
Variously blaming the CIA and the Muslim Brotherhood, the PDPA organised Kyber's funeral as a large protest demonstration in Kabul. Ten to fifteen thousand people took part. In response Daud attempted a large-scale crackdown on the PDPA.
Daud's police arrested seven leaders of the PDPA - Taraki, Karmal, Amin and four others. Symptomatically, a Khalq agent in Daud's intelligence system, Lieutenant Colonel Pacha Sarbaz, gave Amin, the organiser of Khalq's military men, advance warning. The other leaders were held incommunicado in jail. Amin, the lynchpin organiser, was held only under house arrest and thus left in a position to trigger what must have been a prepared coup. The initiative lay with the PDPA's military men, who now acted under Khalq's and Amin's control.
It has been suggested that, though the PDPA had been preparing for a military rising - probably set for August 1979 - the Parcham leaders were, in April, pulled along behind Khalq and Amin. But only some details of what happened were happenstance and accident. The main lines of development - a military coup at the moment the PDPA chose - would have been the same. Everything points to that.
Unlike 1973, which was a bloodless coup, 1978 was a very bloody, fierce and merciless battle for control of the state between sections of the armed forces. As many as 10,000 people died. Daud and 18 members of his family were killed. Of 1,800 members of Daud's bodyguard, the Republican Guard, there were few survivors, and those were later killed in jail. Perhaps 30,000 people were wounded.
The ferocity showed that something very serious was happening: it also pointed to the high-Stalinist ferocity that would soon find outlet in the PDPA factions slaughtering each other. But this, nonetheless, was a coup, a struggle for power among the samurai, not a revolution. The people were not involved - not at all, not even as a token gesture by the PDPA towards "Marxism". The people of Afghanistan were objects, not subjects, in the "Great Saur Revolution".
The PDPA in power (1978-9)
For a few days after the putschists had won control in Kabul, power was said to reside in a Military Revolutionary Council, with Lieutenant Colonel Abdul Kader, returned from the Kabul slaughterhouse, as Head of State. On 1 May 1978 the "military" designation was dropped. The Military Revolutionary Council became the Revolutionary Council. Taraki was named Head of State, President and Prime Minister. Babrak Karmal was named First Deputy Prime Minister. Amin was another Deputy Prime Minister. The state was renamed the "Democratic Republic of Afghanistan".
The new rulers denied that they were "communist" or "Marxists", or that the Afghan state had ceased to be "non-aligned". They addressed Pakistan and Iran as brother Islamic states. They 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".
At first this won widespread international belief. The Saur Revolution was not at first widely seen as "communist". This was a revolution by the old state machine and a segment of the existing elite, not their overthrow.
They insisted they were Afghan nationalists, concerned to modernise and develop the country. They denounced Daud's backsliding after the 1973 coup. The government declared itself devoutly Muslim. One article of the credo of State - a continuation of an article in the 1977 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. This was disingenuous. As Taraki would soon begin to boast, this was a "communist" revolution such as had not been seen before.
The "Great Saur Revolution" was a political revolution, something on top of and not in society. Even as such, it was peculiar because the Afghan state had only a loose and distant relationship with rural Afghanistan - with 90% of its people. The Stalinists in fact now had "the power"; and yet they had a great deal less power than they seem to have believed they had.. There was always an element of blundering and misunderstanding, of people who had gone to the wrong place, the weak state of Afghanistan, for power.
Their internal programme - even in its drive to strengthen the state - was essentially an accelerated and intensified version of what Daud had been doing; their self-belief that they could do it was essentially a belief in the unbridled use of state power, of force, to shape society as they should choose to reshape it. This was their "communism": the goal of a forced-march social and economic development like that of Stalin's USSR, and a belief that state force was the sufficient and essential precondition for that. There were differences in degree here between Parcham and Khalq, but only in degree.
The way they had made their revolution - through the armed forces - could not but greatly reinforce the typical Stalinist belief in the self-sufficiency of force and of the state. It would disorient them and confuse them about who they were, where in social history they were, and what they could hope to do. It would help undo the native Afghan Stalinist regime.
In terms of achievements Daud was, as has already been said, by a wide margin the most effective reformer and moderniser of 20th century Afghanistan. From about 1950 (when he was a minister, before becoming Prime Minister in 53) he had created an Afghan army by deliberately elevating officers from minor nationalities in an effort to knit together an Afghan state above the big ethnic groups. With USSR help - like Chiang Kai Shek in the 1920s - he had strengthened the state. After 1973 Daud nationalised the banks, fixed working hours, instituted paid leave, improved education and made a beginning with medical care. The land reform the PDPA announced in 1978 was more impressive - on paper, not in life. In fact, everything that socialists and consistent democrats can approve of in the PDPA regime's reform decrees existed largely on paper, not in reality. Those that had any effect on Afghan society produced opposite results to the goals proclaimed.
Criticising Michael Bakunin in 1870, Karl Marx had said what needs to be said about the post-Saur regime. The "charlatan and ignoramus" Bakunin proclaimed "the abolition of inheritance" as the "first requirement" of the social revolution. But:
"If you have had the power to make the social Revolution in one day... you would abolish at once landed property and capital, and would therefore have no occasion at all to occupy yourself with le droit d'heritage. On the other hand, if you have not that power (and it is of course foolish to suppose such a power) the proclamation of the abolition of inheritance would be not a serious act, but a foolish menace, rallying the whole peasantry and the whole small middle class round the reaction. Suppose, for instance, that the Yankees had not had the power to abolish slavery by the sword. What an imbecility it would have been to proclaim the abolition of inheritance in slaves. The whole thing rests on a superannuated idealism, which considers the actual jurisprudence as the basis of our economical state, instead of seeing that our economical state is the basis and source of our jurisprudence. As to Bakunin, all he wanted was to improvise a programme of this own making..."
(Karl Marx, letter to Paul Lafargue, 19 April 1870).
Taraki would have answered that he had the power meaning concentrated, state-organised, force. But the central truth here was put succinctly by Marx: "Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one". Afghanistan was pregnant with no new society, and Taraki looked to force to work miracles. Frederick Engels, discussing the role of force in history, wrote in Anti-Dühring:
"It is not by any means true that 'the primary must be sought in direct political force and not in any indirect economic power'. On the contrary. For what in fact does 'the primary' in force prove to be? Economic power..."
The experience of Stalinism everywhere, in which political force seemed all-powerful for so long, would ultimately prove Engels right - even in the most advanced Stalinist societies. Afghanistan, the most backward, would produce only a bloody caricature of Stalinism elsewhere. The gap between Kabul and most of Afghanistan meant that the first task of those aspiring to do what the PDPA aspired to do would have to be the military conquest of the country.
The PDPA government's public programme was not their "full" one. Amin would proclaim the goal of the revolution to be a "full socialist" society "with collectivised agriculture and the elimination of the private retail sector". Obfuscation and conflicting statements dominated. Unguarded comments, alternating with subterfuge, camouflage and pledges to Islam, would continue even after the Russian invasion.
What the PDPA regime did was clear enough however. Within a month, over 20 new agreements were concluded with the USSR and USSR "advisers" had tripled their number.
The comment by Amin about "full socialism" indicated a cauterising ultra-Stalinist programme to be implemented as soon as the PDPA was strong enough to carry it through. Collectivisation of agriculture makes sense or not depending on whether or not agricultural machinery is available; whether it is voluntary or compulsory is largely decided by the advantages the farmers would see in it. Even with imported Russian machinery, it would be a long way ahead in terms of general economic development in Afghanistan, and a considerable time, before collectivisation would be other than a fantasy or an attempt by a totalitarian state to slave-drive the people - or both.
In power, the tiny group of PDPA people ensconced in a bureaucratic state machine faced the peoples of Afghanistan as an antagonistic force. They would discover that though power grows out of the barrel of a gun, they had not sufficient power to make a revolution - and that there were a lot of other gun-empowered forces in Afghanistan ready to contest the power with them.
What social forces had made this revolution? Not the Afghan peoples or any of the subordinate classes of Afghanistan. Even passive support was limited to a section of the urban population. The PDPA was very small: we saw that the highest PDPA claim for its membership was 8,000, and that the real figure in April 1978 may have been half that. The party was essentially an organisation of the pro-Russian elite. Its strength and power lay in the officers of the armed forces, especially of the technologically most advanced parts of it, the air force and tank regiments, and among intellectuals and others within and on the fringes of the state machine.
How many officers were PDPA? Again, suggested figures vary. The PDPA claimed 2,000, 20-25% of the officer corps. Western (CIA, etc.) analysts put the number of PDPA (Khalq and Parcham) officers, in April 1978, at 200.
The conscript army was 80,000 strong. History knows examples of hybrids, of armies that were also parties and parties that were also armies, from Cromwell's Ironsides to Mao's "Red Army". The new Afghan military elite which had been formed under Russian influence, or the key segment of it which became the spearhead of Afghan Stalinism, was not one of those. The Stalinist officers' relationship with the rank and file was military and hierarchical, never a political leadership capable of rousing large numbers to action.
A very small group of PDPA, mainly Khalq, was attempting to drive a military machine, constructed for another purpose, as an engine of revolution in a country in which they had virtually no support outside of Kabul. It was a variant of the East European Stalinist revolutions carried out in the late 1940s from within the state machine. There, Stalinists had been installed in the key positions, specifically in control of the police and army, not by a military coup, but by the Russian Army. They stealthily and slowly, piece by piece, using what Matyas Rakosi in Hungary called "salami tactics", remoulded the East European societies. Here the PDPA was trying to apply the same method to a primitive society in which the writ of the state machine they now controlled scarcely existed outside the cities.
The meaning of the Great Saur Revolution
In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels observe that in serious class struggle there is either the victory of the progressive class or the mutual ruination of the contending classes. The war between town and country is a form of class struggle. In Afghanistan that war - it became open war soon after the April 1978 coup - intertwined with a Russian war of colonial conquest and resistance to it, to bring ruin and destruction to Afghanistan comparable to the destruction inflicted on Germany during the Second World War.
Let us try to sum up what the Stalinist revolution in Afghanistan was. The "Saur Revolution" was a very bloody though brief civil war between sections of the armed forces - fought, lost and won, above the heads of the people, even the people of Kabul. There was not even the mimicry, or the pretence of working-class action such as the PDPA could perhaps have arranged - strikes in Kabul, for example - had it wanted to pretend, had it felt any need to square what it was doing with the hypocritical formulas and the pious dogmas of even the Stalinists elsewhere. That was not what the PDPA was about. The PDPA believed itself to have found a new road to revolution.
As we saw in the quotation at the head of this article, the new head of state, Taraki, claimed that the PDPA had found a way to "wrest political power through a shortcut" via the armed forces. Learning from Daud in 1973, the PDPA decided that it could go into the coup business for itself; and could in that way arrive at the same relationship to society that the USSR-imposed regimes in Eastern Europe had by the mid-1940s.
By infiltration of the air force and army officer corps, the PDPA used sections of the state apparatus to suppress and destroy the rest of it, and took over the state. Many details were different, but in its own peculiar way, adroitly using the strength and influence of Russia in Afghanistan, the PDPA had put itself in the position of the East European Stalinist parties after 1945 - or so it looked from the top, anyway. Russia was both prerequisite and prime mover, in Afghanistan as in Eastern Europe, though in Afghanistan it worked its effects through decades of influence and primary selection of the elements of a Stalinist bureaucracy out of the Afghan elite and not through invasion. Invasion would come not at the beginning of the process, as in Eastern Europe, but when it failed.
After the "Great Saur Revolution" the PDPA had the state power, and they had immediate Russian help on every level. The efforts of the previous "developers" of Afghanistan, and in the first place of Daud, provided them with a state stronger than anything Amanullah 50 years before could dream of - a conscript army of 80,000 men. Yet the issue was still between one sort of reform from above, one programme of development, and another. "Revolution" here could only be a political revolution, on the level of the state. In the Afghanistan of 1978 there was no ripe or developed society or economy, ready to burst out of constraints and restrictions. There was no social revolution - not even a bourgeois revolution - there for the making, waiting to break out of the restraining shell of the old society.
The state could be taken by force. But society? Every Stalinist state, beginning with Stalin's "Second Revolution" in the USSR after 1928, was unripe for rational or democratic collectivism, and its rulers had to adapt their programme to that fact, combining precocious collectivism with the work of development done in the advanced countries by capitalism. It was not the working-class "expropriation of the expropriators", as will be socialism when it emerges from advanced capitalism, but a matter of the exploitative totalitarian state bureaucracy statifying everything it could in order to eliminate small-bourgeois competition for a share of the wealth, acting to develop the forces of production, telescoping stages of development that took decades and centuries in Western Europe. Not socialism, but developmentalism under totalitarian rule - that was Stalinism. Trotsky once described the bureaucracy, in its relations with one of the oppressed nationalities of the USSR, the Ukraine, as "the rapists of the Kremlin". There is that aspect at the heart of every Stalinist revolution. The Stalinists raped History, who eventually took her revenge. But in Afghanistan, History proved more, and more immediately, resistant.
While the PDPA and the pro-PDPA officers firmly controlled the state, they did not, as events would very soon show, control Afghanistan. The PDPA and the officers had only made a coup, not a revolution. They did not understand the difference between a coup and a revolution, or between what the bureaucracy in the USSR and its all-powerful state routinely did to the pinned-down people, and what the PDPA proposed to do to the peoples of rural Afghanistan.
They would soon learn the difference.
They had power only in the cities. Rural Afghanistan was still, after decades of "reform from above", suspicious of the central state power; many men bore arms, and many lived in a vast expanse of mountains and hills from which in the past both central government and foreign invaders - most recently, the British in 1919 - had been successfully resisted.
The PDPA in power mimicked the Russian bureaucratic elite. Immediately all the obscene paraphernalia of Stalinist style and language, worship of the "Great Leader" (Taraki), and so on, blossomed forth. 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 state could command the social and economic forces and tides by its decrees, as if their "Revolution" were already made, as if their state could relate to society as an irresistible totalitarian force - the sort of force that had turned the USSR upside down in the 1930s, and done the same in China more recently. 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. The PDPA did not have totalitarian power in Afghanistan. The Saur Revolution was the reductio ad absurdum of "revolution from above" because of its strange military-bureaucratic "instrument" at one pole and its lack of popular support at the other - and, in general, because of the economic and social level of Afghanistan. Afghanistan had further to develop than any other Stalinist state. Power could be taken in Kabul for a proto-Stalinist bureaucracy; but then what? Amin might talk of collectivising agriculture and eliminating private retail. At Afghanistan's existing level of development such measures could only be bureaucratic formalities, and perhaps only on paper. That would be true even if Afghanistan were effectively annexed to the USSR.
Judicious state enterprise and economic activity could surely have helped develop Afghanistan. But if the Stalinist state, inheriting the traditional relationship of the Afghan state to society, that is its traditional weakness, encountered powerful resistance and provoked civil war, then not progress and development but regression and disintegration might follow. That is what did follow "Great Saur".
The coup produced spreading circles of resistance almost from the beginning. "Taking power" in Kabul, though bloody, proved comparatively easy for the PDPA; it had yet to "take power" in Afghanistan. Here the underlying identity with the Communist Parties in Eastern Europe, ensconced in their state machines, ceased, because it was a different sort of state. Because of their militarist-elitist notion of the "revolution", the Khalq-PDPA leaders went through the months between April 1978 and December 1979 as deluded, inept and increasingly desperate people, suffering from a hopelessly confused perspective on history, misunderstanding both their own place and that of the Russian bureaucracy - which they aped - in it.
The regime knew it lacked popular support. It never overcame that problem, not with the youth movement was initiated, not with its drive to build "trade unions" (controlled by a policeman and forbidden to strike), and not with its "Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women".
The regime never had and never managed to call forth sufficient active or even passive support in the population to carry through the reforms it promulgated. The relationship of even the PDPA's upfront reform programme to Afghan society - that is the relationship of the new rulers to Afghan society - is summed up in the fact that many peasants refused to take land under the land reform on the ground that for Muslims it is a sin to take other people's property. They had not been convinced even that they had reason for resentment about land ownership. The PDPA simply had no links with them.
When it decreed the peasants' debts to usurers - a major yoke on their necks - abolished, the result was an immediate drying-up of credit for the peasants and then a steep decline in agricultural production. The government was not in a position to organise an alternative system of credit. It is difficult to imagine quite what they thought they were doing: did they believe in magic? No, but they believed in the primitive magic of the Stalinist state.
Afghanistan responds to the Stalinist coup
Despite its public proclamations and readings from the Koran, the government immediately fell foul of the Muslim religious leaders. Already by late June 1978, eight religious groups had declared war on the government. Its first offence seems to have been insufficient consultation with the religious leaders. But the unavoidable conflict had secular roots too, in the fact that many of the religious leaders were landholders likely to be affected by land reform.
Ninety-nine per cent of Afghanistan's people were Muslims, 85% Sunni and the rest Shiite. By contrast with Iran, where the Shiite hierarchy formed a powerful cadre of what was a virtual mass party, the clergy in Afghanistan were not organised hierarchically, and therefore were less of a coherent national force. Nevertheless they were a very powerful force, and from the start the regime was opposed by a clergy commanding huge influence and wielding it in alliance with the landlord class and the royalists and the outsiders who increasingly took a hand in Afghan affairs to thwart the Russians.
When the government decreed its 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. 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 rebellions were small-scale and localised. Opposition to central government, normally, even when dormant, a stable part of the outlook of the Sardars (chiefs), now became active opposition to the "pagan" and "infidel" regime.
The paradox is that what fuelled and spread the mass revolt, and fatally undercut the government, was its reform decrees - decrees that should have benefited many millions of Afghans, but in fact clumsily antagonised even their putative beneficiaries. In the 19th century, Russian populists who "went to the people" were beaten up by the peasants they sought to rouse and handed over by them to the Tsar's police. In Afghanistan after April 1978, the "reforming" government stood in something like the same relationship to those whom their reforms would ostensibly benefit.
The Taraki government decreed the abolition of peasant debt to the village usurers; drastic land reform; abolition of the practice of charging a bridal price for women; and, building on the reforms of the last 15 years, compulsory education, including education of girls. The PDPA's declared programme also included a seven hour day; an anti-illiteracy campaign; and some price controls. Land holdings were declared limited to a maximum of about seven hectares - a drastic levelling which alienated all the leaders of rural society. With the help of the priests, the rural ruling classes were able to mobilise most of those due to gain from the land reform against the government. 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 PDPA regime.
The PDPA found that they had little but increasingly naked force to back up their decrees. 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 PDPA and prepared to take up arms against it would probably have brought the PDPA regime down by mid-1979.
It would be a mistake in judging such a society from outside (or from "above", from the heights of state power, 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 did in rural isolation and medieval backwardness, the rural Afghans would have had 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 - pulling down their huts before any replacement was assured, to use Isaac Deutscher's image. 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 remained intact after April 1978.
To revolutionise such a society, to wean the lower layers from the existing structures, more than decrees were needed. But - apart from brute force - only decrees were available. The revolutionary regime had not been installed by the people or a hegemonising section of the people. 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 transform rural society, to suggest or provide alternatives to the semi-feudal relations around which the lives of the masses of rural Afghans were organised.
As we have seen, the central government 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, millions of peasants.
Thus the decrees of the "infidel" central government and its disorganising "interference" appeared mainly as a disruptive intrusion and a threat to the rural poor. Because the government failed to ignite them against the upper social layers whom the nascent Stalinist bureaucracy aspired to replace, it had no alternative but to continue to rest, fundamentally, on the army, and on methods characteristic of armies, which are not the best tools of delicate social reform.
Even the land reform, designed to benefit the 700,000 landless peasants and millions of others, did not polarise rural Afghanistan to the benefit of the new rulers against the old, or rally a strong layer of the rural poor to the government which made the revolutionary decrees. It did not even generate enough passive support or tolerance to make a difference. Poor rural Afghans refusing to accept redistributed land became it was immoral to take another person's property: that was the level of the gap between the bureaucratically decreed social reform and rural Afghanistan.
Using slogans about the defence of Islam against the infidel government, the Sunni Muslim priests, and the landlords and royalists, rallied the people against the government before the government's decrees could even begin to achieve the beginnings of a class polarisation in the rural areas and allow the new elite to mobilise the poor against the old. The government's lack of a serious base in the population was decisive here. Which is only to say in a different way that the "Great Saur Revolution" was not a revolution, but a coup d'état.
And of course the popular distrust of the PDPA regime was not just a misunderstanding that separated the peasants from those who only wanted their good - like the Russian peasants rejecting the revolutionaries from the cities who were honestly trying to liberate them. The PDPA's land reforms at best would have rallied the peasants to the aspirant bureaucratic ruling class forming itself around the new state power and helped it eliminate its opponents in the old ruling class. Time and again in Stalinist revolutions, such overtures had been followed by forced collectivisation. So here Allah did protect the Afghan peasants - by way of their responsiveness to such cries as defence of Islam - from being duped by the aspirant Stalinist ruling class.
To try to deflect the revolt, the Stalinist government stepped up its attempts to compete with the priests for the Islamic banner, mimicking their petrified obscurantism. On important occasions the "Marxist" revolutionary 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 here to denounce its Muslim opponents for "un-Islamic activities". They declared a jihad (holy war) against them in September 1978. Soon, after the empty 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 population 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 Id festival last weekend. The Shari'a 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 iconoclastic revolutionary. They surely knew about the PDPA (Khalq) leader cult of Noor Mohammed Taraki.
The priests were encouraged by events in Iran, where the Khomeini movement took power early in 1979. 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". (An Islamicising military dictatorship, under Zia ul-Haq, had held power in Pakistan since July 1977).
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 localised 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 as refugees.
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 patently untrue claim that it had been completed already (and 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. It thereby acknowledged defeat in the competition with the old ruling class for the support of the people. Now it could rely only on the potent argument of the MIG, the helicopter gunship, and napalm against the vast majority of the Afghan population.
Long before the Russian invasion, the government of Afghanistan was behaving as if it were a hostile government of occupation, using the methods that the US used in Vietnam. The initial policy of reforming decrees plus repression soon became just a policy of more and more unrestrained repression, escalated simply to enable the government to survive. The very early resort to savage repression flowed, like so much else, from the lack of an adequate base of support for the government; but it inevitably increased and deepened the government's isolation. They were caught in a vicious circle of violence. It would become a cyclone that would ravage the country for more than two decades.
The Muslim revolt continued to grow and spread. 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 1979 the Muslim groups 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. As the war of attrition between the government and a large and steadily increasing part of the population became more vicious, the flow of refugees across the border into Pakistan grew into a mass exodus. The figures tell their 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.
Outside intervention in Afghanistan
Other than the Russian involvement with the PDPA regime, and long before the full-scale Russian invasion and the reactions to it, the Afghan civil war had already developed international ramifications.
Pakistan, pursuing its old conflict with Afghanistan had helped the political Islamist movements that opposed Daud. In the mid-70s it gave those of them who fled Daud's repression a base and material help. The spreading chaos after April 1978 gave Pakistan - now ruled by the Islamicising military dictator, Zia - unprecedented opportunities and Pakistan's government seized it. Ultimately Pakistan's intervention would take the form of giving irreplaceable help to the Taliban, which in some key respects might be described as a creation of the Pakistani state, to take over Afghanistan.
The anti-PDPA forces were allowed to base themselves in Pakistani territory. They were given material support to train and arm there. Money flowed to them from the Gulf states. Emissaries toured Muslim countries - Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example - to get support and money for their holy "anti-communist" war. By February 1979 the leaders of one of the Pakistan-based Islamist parties, Hisb-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 anti-PDPA forces the Pakistani government was being. The drug trade was already very important. "... 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).
The CIA? A recent statement from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was National Security Adviser to US president Jimmy Carter, suggests that there was a lot more US aid to the rebels before December 1979 than had previously been reported:
"According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahedeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec ember 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention".
(Le Nouvel Observateur, 15 January 1998).
Already, Afghanistan was becoming an international cockpit.
The PDPA splits again
Purging those in the army and airforce officer corps who were not fully PDPA - and very soon, bloodily purging the PDPA itself - would be a major element in the 20 months during which the PDPA was in power. Like a man smashing with a sledge at the fragile edifice on which he stands, from the very beginning the PDPA acted to weaken the forces and the instruments on which it depended, not only the armed forces taken over from the old state (like the bloodshed during the Saur coup, this might have been thought inevitable) but the PDPA itself.
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. To the armed forces' other inadequacies as an instrument for changing society was soon added an inevitable collapse of morale.
The division between caution and "revolutionary" bulldozing, which had been there in the Parcham-Khalq split in the mid-1960s, would now re-emerge - between Khalq and Parcham, between Khalq and the Russians, and then finally, as we shall see, between sections of Khalq itself. That same choice between caution and "adventurism" had separated the non-Stalinist reformers, too, If the Parchamis had much in common with Daud's approach, King Amanullah was, so to speak, an early Khalqi.
Comparative numbers in the PDPA heavily favoured Khalq, especially the number of the PDPA airforce and army officers it brought to the "united" party. Symbolically, on 27 April, Amin, the organiser of Khalq's work among the officers, was in a position to introduce the leading PDPA officers - those who had made the revolution - to the PDPA's Central Committee. Khalq was the dominant segment of the PDPA in the coup and in the regime it produced.
The 1977 unification seems to have been not real but merely formal. Cooperation even in the coup had been less than smooth. Within weeks of the coup, Khalq had pushed aside, jailed, or, in the Afghan fashion, exiled to embassies overseas, all the Parcham leaders. Babrak Karmal was banished to Prague; Dr Anahita Ratebzad, head of the "Democratic Organisation of Afghan Women", to Belgrade. Soon all six of the leading Parchami ambassadors were recalled on charges of high treason. But they did not come back, nor did their hosts send them back.
The Parchamis were accused of planning their own coup. Those accused included the Minister of Defence, Abdul Kader, military leader of the April coup (as of Daud's coup in 1973!), and the Chief of Staff, General Shahpur Khan Ahmadzai (who was shot). Taraki took over from Kader as Minister of Defence. After a month in custody Kader confessed to anti-revolutionary activities and treason: his confession was published by the Ministry of Defence, now headed by the other hero of the April coup, Khalq member Abdul Watanjar. The Minister of Planning, Sultan Ali Kishtamard, the Minister of Public Works and four Central Committee members were accused of plotting to create a broad national front that would bring in non-PDPA people, including Daudites, to run the country. Whatever about the "plot", this is likely to have been the Parchamis' political programme - and that of the Russians too. It is what Babrak Karmal would try to do once the Russians in 1980 had reinstalled Parcham in power.
On 24 July, less than three months after the coup, Taraki could announce that now all army commanders were supporters of Khalq. Khalq in power divested itself of the cautions and restraints of Parcham, and there was in this an element of making a final break with the Daudites too. Parcham, as we have seen, had been entwined with the Daudites, not only politically - as regards programme and tempo of change - but also socially and psychologically. Some of the Daudites' typical attitudes and approaches were dominant in Parcham. The differences lay in relations with the Russians and in the Parchamis' ultimate ideal of an all-out USSR model for the future of Afghanistan. With Parcham as with the Russians, Daud's turn from Russia was probably decisive motivation for the coup. Khalq might reasonably have asked: what did we make the Great Saur Revolution for if we do little more than Daud, except that now Afghanistan is organically tied to the USSR?
Probably there were two distinct reasons for making the Saur coup and two conceptions of what the revolution was about - that of the Russians and Parcham, and that of the more "outsiderist" and more subjectively revolutionary Khalq. Yet the methods they had used - a "coup", a "political" revolution inside the state, with little popular support - were more appropriate to the slow and cautious manipulation favoured by Parcham and the Russians, than to the revolutionary drive Khalq wanted - immediately, the radical reforms that roused Afghanistan against the new regime. From the Russians' point of view, the ascendance of Khalq was the ascendancy of the wrong Afghan Stalinist Party. vThere may also have been differences between Khalq and Parcham on the extent of USSR's control in Afghanistan: Khalq was more rooted in Afghan/Pashtun nationalism, less "cosmopolitan" and less inclined to "take orders" from the Russian co-thinkers of Parcham. If in Afghanistan the whole history of 20th century Stalinist revolutions from above and from outside is reprised as caricature, and all the elements scrambled, Taraki and Amin had elements in them of the "national Stalinism" represented in Eastern Europe by those purged as "nationalists" and "Titoites" in the late 40s and early 50s - Gomulka, Nagy, Rajk, etc. - and then by Dubcek's Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Ceaucescu's Rumania.
The Russians invade (December 1979)
Just as the 1978 coup is not to be understood outside the long perspective of the struggle of sections of the Afghan elite for modernisation and development - not as a sudden radical break, but as a break within a long process of evolution - so too with the Russian take over of Christmas 1979. It was no sudden break but the logical culmination of a long evolution.
Afghanistan had been connected to the USSR for a very long time and had, though formally still "neutral", experienced a qualitative shift into Russia's Cold War sphere in the mid-1950s. That relationship was reinforced in the early period of Daud's second rule, after 1973. Russia's "advisers" had long had great influence in the armed forces.
By mid-1979, because of the devastation in the air force caused by purges and Khalq-Parcham faction-fighting, a majority of the pilots running Afghan government planes were Russians. By autumn 1979 there were three or four thousand Russian advisers in Afghanistan. Like the USA in the 1960s in Vietnam, Russia was drawn inexorably towards occupation. When the PDPA regime's difficulties threated to lead to its collapse and the expulsion of Russian influence from Afghanistan, the USSR would finally invade. But first it tried another way to reshape events in Afghanistan. It tried to organise a new coup.
Khalq's "adventurist", "revolutionary bulldozing" approach had been tried and had failed to the extent that the survival of the regime was in question, very much as with King Amanullah 50 years earlier, at the beginning of 1929. In mid 1979 the government had retreated from land reform, with the lie that it had been completed ahead of schedule. That did not improve things. Further retreat, including perhaps the creation of a broader government, was indicated: that is what Babrak Karmal would do when the Russians put him in power at the end of the year. But Hafizullah Amin was, it seems, reluctant to retreat. The Russians were "Parchamis", exercising pressure for "moderation" and caution. Parcham itself was still weak; but under Russian pressure the old Parcham-Khalq division emerged within Khalq itself. The Russians tried their last gambit before full-scale invasion.
In September 1979 they attempted to organise a coup against Amin, utilising the "Father of the Revolution" and President of Afghanistan, Noor Mohammed Taraki. But Amin won the ensuing gun battle at the Russian embassy, and captured Taraki, who would be strangled in jail some weeks later. The Russians decided to invade. Though Russia had long been sidling towards full control in Afghanistan, it was nevertheless a qualitative jump into a new situation when Russia's army and airforce occupied Afghanistan on 24-27 December 1979.
We have seen that Russia had been "expanding" for the last half of the 1970s. People linked or soon to link with Russia, or considered "communists", had seized control of Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola... In mid-1979 a Castroite movement, the Sandinistas, had won the Nicaraguan civil war and set up a government in Managua. Iran had, with Russia's support, been taken out of the US imperialist orbit.
But the invasion of Afghanistan was something else. This was expansion by way of direct seizure of territory by the Russian Army, for the first time since the end of the Second World War (or since North Korea as Russia's proxy invaded South Korea in June 1950: the Korean war that followed had ended in mid-1953 with an armistice on the 1950 borders). Both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where the Russian Army had "intervened" in 1956 and 1968, were internationally recognised as part of Russia's Eastern Europe satellite empire: Britain and the USA behaved accordingly during the very bloody reconquest of Hungary in November 1956, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
The USSR had much expertise in the techniques of "intervening" in foreign countries to draw upon. General Yepishev, who had masterminded the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, was sent to Afghanistan to report on the situation...
When full scale invasion came in December 1979, there was no resistance to it. 5,000 Russian troops were airlifted to Kabul, where they seized the airport and public buildings. Over the next few days, more soldiers poured in. An additional 40,000 Russian troops occupied the provincial towns. By the end of 1979 Russia had control of all key towns, airfields and highways. (In December 1979 there were only 2,500 kilometres of asphalt roads in Afghanistan).
The number of USSR advisers was more than doubled: they may have outnumbered the purged and ravaged PDPA, which according to some estimates had at that point perhaps as few as 3,000 members, including, maybe, 700 Parchamis. By late February there were 75,000 Russian troops in Afghanistan.
What did Russia say it was doing? It had been invited in by President Amin to help defend Afghanistan; a "limited contingent" of its forces had been sent to defend the country from foreign attack. Crude and stupid lies like that were still typical of the "internal" propaganda of the Russian bureaucracy but had been rare in international affairs since Stalin's death. In fact, one of the first things the invaders did was to attack the Presidential Palace, seize Amin and, possibly after a "trial", shoot him. They accused Amin of collaborating with the CIA and of planning to form a non-communist government. A few days behind the Russian army, Babrak Karmal, like the East European leaders who came home in 1945 in Russian planes, with the proverbial Stalin-like pipes in their mouths, was flown in to be head of the government. Parcham had finally taken power.
But in fact the invasion marked the end of what there ever was of an independent regime: Parcham would only be the Afghan glove on the USSR fist.
At least seven Central Committee members died in the Russian take-over (Amin, Jauzzani, Hashemi, Katawazi, Misaq, Wali and Waziri), and 17 vanished. The Central Committee suffered a 75% casualty list. Babrak Karmal appointed 19 new Central Committee members and 34 new Revolutionary Council members. But this was now only an apparatus, not a party.
The "moderate" policy that Parcham and the Russians had wanted was now pursued - incongruously combined with the "extreme force" of a Russian invasion. Babrak Karmal tried - with little success - to create a broad-based government. Soon the PDPA Afghan flag was changed back from red and gold - which had caused great offence - and replaced with black, Islamic green, and a small red star. In April 1980, Karmal promulgated an interim constitution. The first sentence defined the Peoples' Democratic Republic of Afghanistan as "an independent democratic state belonging to all Muslim working people of Afghanistan." Article 5: the People's Democratic Republic of Afghanistan will ensure "respect, observance and preservation of Islam as a Sacred Duty". They preached a "new evolutionary phase of the Great Saur Revolution". There was retrospective ideological rectification. Saur was emphatically redefined as a "National Democratic Revolution". Several ex-Daudites were co-opted, as were fragments of the shattered Khalq.
But all political measures were now out of date. Essentially the Russians sought to group and regroup elements from various parties into a ruling apparatus. It was what they had done in Eastern Europe after 1945. From a position of immense and seemingly irresistible power they set out to impose themselves and their social system on Afghanistan, in a process whose first step was the shaping of a political instrument out of the remnants of Parcham, bits of Khalq, and other elements.
Eighty per cent of the officer corps that had survived to January 1980 were Khalq or Khalq-loyal. Thus, the efforts to create a broad, "moderate" government in the first months of 1980 had to go side by side with the continued purging of the PDPA, which also meant purging the officer corps. Now it was again the turn of the Parchamis, who had helped persecute Khalq under Daud in the mid 1970s. Khalqis were still being shot in the middle of 1980. An author connected to the US intelligence authority, Anthony Arnold, accurately summed up the situation as the USSR put Parcham back in power: "Parcham was a beleaguered faction of an unpopular Communist minority of a discredited intelligentsia in an overwhelmingly conservative non-literate and increasingly hostile population." T
he Russians tried to use the blueprint used to shape instruments for "communist" rule in Eastern Europe after 1945: to organise a pliant instrument around a USSR-loyal Stalinist core, bribing, co-opting, intimidating elements of other parties and none into accepting the new situation and the new dispensation. The difference was that, unlike in Eastern Europe after 1945, Russia did not control Afghanistan. Like the PDPA after the 1978 coup, it was faced with first conquering the country, or, more precisely, with finishing the conquest the PDPA had been attempting.
At first, the Russians, where possible, acted only as back up to the Afghan army, providing helicopter gunship support, etc. But the Afghan army had begun to crumble in 1978-9, and the Russian occupation accelerated the process. Two thirds of the 80 to 100,000 strong Afghan army deserted, many soldiers going over to the Muslim forces. Whole units deserted, taking their equipment. The Russian invaders inherited the situation the PDPA (Khalq) regime had faced in December 1979, when it had at best controlled only the main towns (and uprisings in Herat and Kandahar had demonstrated how unsure and insecure that control was). Essentially, the Afghan state had been shattered. The Kabul regime was not too far from being just one sort of warlords - urban warlords - among warlords: controllers of segments of Afghanistan, not a government of Afghanistan. Russia could with security take over only the PDPA areas.
The invasion intensified and broadened the opposition - even within the towns. Even segments of the PDPA (Khalq), their power shattered, and their Pashtun-Afghan nationalism outraged, would join the anti-Russian resistance. (Remnants of the old Maoist organisation had already been involved in resistance to the PDPA regime.)
The Russian invasion quickly turned the very extensive but, in December 1979, still disparate and distinct regional rebellions into something like an Afghan-wide resistance, though in no sense a united movement. In February 1980 there were strikes - primarily of shopkeepers and such people - against the Russian occupation forces. There would be other such strikes throughout the Russian occupation. A month after the invasion a number of organisations would form an Islamic Alliance.
Islam had after April 1978 been the central rallying cry of the gathering opposition to the PDPA regime - as indeed it was against Amanullah 50 years before. In 1979 political Islam was becoming an important force in the world. Political Islam, Sh'ia not Afghan Sunni, had already installed an "Islamic Republic" in Iran. Political Islam would remain a great force in Afghanistan long after the Russians had been driven out.
Why did Russia invade?
We have seen that invasion was the logical development of all that had gone before in Afghanistan. Like the USA in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan had been drawn into a progressively more active and direct role. By December 1979, such was the extent of opposition to the pro-USSR regime that it must have seemed to Moscow that they must either invade or accept the likely victory of those in Afghanistan who would take the country further outside of Russia's orbit than at any time for 25 (or even 60) years. To let its clients in Kabul be overthrown could not but damage Moscow's standing in the world, and the standing and security of its client states.
Invasion would be a dramatic throwing over of the international modus vivendi with the West and maybe of détente, which had been formalised in 1969 and had held, despite the USA's bloody work in Indochina, for a decade. But because Russia had made great gains in the world in the 1970s, and seen the USA suffer humiliating defeat and setback, Moscow - or some key people in Moscow - must have felt themselves on the crest of a rolling wave of history. Their power was at its greatest ever, and their place in the world vis-a-vis the USA greatly strengthened. Moscow thought of Afghanistan as its own. It would not let go. Russia invaded:
* Because it lacked confidence in the "leftist" and intransigent Amin regime to stabilise Afghanistan.
* Because for the USSR to allow the defeat of its client would have undermined its relations with other client states like Ethiopia.
* Because the USSR feared the destabilising effect in its central Asian republics of Islamist victory in Afghanistan. In the 1920s there had been Muslim uprisings in the central Asian republics, similar to what the PDPA had faced, repressed with difficulty and much bloodshed.
* Because - and this is probably the fundamental thing - the disarray and weakness of US 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.
Throughout its history the Stalinist bureaucracy took opportunities as they arose to gain and plunder new territories, seizing what it could. As Trotsky indicated nearly half a century earlier:
"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".
Since World War Two the USSR had increasingly been the co-equal of the west in terms of military power, in a world where the H-Bomb had ruled out full-scale war as a means for the two great world blocs to try each other's strength.
The occupation of Afghanistan brought Russian within sight of the old Tsarist Russian goal of a warm water port (it is less than 500km from Afghanistan's south-west corner, through the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, to the sea). In the heady late 1970s, further Russian expansion through areas of Pakistan in which ethnic conflicts with the Pashtuns and the Baluchis might be exploited, may not have seemed over-ambitious to the rulers of the Kremlin - if they could consolidate "communist" rule in Afghanistan.
The Russian invasion of Afghanistan triggered a freezing new cold war in the early 1980s. On 28 December 1979 US President Jimmy Carter denounced the Russian "intervention" and called it "a grave threat to peace". In January 1980, the United Nations, by 108 votes to 18, called for the withdrawal of "foreign troops" from Afghanistan. Every year for a decade, with slightly varying but always massive majorities, the UN would pass a resolution to the same effect. Carter declared that the USA would resist further Russian expansion and called for international support for the USA in doing this. The USA embargoed the export of its grain to the USSR. Sixty countries, including the USA, would boycott the July 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. In 1981 the European Parliament resolved to recognise the anti-Russian resistance as a national liberation movement.
Russia's Vietnam War (1979-89)
The Russian invasion ended for a decade the autonomous development of Afghan society. It fragmented and fractured what had been built of a national state-wide identity over 100 years - or, rather, what was still intact of it after the April 1978 coup and what followed. That the USSR garnered and deployed shreds and shards of the PDPA and other things Afghan does not qualify this judgement. The simmering conflict between town and country that the April 1978 Stalinist coup had exacerbated to unprecedentedly intense open war was now subsumed in war between Russia and most of Afghanistan's people, intermittently including most of the inhabitants of the towns. It became a war of colonial conquest identical in essentials with all such wars, and even with the most barbarous of such wars in the 20th century - with what the US did in Indochina, the French in Algeria, the Italians in Ethiopia, and the Nazis in Poland, the Ukraine and other places in Europe's East inhabited by "Untermenschen".
We will not need to follow the story of this war in great detail. The story of Afghanistan's Stalinist "revolution", though it reprised so much, was unique. Russia's colonial war was, unfortunately not unique and it does not have the same interest for us.
Three things shaped the Russian war and determined its duration and final outcome: the indomitable resistance of the Afghan peoples, the faltering power of the USSR, and outside intervention on the side of the Afghans. The Afghan resistance was weakened by ethnic and other internal disunities and conflicts. Russia never deployed the full military might necessary for full conquest. Russian troops in Afghanistan never numbered more than 120,000. Western experts calculated that perhaps four times as many - together with internment camps for a large part of the Afghan population - would have been required to "pacify" Afghanistan on Russian terms.
Outside help for the anti-Russian forces by the USA, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, fighting a proxy war, eventually, by the mid-1980s, reached the extent of supplying the Afghan resistance with Stinger missiles which gave them the power to bring down Russian MIG fighters and helicopter gunships.
For the anti-Russian mujahedeen the war with the Russians was from the beginning the continuation of the war with the Khalq-PDPA regime - intensified. Before the invasion the Kabul regime had lost even notional control of most of rural Afghanistan. The Russians too never, except episodically, held more than the towns, and even in the towns it never had more than an occupiers' presence.
The invaders moved around the country in convoys, subject to frequent ambush and attack, and sometimes suffering heavy casualties. An army of occupation in a hostile land, the Russian army related to the hostile people as all such armies relate to those who refuse to submit: with repression, massacre and reprisal for resistance. Attacks on the Russians and their allies, routinely led to the shelling and napalming of nearby villages. Crops were burned from the air in reprisal and as policy in the fight to destroy the capacity of the people to resist.
A third of the people - up to six million at the highest point - would be driven over the border as fugitives and refugees. Perhaps one and a half million Afghans would die.
As early as March 1980 there were reports of heavy Russian casualties; there were also reports of the use of poison gas by the Russians. The basic pattern of the ten year war existed already and it would not change. The ferocity of the warfare and the effectiveness of the Afghan resistance grew.
Central to the course of the war was this fact, which needs to be explained: once in Afghanistan and meeting with such resistance, the extent and duration of which they seem not to have expected, the Russians never committed the forces necessary to bludgeon Afghanistan into submission. Why? It was no longer the same Russia. From the early 80s, the USSR, so confident in the 1970s, suffered an accelerating collapse of energy, drive and will in the ruling class.
Brezhnev, the neo-Stalinist dictator died in early 1982, and the Stalinist political system slowly spun into the crisis from which it would never emerge. Yuri Andropov succeeded Brezhnev. In February 1984 Konstantin Chernenko succeeded Andropov, and then in March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev opened the last chapter in the history of the USSR. The crisis would culminate in Gorbachev's "glasnost", the loss of the political monopoly of the Communist Party, and the disintegration and collapse of the whole decayed totalitarian edifice.
How much did the Afghan resistance contribute to the changes in the USSR? It was, at the least, one of the things that convinced Andropov, a former head of the KGB, the only organisation in this opaque totalitarian Stalinist system able to assemble comprehensive information about the real state of USSR society, that despite the USSR's international victories of the 1970s, the system was internally decrepit and rotting. Already in 1983, Andropov told Zia ul-Haq, the military dictator of Pakistan, that he wanted to get out of Afghanistan and would go if Pakistan stopped backing the resistance. What would prove to be years of international negotiations would soon commence in Geneva. But the slaughter would go on - in such ways as the saturation bombing of hostile villages and the surrounding territory, which was a regular feature of the war. So would torture. In 1985, the UN Human Rights Commission reported "gross violation of human rights" by the USSR and the Karmal regime. In November 1986 the Commission declared that conditions were "serious" especially among women and children. Amnesty International concluded that torture of political prisoners, sometimes under Russian supervision, was routine in government prisons. The mujahedeen routinely tortured and butchered their opponents.
The International Institute of Strategic Studies would estimate total USSR casualties in Afghanistan as 20 to 25,000. From 1985, as the regime in the USSR "liberalised", USSR's ex-soldiers who had been part of the bloody colonial war in Afghanistan would begin to demonstrate in Moscow against the war. Though the protests were never on the same scale and made nothing like the same impact as the 1960s and 70s anti-Vietnam war movement in the USA, they belonged to the same order of things.
By the mid-1980s, even the old PDPA strongholds - in so far as it ever had strongholds - such as Kabul, were not safe from mujahedeen attack. Even the Russian "Embassy" was not safe from rocket attacks. Kabul was surrounded by no less than three defensive rings, but bombs and rocket attacks were a nightly occurrence there. For example, on 25 October 1984, there were heavy rocket attacks on government buildings in the centre of Kabul: a rocket exploded in the building housing the Prime Minister's office. The KGB office in the centre of Kabul was hit by a rocket. The offices of the Afghan secret police, the Khad, were attacked in the same way.
In October-November 1984 the USSR lost control of the southern Afghan town of Kandahar, which had a population of 100,000. The Russian Army recaptured it after extensive bombing: like the alien military power at war with a whole population that it was, the Russian army burned the crops in the area surrounding Kandahar. In November 1984, after the anti-USSR resistance forces captured 100 USSR soldiers and killed another 30 near Kandahar, a week-long wave of air attacks on the people of the area followed. As the Afghan government army melted away, the war was more and more exclusively a matter of the invaders' army pitted directly against most of the people of Afghanistan. A trickle of Russian soldiers deserted to the Afghans. From September 1986, when the US began supplying radio-guided Stinger missiles that reduced the effectiveness of the Russian planes by forcing them to fly high above their putative targets, the military balance tipped against the Russians. They begin to incur heavier losses. In 1984 the US Congress had voted $280 million a year to the Afghan resistance. In fact, the USA, with Pakistan as conduit, had already been helping finance the resistance.
The economy was wrecked: agriculture was being ruined. The area under crops was down by maybe as much as two thirds. And, something of immense importance for the future - though there was an Afghan resistance there was no longer an Afghan state. The country had broken up into local rulerships, warlords, and fiefdoms, sometimes tenuously united against the Russians. What had already been true of the PDPA government before the Russian invasion was also true now of the invaders also: the Kabul regime and the Russians were no more than the biggest, but also one of the lesser, of the warlords - big in power and resources because Russia was big then; small, smaller than most of the rural warlords, in popular support.
Despite the Geneva negotiations and Russia's sometime declarations that it wanted an orderly withdrawal - hoping to leave a Russian-friendly regime ruling Kabul - the deliberate and systematic integration of Afghanistan with the Russian economy continued. Concern for possession of Afghanistan's minerals was an important motive for what the Russians had done in Afghanistan. Here too it was an old-fashioned imperialist-colonialist enterprise. But by now, Afghanistan was less an asset to the USSR than a bleeding wound which Russia repeatedly said it wanted to heal by way of a negotiated withdrawal.
In March 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev - who had taken over in the USSR in March 1985 - told the 27th Congress of the CPSU that Russia would withdraw in the "near future". In June, visiting the USA, Gorbachev pledged his support for a negotiated settlement and Russian withdrawal. In fact, it would take another three years of negotiation and slaughter. For example, in April 1986 there was fierce fighting in the "rebel" stronghold of Zhawar in Paktia Province near the Pakistan border, with hundreds of casualties on both sides. Using American ground to air rockets the Afghans downed a dozen Russian fighter planes. Three hundred Afghan government soldiers were captured. The Russians were strong enough to win the immediate victory. And then? They withdrew and their opponents "inherited" the area. It was an insecure army of occupation.
In the period after Stalin's death in 1953, liberalisation in Russia had led to the removal of discredited Stalinist "hardline" leaders in the Eastern European satellites. So now, in Afghanistan, with Gorbachev's liberalisation in the USSR. On 4 May 1986 Najibullah replaced Babrak Karmal as Prime Minister. If it was a Gorbachevite face lift, those controlling it had a curious idea of it. Najibullah had been the head of the political police.
Russian control of even key institutions grew increasingly insecure. In December 1986 helicopter gunships were destroyed on the ground when the guerrillas attacked Jalalabad and there was fighting in Herat.
At the end of 1986, Najibullah proclaimed a ceasefire and an "amnesty" and promised that a new constitution would proclaim Islam as the religion of Afghanistan. Nobody cared. The Mujahedeen refused to talk to Kabul about a ceasefire: they would talk about it only directly with the Russians. The seven main resistance groups had formed an alliance in May 1985. On 12 January 1987 they met in Peshawar, Pakistan, and set up a Mujahedeen High Command. It was very late in the war, which showed how things stood with the Afghan resistance.
Renewed warfare broke out in the PDPA, now between supporters of Karmal and of Najibullah, requiring Russian troops and tanks to keep the peace. In October 1987 15 prominent PDPA leaders - that is, leaders of the ruling state apparatus - were removed from office, and perhaps 2,000 PDPA members purged and expelled, that is, repressed by the Stalinist police state. Najibullah was preparing for Russian withdrawal. As the life of a drowning man is said to run through his mind as he drowns, while the USSR died Afghan Stalinism continued to be a grim reprise of Russian and East European Stalinist history.
In April 1988, exactly 10 years after the "Great Saur Revolution", accords were agreed in Geneva for the gradual withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan. The United Nations would oversee a five year period in which a political settlement would be worked out. Russia promised that it would withdraw in 1988. Yet still the war and the slaughter and the Russian bombing continued.
Russian withdrawal began in May 1988. This development was inseparable from the accelerating collapse of Stalinism in the USSR. The USSR would complete its withdrawal in February 1989. The question of a transitional regime in Kabul was now central. The return of the king was mooted, but the more fundamentalist mujahedeen opposed the return of King Zahir Shah.
The nature of the Islamic opposition
The green flag of Islam was the banner under which rural Afghanistan mobilised against the infidel PDPA regime after April 1978, and against the infidel Russian invaders after December 1979. Ulema, mullahs, sardars, landlords, peasants, teachers, nomads, layers of the bourgeoisie, rose, so they said, in "defence of Islam". It was the old mediaevalist cry of conservative rural Afghanistan against change, against progress, against the unknown. King Amanullah had heard it in the 1920s and gone down before its force. Yet, in the war of resistance to the Russians, the most powerful of the resistance groups were not the village-based, deep-rooted, "conservative" and "traditional" forces of Islamic Afghanistan, but those promulgating militant Islam as a modern revolutionary political philosophy, a set of social recipes derived from their own interpretation of the teachings of Islam, to be imposed on Afghan society.
They were in fact the mirror image of the Stalinists - procrustean Islamism and procrustean Stalinism alike were eager to shape and reshape, chop and stretch, the existing society. "Procrustean Islam", unlike procrustean Stalinism, could hope to cut along the grain of existing society. The radicalism of its different organisations, the degree to which they were willing to try force as a tool of social engineering, varied from mere propagandists for their own version of social Islam, in the 1950s and '60s, to the Taliban of the 1990s, which mutated out of its predecessors into a Jacobin-Islamist movement intent on using the state and state terror to reshape society.
Like Stalinism, "procrustean Islam" originated in the towns, and primarily in the universities. It emerged to engage in a parallel enterprise to that of the Stalinists. On a certain level, therefore, it is misleading to see the Islamic resistance to the PDPA and the Russians as just the rural Islamic past in revolt against modernising trends and the modern world. It also embodied those "Jacobin-Islamist" elements of the modern world, dressed up in the garb of the past, but advocating a set of doctrinaire political proposals and recipes for reorganising society. It might be called Afghanistan's "reactionary Third Camp", a force seeking an alternative to capitalism and to Stalinism in a projection of a half-imaginary past - its own modern construction of the past - onto the present and the future.
Karl Marx once wrote that the past weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. The present feeds on the past, and on the ideological forms provided by the past - yet the living force is not the past, but the present, consuming, reshaping and putting its stamp on the malleable memory-traces of the past. People try to recreate the past; in fact they bring mystification and confusion to the present. Their enterprise is in the present; their mimicry of the past can only be a way of confronting the present, and inevitably only a historical charade.
It is always the present that is depicted in the garb of the past; the "past", in such enterprises, is always the present in disguise - as, for example, in the productions from age to age of classical drama. It is the present that we project on to what we see and hear on the stage, and it is largely within present-day terms and concerns that we understand what we see and hear: how could it be otherwise?
That is true also of modern political Islam, and it is fundamental to it. It is mummery, mimicking, and pantomiming of the forms of the past in response to the 20th and 21st centuries. The Islamic reaction in Afghanistan, of which modern political Islam was only a part, developed into a powerful force in reaction against a foreign-inspired coup, then against a foreign invasion and Russia's colonial war - not, as for example in Iran in the 1970s, against the disintegrationist social consequences of native capitalist development. Yet one of the striking thing about political Islam in Afghanistan, one of whose mutations would be the Taliban, is how far back its roots go.
It did not begin as primarily a reaction against Afghan Stalinism, but rather against Daud's closer ties with the USSR. Both Afghan Stalinism and political Islam in Afghanistan "took off" in the 1950s as responses to Daud. They were parallel formations, though it would be a quarter of a century before the PDPA coup and the Russian invasion, together with Pakistani and US largesse, gave the Islamists the possibility to grow into a major force.
Pakistan was the patron of Islamic reaction in Afghanistan from early on, as it would later be the patron, and in part the organiser, of the early Taliban. The conflict between Afghanistan and Pakistan over "Pashtunistan" had led Afghanistan to alignment with Russia, and the USA's patronage of Pakistan had led Afghanistan to closer partnership with the USSR. Afghanistan had intervened in Pakistan, sponsoring small guerrilla armies in Pakistan's Pashtun territory. From the mid 1970s, when Afghanistan's political-Islamist leaders fled from Daud, Pakistan would return the compliment. The antagonism remained powerful, even after Daud in the mid 1970s began to back-pedal on "Pashtunistan".
Starting under the populist Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan retaliated by backing the Islamist opposition to Daud, giving them money and bases in Pakistan. This continued after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the overthrow of Bhutto by the Islamicising military dictator Zia ul-Haq. It would continue under other military dictators and under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's daughter Benazir Bhutto. Pakistan would help to create and sustain the Taliban and the Taliban regime, and back it until after 11 September 2001.
The Islamist leaders who fled from Daud to Pakistan in the mid-1970s had started out in politics at Kabul University in the 50s and 60s. Surprisingly, but symptomatically of what political Islam is, a number of them had been students there not of theology but of science-based subjects such as engineering. (For example, Ahmed Shah Masud, a leader of Jamiat-i-Islami.) The first organisations of political Islam in the 1950s were "discussion groups" at Kabul University, parallelling the proto-PDPA "discussion groups". By 1978, there were a number of organisations of political Islam. The shortest way to survey them is to look at the organisations recognised by Pakistan after the Russian invasion. Of the seven organisations recognised by Pakistan's military dictator Zia to be recipients of Pakistani and US aid, four were political Islamist and three "traditionalist".
Jamiat-i-Islami had begun informally in discussion groups in the 1950s and 60s. Formally it dates from 1972, in the era of post-liberalisation instability, on the eve of Daud's coup. Its leader was no rural religious tub-thumper, but a professor of Islamic theology at Kabul University, Burhannudin Rabbani. It had links with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where Rabbani had studied. He was a Tajik, and the would-be organiser of the detribalised national minorities, especially the Tajiks. He opposed Daud, and opposed Afghanistan's links with the USSR, but he too wanted a revolution that would reshape Afghanistan - only according to "Islam". But "Islam" could not speak for itself, and thus it fell to Rabbani and his friends to decide what the Islamic social programme was. They felt that the age-old tradition was being overthrown by the modern world, and they wanted to restore it - but their politics were in the present, not the past; not in the words of the holy books, but in the words and deeds of their interpreters, their modern political "messengers".
In 1974 Rabbani fled from Daud's attempts by repression to control the Islamic recoil. However, Rabbani was an advocate of reform, not of radical, procrustean political Islam. He wanted not "Jacobin-Islamic" dictatorship to impose change from above but the transformation of Afghanistan to correspond more closely with his views of how things should be by way of a more long-term, evolutionary, educational, cautious pushing and nudging. Perhaps, here, Rabbani had a more realistic conception of the confines which the limited power of the Afghan state still imposed on all projects of transformation of Afghanistan from above, whether Stalinist or Taliban.
He believed in working through the traditional organs of Afghanistan, such as the Jirgas and the Loya Jirga. His not being Pashtun - and his organisation never having a Pashtun base - may also have imposed on Rabbani a sober assessment of what could and could not be imposed. There were two groups called Hisb-e-Islami, distinguished from each other by the names of their leaders - Hisb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) and Hisb-e-Islami (Khalis). They emerged in 1979 from splits in Jamiat-i-Islami. Both were more Islamist-radical than Jamiat-i-Islami. The founder and leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was with Hisb-e-Islami (Khalis) in the years of the anti-colonial war.
Hisb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun who studied engineering at Kabul University in the 1960s and who fled to Pakistan from Daud's repression in the mid-70s. Hekmatyar thought that the Islamists should learn from the Stalinist "party" structure. His Hisb-e-Islami was organised on Stalinist lines, as an Islamist "revolutionary party". Built with carefully selected and educated members, it was organised in a hierarchy of cells, under a rigidly centralised command structure. Together with adopting an "Islamic Stalinist" model of organisation, Hekmatyar also adopted a Jacobin-Stalinist model of revolution - Islamic revolution - from above. Hekmatyar's Hisb-e-Islami believed in changing social conditions and practices which it found uncongenial by the imposition of those it thought more desirable. The Taliban would be the only political-Islamists to arrive in a position to do that; the way the Taliban regime, caught between the blows of the US Air Force and popular Afghan resentment, crumbled, would show that the political-Islamists misjudged what could be done in Afghanistan scarcely less than the Stalinists did.
Hisb-e-Islami appealed to the better-educated, and, within that middle-class catchment area, to those with a technical education: man does not live by bread and technology alone... It was the protégé of the Pakistani intelligence agency, which was generous in providing it with resources. As a tightly selected and educated party, Hisb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar) stood somewhere between the Stalinists and the future Taliban, having features of both. Khalis, founder of the other Hisb-e-Islami, had studied Islamic theology. He publicly opposed Daud's reforms and fled from Daud's retribution. His organisation based itself much more on traditional Islam.
Ittihad-i-Islami was led by a former lecturer in Islamic theology at Kabul University, Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf. He had been Rabbani's deputy in the early days of the political Islamist ferment at Kabul university. Ittihad-i-Islami was a narrow Sunni sectarian movement, the spawn and stooge of Saudi Arabia.
Jamiat-i-Islami and its splinters were, from the 1950s, the Islamic counterparts to the Stalinists, developing in parallel to them and largely in response to them. For the first 25 years, Afghanistan's Russian connection gave the situation its dynamic, and the pro-Russians the initiative. The Islamists were on the "other side" of Daud and Zahir Shah after 1963 - on the "right" of Daud where the Stalinists were to his "left", if you like. But left and right are meaningless words here. The Stalinists were "left" only if totalitarianism is "left", and it isn't. Alongside Jamiat-i-Islami and its more militant splinters, there were three other organisations.
Those were Islamic, but not radical, political, Islamist. Based on the power structures and on the ruling class of pre-1978 Afghanistan, they were conservers of what was under attack in Afghanistan rather than people pursuing an "Islamic revolution" and a remade Afghanistan of one sort or another.
Unlike the four radical Islamist organisations listed above, whose roots go back to the 1950s and 60s, and for whom the Russian invasion was a great opportunity to fight, amidst disruption and an Afghan war of liberation, for their own "revolutionary" transformation of Afghanistan, the three "traditionalist" groups arose as a specific response to the Stalinist coup and Russian invasion.
Harakat-i-Inquilab-i-Islami was led by Nabi Muhammad and involved the ulema and mullahs of the villages who organised and led the revolt against the PDPA after the April coup. Large, loose and amorphous, Harakat-I-Inquilab-i-Islami represented traditional Afghanistan and traditional Islamic rejection of modernisation, expressed in such things as the desire to have only Islamic law, the Shari'a, and not secular law in any form. Here it overlapped with and shared general Islamist objectives with the narrower and more specific organisations of political Islam. Mohaz-i-Milli-i-Islami was the party of the Afghan Durrani establishment overthrown in 1978. It was led by Pir Gailani, connected by marriage to the royal family, an Afghan "liberal", and a representative of the ruins and remnants of the educated professional classes. Geographically they were centred around Kandahar.
The Afghan National Liberation Front was formed in 1980 by Sibghajullah Mujadidi, a Pashtun who had been jailed under Daud (in 1959, for publicly opposing a visit by the Russian leader, Nikita Khrushchev). It advocated the return of king Zahir Shah. All seven groups were recipients of Pakistani and US largesse. They had shifting relations with ancillary, allied, and subsidiary groups. They either ran their own refugee camps or - with Pakistani government encouragement - had organising centres in the camps run by the Pakistani government. They controlled the distribution of relief, including food. Refugees had to affiliate to the organisation dominant in a particular camp or go under.
Thus, as well as producing material resources and political encouragement and help for the seven selected organisations, Pakistan, with the USA standing behind it, ensured that they would have a supply of people. The ruling Stalinists in Afghanistan, and then Russia, ensured that it would be an abundant supply, continuously replenished.
All seven organisations were Sunni, and six were Pashtun. In addition, there were two organisations of the Afghan Shi'a minority, linked to Iran - Hisb-e-Wahdat, who took over Hazarajat in central Afghanistan in 1987, and Harakat-i-Islami, consisting of educated urban Shi'ites.
In the course of fourteen years of war before February 1992, against the PDPA regime, the Russian invaders, and the post-Russian Najibullah regime, these organisations and their local military commanders fought and manoeuvred with each other, openly and covertly, sometimes bloodily. Afghanistan, as we have seen, was a conglomerate of peoples, never a nation, and it had never had much of a modern state. What there had been of integration and of a modern state broke down after April 1978, and decisively after December 1979, into a shifting patchwork of warlordships overlapping with political and religious sectarian fiefdoms.
The opponents of the PDPA and the Russians were by every measure other than their opposition to Russian conquest utterly reactionary. Hisb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar) was an Afghan equivalent of fascism in the West.
The Najibullah regime
It was widely expected that the Najibullah regime could not long survive the departure of the Russians. In fact it lasted until April 1992, when the Tajik and Uzbek mujahedeen took Kabul from the Pashtun control embodied even in Najibullah. Najibullah fled to refuge in a UN compound in the city. Four years later the Taliban would hang his body alongside that of his brother on public show in a Kabul street. It was 14 years almost to the day since the Saur Revolution.
During the years of Russian power, in the towns, there had been a sifting and selection of political allegiance. The Stalinists had a base in the towns, much of it people who thought them the lesser of evils. The urban population had been swelled by migration of less tribalised people such as Tajiks from the north to "their own" in cities like Kabul. The prospects of being conquered by the illiterate and envious rural armies of Muslim bigots will not have appealed to the dominant layers in the cities and big towns, where the standard of living remained vastly better than that in rural Afghanistan, and still less to the newly arrived refugees and half-refugees. In any case the Khad, the Stalinist political police in the cities were a formidable force against dissent and for keeping the regime going: one estimate has it that in this regime-sustaining Stalinist police terror, the victims of Najibullah's political police over those years numbered perhaps 80,000. The Afghan Stalinists were brave fighters. They did not slink into their graves, but went down fighting.
How did the Najibullah regime compare to that which the Russians had come to save from defeat by the peoples of Afghanistan? Was the Kabul regime the Russians left behind the same regime that they had come to prop up? It was its descendant after almost a decade of Russian rule, during which it had been a quisling administration. If, like the PDPA regime established in April 1978, it was aligned far more with the modern world - on women's equality, notably - than with rural Afghanistan, it was also aligned with foreign conquest.
In the eleven years between the "Great Saur Revolution" and Russian withdrawal it had been demonstrated that though both the Russians and their Afghan allies and stooges stood in theory for the equality of women, in practice that mainly took the form, especially for rural Afghans, of killing women and children on an equal basis with killing men.
By February 1989, when Russia withdrew, the Kabul regime was a Stalinist state apparatus in urban enclaves disconnected from most of the country - an apparatus that, beginning with what could be put together from the shattered PDPA, had been selected, reselected and repeatedly purged in the 11 years since the Great Saur Revolution and the nine since the Russian invasion. Politically it represented - a bloody decade on - what the Parchamis had represented, which, to a considerable degree, was what Daud had represented, but now with no hope of imposing itself throughout Afghanistan.
The cities were, even more than in April 1978, urban islands in a hostile rural sea. When, in 1986, Babrak Karmal had been replaced by Mohammed Najibullah, former head of the political police, in an attempt to strengthen the regime in preparation for a Russian withdrawal, that move had led to new open civil war among the Afghan Stalinists. But until its final collapse in 1992 the Najibullah regime would continue to control the main cities and towns - Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kandahar, Herat, Jalalabad and smaller towns.
Why and how did the Kabul Stalinist regime survive the departure of the Russians? Indeed, by a few months, survive the collapse of the USSR itself which the colonial war in Afghanistan had helped bring about?
After February 1989, the Russians continued to supply the Kabul government with weapons and money. The Russian withdrawal removed from the many-headed opposition armies the only thing that had given a collection of warlords and warring political factions even a semblance of unity, the resistance to the invaders. Some of them were now bought off by Kabul, which still had pipelines to the Russian treasury - the Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum in northern Afghanistan, for example. On that level, the departure of the infidel invaders increased the power of the government it left behind. Najibullah proved better now at finding, buying and using allies for the regime than Karmal ever was.
Mohammed Najibullah's urban Afghanistan was for a while rendered more viable than its enemies had though possible. Stripped of the Russian superimposition, it was urban Afghanistan against rural Afghanistan. The Russian invasion had put an end to the Afghan state, finally and for more than two decades. Local rulerships defined by shifting relationships of ethnicity, religion and dominant political formations had replaced it. Russian military power could sustain for the Kabul government the pretence to be a national government. But in most of Afghanistan it was the power only to raid and destroy before its forces retreated to towns and fortified bases. To conquer and "pacify" the countryside was beyond its power, and by the mid 1980s probably beyond its aspirations. Even the power to strike out murderously had been diminished from 1986 by the effectiveness of the mujahedeen's newly US-supplied rockets in knocking USSR planes and helicopter gunships out of the Afghan skies. With the Russian army and airforce gone and Russia reduced to the role of Kabul's quartermaster and financier, the Najibullah regime shrank to a series of precariously linked urban centres in a hostile rural world. Kabul's power to buy and bribe warlords could last only so long as Russia was there to provide the means for it, so long as the Kabul regime was still propped up by the USSR financially and with armaments. Afghan Stalinism might have survived for much longer had the USSR itself survived.
When, after the collapse of the USSR, resources for bribing and paying tribute to some of the lords of rural Afghanistan dried up, the Najibullah regime fell. The desertion of the regime by Rashid Dostum would precipitate the fall of Kabul in April 1992, a surprising three years after the Russian withdrawal.
The origins of the Taliban (1994)
The downfall of the Taliban regime in December 2001 ended Afghanistan's twenty-three-and-a-half year cycle that began with the PDPA coup of April 1978. The regime brought down at the end of the cycle had a great deal in common with the regime born of the coup at its beginning and with all the Stalinist regimes that had ruled in Kabul for 14 years.
Like the PDPA, the Taliban put themselves in control of the state not by way of a campaign that won sufficient support for their goals, but by conquest. Like the PDPA, the Taliban then tried to engineer a revolution from above. The revolutions were, to be sure, very different, but both were inimical to much of the population. Procrustean Islam ended the cycle that procrustean Stalinism began.
Though some who would be Taliban, including its founder and leader, Mullah Omar, had fought the Russian invaders, the Taliban movement did not emerge until more than five years after the Russians had withdrawn and more than two years after the fall of the Najibullah regime.
The Taliban was a movement of religious zealots convinced that they were called by god at that exact moment to wage a jihad to put down the festering disorder into which Afghanistan, shattered into warlordships and bandit fiefdoms, had collapsed, and to restore a unified Afghan state dominated by Durrani Pashtuns. They combined fanatical commitment to a supposedly universal god with narrow tribalism. In that the Taliban continued a drive to create an Afghan state, strong and controlling, that goes back to the 1880s. They aimed by way of the state to make themselves absolute masters and to impose a radical Islamic social regime on the peoples of Afghanistan - what they believed would be the first truly Islamic state anywhere since the 7th century.
Their conception of the proper Islamic state was unique to themselves - involving among other things the imposition in Afghanistan of a system of rigid gender apartheid, sustained by an all-pervasive state persecution of women and girls without precedent even in the sorry history of Islam.
When God called the Taliban to do his work in Afghanistan he didn't take any chances. He made sure they had adequate help. Without that help the story might have gone differently. The Pakistani state, specifically its military intelligence agency, helped originate, organise, finance and arm the Taliban. It deployed adroit political, logistical and diplomatic support when the Taliban needed it. That support was probably irreplaceable at the Taliban's beginnings. The Taliban, from the start, also had the active support, material, political, diplomatic, of Saudi Arabia.
The early relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan has more than a little in common with the relationship between the PDPA and the USSR, especially the Khalq PDPA, which was never a puppet and later threw off the USSR leading strings.
The Taliban originated in Pakistan among refugees created by the Russian invasion, most of them boys educated in primitive religious schools where the curriculum consisted of rote learning of the Koran and Islamic law. Teachers were by all accounts at best no more than semi-literate themselves. They learned nothing of science, secular literature, history, maths or the modern world in this medievalist education.
Those living in the refugee camps and growing up in them did not in their own lives have many points of contact with the modern world, either.
By late 1978 refugees had begun building up in Pakistan and Iran. By the end of the Russian occupation, six million, a third of Afghanistan's population, had fled the country. Afghanistan was a place of interminable political and ethnic civil wars that continued after the fall of the Stalinist Najibullah regime in 1992. Most of them did not return to the Afghanistan after the Russian withdrawal or after the end of urban Stalinism. The refugees had a tenuous, constricted place in the world. Many were orphans.
Children and young men living in narrow poverty and narrower ignorance, dependent for food and safety on compliance with whichever of the political-religious groups was dominant in their refugee camp, were easy victims for systematic indoctrination in an all-embracing religious-totalitarian view of the world. Young men for whom circumstances offered little in life to compete with God and the other-worldly paradise promised to those who would be warriors of god, and guaranteed to martyrs for the faith - they were the catchment area of the Taliban.
Marx wrote of the "heavenly" other-worldly fantasies of religion that they are "the heart of a heartless world" - compensatory fantasies about this world. The religious fanaticism of the Taliban, too, reflected the grim and heartless world in which these boys grew up back on to them, fantasised - still nightmarish, but now a world which they, as soldiers of god, could hope to find a better place in, dominate and revenge themselves on.
The history of Islam has many examples of religious zealots bred in the poverty, the asceticism, the narrowness, the ignorant bigotry and the mysticism of the arid desert sweeping down in warlike waves on richer settled communities, as god's own god-like tyrants to purge and scourge the apostates back to true religion. The Taliban too swept out of the desert, but out of the man-made deserts of the refugee camps in Pakistan, to impose themselves and their starved and delirious ideas on Afghanistan.
Outsiders first became aware of the Taliban when they took the Pashtun city of Kandahar in October 1994. The organisation appeared fully-formed, without a history or visibility to outsiders while it was growing. It could do so because it was not alone. At that stage it was heavily a creation of the Pakistani state - Pakistan's PDPA.
On 12 October 1994 200 Taliban attacked the garrison at the Afghan border post of Spin Boldak, an important desert fuelling post for Pakistan-Afghan transport held by Hekmatyar's soldiers. Almost without a fight, the Taliban won control of Spin Boldak, thereby capturing 18,000 Kalashnikov rifles, large quantities of ammunition, and artillery and trucks in the nearby arms dump. The material had been moved just over the border from Pakistan to comply with an international accord of 1990, and was nominally held by Hekmatyar.
This well-chosen target, which brought so much to the Taliban at the beginning of its campaign, showed a level of military intelligence that points straight to a central feature of the early Taliban: they were being helped, shepherded, organised and directed by the Pakistan intelligence agency. The vast haul of arms at the very beginning was a birthday gift from the Pakistani state parent of the Taliban. The new force was Pakistan's protégé - Pakistan's attempt at a solution to the chaos in Afghanistan.
The Taliban next "appeared" at the beginning of November 1994, acting as an auxiliary force on the ground for the Pakistanis to free a large convoy of Pakistani trucks being held to ransom by a group of warlords. The Taliban attacked, defeated the warlords, and publicly hung the body of the warlord Mansur from the barrel of a tank.
The Taliban immediately moved on the large city of Kandahar and in a mere two days of very desultory fighting subdued the city's defenders. What would be a surprising characteristic of many Taliban victories was present here from the beginning: Mullah Naquib, the leading militarist in the city, with 2,500 men under his command, did not fight. He had been handsomely bribed by the Taliban's Pakistani sponsor, the ISI intelligence agency. Russian money had helped keep Najibullah in power; Pakistani money helped the Taliban rise to power.
Naquib's men enlisted with the Taliban. Here too the Taliban acquired new large stocks of weapons and additional tanks, armoured cars, and MIG-21 fighter planes. It would be a year before the Taliban would be able to deploy airpower, but Pakistan would fix that for them too.
In just a couple of weeks, the unknown force had captured the second largest city in Afghanistan, with the loss of just a dozen men. Ahmed Rashid, author of the best history of the Taliban, sums it up: "In Islamabad, no foreign diplomat or analyst doubted that they had received considerable support from Pakistan."
Yet they would quickly demonstrate that they were not quite Pakistan's puppet, whatever the Pakistan government may have intended or expected. They showed it first by what they did in the cities they captured. We will first complete the story of the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan and then return to that.
Pakistan's immediate concern was to re-establish sufficient order in Afghanistan to make something like normal trade possible. In the longer term, Pakistan was concerned to make Afghanistan, which, after nearly two decades of internal war, was not a state, but a wilderness infested by big and small bandit warlords, exacting tribute and protection-money from anything that lived and moved, its satellite state. On a hundred miles of road there might be a dozen or 20 separate posts at which heavy tribute would be exacted from traffic for the right to proceed. Acting directly or immediately as the agent of Pakistan to clear the roads and allow economic life to revive, the Taliban cleared the highways of the warlords and their tolls, establishing only one toll, their own. It was the advantage of a single state as distinct from many petty "states". One of the historic tasks of bourgeois revolutions, like that of 18th century France, was precisely such work of clearing away the myriad restrictive tolls and exactions that inhibited and strangled trade. In 1990s Afghanistan that prerequisite for trade and economic life beyond local production had to be performed by those who thought they were taking Afghanistan back to the 7th century - and in the chaotic conditions created by the sequels of the Great Saur coup d'état, made by those who thought they were taking Afghanistan by a short cut into the 21st century. The chronic distress in Afghanistan; the magnetic power that success in Kandahar gave the Taliban to attract recruits; the money, expertise, organisational scaffolding and safety-net provided by the Pakistani state and its agencies - all these guaranteed that the Taliban became, from 1994, a spectacularly growing force in Afghanistan. Recruits flocked to join the new movement. By December 1994, 20,000 students from Pakistan, as well as Afghans from the refugee camps, had rallied to Kandahar.*
A Pakistani Minister openly claimed the Taliban as "our boys". One of the central things "going for" the Taliban was that its links with Pakistan raised it above all the mere warlords of Afghanistan - and would eventually raise it above the Kabul government.
Three months after taking Kandahar, the Taliban controlled 12 of Afghanistan's 31 provinces. Like Chiang Kai Shek's Guomindang in the mid-1920s marching north across China to unify the country by eliminating its proliferating warlords, the Taliban began to march north across Afghanistan to unify and restore an Afghan state. Their many victories served to testify that the Taliban was indeed the hand of god, bringing order at last to Afghanistan. Its reputation for invincibility, rooted in its early quick, Pakistan-managed successes in and around Kandahar, helped it cow some of the bigger and lesser warlords.
Pakistan's money helped it neutralise others. But so far this was a Pashtun movement in Pashtun territory. The prospect of peace without rampaging banditry in power disposed many in its favour. For such a movement to unify multi-ethnic Afghanistan under its control would present complications that would become clearer with its further success. But the first results of initial Taliban success was an immense rallying of support.
Who rallied? War-weary people enticed by the reputation the Taliban acquired for putting down banditry and warlordism and for disarming factions other than their own. Bourgeois forces with their minds focused on peace and order as the pre-conditions of trade.
The Taliban sprung from its success in Kandahar north to the outskirts of Kabul and west to Herat. It had now become a force for consideration in the combinations and recombinations of the political, ethnic, and religious (Sunni-Shi'a) factions. In fact, the Taliban was unrelenting and uncompromising in its opposition to all others. What it did and did not do was shaped by its drive for total power and by a vision of the unique goal which god had bestowed on Mullah Omar and the elect of the Taliban.
The Taliban soon revealed itself as not an Afghan but a Pashtun force - and not an Islamic, however puritanical, but a Sunni-sectarian movement. Early in 1995, the Hazara forces holding some suburbs of Kabul, faced with a dangerous offensive by the warlord Masud, did a deal with the Taliban, surrendering weapons and positions. But the Hazaras are not only not Pashtun, they are Shi'a. Their version of Islam was not recognised as any sort of Islam by the Taliban. When the Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, fell into the hands of the Taliban, they killed him out of hand. It showed the ethnic and religious-sectarian character of the Taliban early and unmistakably.
Simultaneously the Taliban's mystique of god-guaranteed invincibility was debunked when, in March 1995, Masud drove them out of the positions surrendered to them by the Hazaras in the suburbs of Kabul. This event proclaimed and emphasised something basic to the situation in Afghanistan: already the Taliban, having taken the Pashtun areas in the south, had reached the end of its natural Pashtun "constituency". From here on in it was faced with the ethnic/national conquest of the rest of Afghanistan - with acting as a conquering Pashtun-imperialist power. It would in the next 18 months conquer a great part of non-Pashtun Afghanistan, but never all of it.
Now, after the setbacks of March 1995, Taliban control shrunk from 12 to eight provinces. The Taliban, which had an abundance of guns and vehicles from Pakistan and their other steady backer, Saudi Arabia, spent the summer rebuilding and preparing. With the help of Pakistani military intelligence officers, they created a new command structure. The religious levée en masse character of the Taliban would never entirely disappear, but from now on it would be far better organised.
Like an enabling, busy parent, Pakistan acted as a go-between to secure a secret agreement for the Uzbek forces of General Rashid Dostum to provide technicians to repair the Russian-built planes and helicopters which the Taliban had earlier taken when they took Kandahar. Thus the Taliban acquired airpower, courtesy of Pakistan and of Dostum. It would take the ethnic and other warlords time to learn that the Taliban was not one warlord group among others, prepared to play their eternal game of alliance, doublecross and recombination. The Taliban was out to exterminate the warlords, not to settle down in coexistence with them.
Early in September 1995 the Taliban took Herat, their second great city. Herat, unlike Kandahar, was not Pashtun and not Sunni. There, the Taliban were foreign conquerors, and a force for religious oppression of Muslims whom they did not recognise as Muslims.
Immediately after they overran Herat, the Taliban in October and November 1995, once more concentrated on taking Kabul, which they were already besieging. Here too, and yet again, they were not dependent on the success of their arms only. They were in a position to buy the surrender of some of the Kabul Government's front line commanders. Still shepherding and outriding for the Taliban, the Pakistani government summoned the anti-Rabbani warlords, Hekmatyar, Dostum and others, to try to get them to ally with the Taliban against the nominal government in Kabul, headed by Rabbani. But if Pakistan was not yet convinced that the Taliban could win outright victory, the Taliban were in no doubt of it. They knew which side god was on, as they would know it six years later when they defied the USA. They boycotted the meeting, denouncing the warlords as "communist infidels". Pakistani and Taliban goals and strategies were no longer identical, but Pakistan - and Saudi Arabia - would continue to back the Taliban. (With Iran, Russia and India the prime backers on the other side.) Pakistan would make new efforts to ensure that the Taliban had sufficient military supplies.
The USA, which had been seriously involved in financing the anti-Stalinist mujahedeen in the 1980s and early 90s, had lost interest after 1992, when Najibullah fell. Now, in 1996, it was mainly interested in peace and conciliation. It urged the Kabul government and the Taliban to come to an agreement. Its direct concern was to facilitate the laying of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan. Even though US enmity to Iran led it to give subtextual backing to the Taliban and Pakistan, it had low expectations of the Taliban. At the UN, in April 1996, the US proposed an arms embargo on Afghanistan.
In May 1996, Hekmatyar allied with the Rabbani government against the Taliban and entered Kabul, large parts of which his rocket-fire had reduced to rubble, for the first time in 15 years, to become Prime Minister. The Taliban launched a massive rocket attack on Kabul in response. The Taliban had now been camped outside Kabul for a year, raining rockets on the "infidels" and non-Pashtuns within. In April 1996, for example, the Taliban fired 866 rockets, killed 180 civilians, wounded 550, and destroyed large chunks of the city. That was on top of what Hekmatyar had done between 1993 and 1995.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, despite favouring and advocating a Taliban alliance with other warlords against Kabul, backed the Taliban in another attempt on its own to take Kabul. The intelligence services of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan were involved in discussing the plan of attack; both the Taliban's patrons stepped up supplies. But first, before attempting to take Kabul, the Taliban moved east in August 1996 to take Jalalabad. There too they had help. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan helped arrange the flight of the head of the Jalalabad garrison, Haji Abdul Qadeer, by way of a bribe, reportedly US$10 million in cash. The Pakistani government sent hundreds of armed refugees from the camps in Pakistan to attack Jalalabad from the east. On 10 September, Qadeer fled to his substantially augmented bank account in Pakistan. On 11 September, Jalalabad fell with no more than 70 casualties. The extent to which things were "arranged" from afar for the Taliban could not be clearer.
The Taliban immediately moved on Kabul in an impetuous and, as it proved, unstoppable offensive. Facing attack from four directions, Masud decided not to fight in the nearly ruined city. The Taliban took Kabul on 26 September 1996.
ymbolically, they took the ex-Stalinist President (and former political police chief) Najibullah, together with his brother (his successor as chief of the Stalinist police) and, after torturing and mutilating them - Mohammed Najibullah was reportedly castrated - hanged them up for all to see in the centre of Kabul. To the supporters of Rabbani's defeated Afghan government, the advance of the Taliban was an advance for Pakistani rule in Afghanistan. This would prove not to be true, but it brings into focus the degree of Pakistani support on every level which added greatly to the power of the war waged by the Taliban on the ground. The speedy collapse of the Taliban regime under the American attack that began early in October 2001 would show how insubstantial the base of that regime was, especially in the non-Pashtun north; in retrospect it suggests that without the outside help it had, the Taliban would not have conquered Afghanistan. With the capture of Kabul, most of Afghanistan was under Taliban rule. But the war was not over. On 10 October 1996, the enemies the Taliban had routed - President Rabbani, Masud, Dostum, and the Hazara leaders - met on an Afghan roadside and formed a "Supreme Council for the Defence of the Motherland". In the five years they had before US bombs brought down their regime in December 2001 the Taliban would never complete the conquest of the country
Victory and heavy Taliban casualties once more brought hordes of students - Afghans and Pakistanis from the refugee camps and the religious schools of Pakistan, and Islamic enthusiasts from further afield - eager to participate in the triumph. Some religious schools shut down entirely and thousands of students went to fight in the holy war with the Taliban, bussed in by Pakistan's fundamentalist political parties with the encouragement of the Pakistani government. The difficulties of Pashtun-imperialist conquest of the whole of the non-Pashtun north, where over 60% of Afghanistan's agricultural resources are, would defeat them. The Taliban focused on taking the last stronghold of the anti-Taliban, the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, controlled by Dostum. Dostum's Uzbek forces were the nearest thing to a remnant of the Stalinist regime, in which Dostum had been a pillar until near the end, when his defection signalled the end of the line for the Najibullah government.
The Taliban took Mazar peacefully by buying General Malik Pahlauan, Dostum's second in command. Pahlauan had fallen out with Dostum and looked to the Taliban to help him defeat his former chief. Dostum fled. In May 1997 2,500 Taliban came in pick-up trucks to take over Mazar peacefully. But Pahlauan had misjudged the Taliban. They came not as he expected, as allies, but as Pashtun conquerors and masters. Even now, the "exclusive" centralising Pashtun nature of the Taliban could surprise those who for their own reasons thought they could ally with it.
The Taliban, strangers from the south, immediately started to disarm the Uzbek and Hazara soldiers and to impose their ideas about the place of women in society. The Taliban's "minders" from Pakistan sent diplomats and intelligence agents to try to moderate relations between the Taliban - who saw themselves as conquerors, with the rights of conquerors - and the Mazaris, who thought they had reached an agreement with the Taliban, not surrendered to them.
On 28 May 1997, some Hazara soldiers resisted disarmament, and sparked a general uprising. Hundreds of Taliban were killed and a thousand captured. The Taliban defeated, the Uzbek soldiers then set to looting the city. The Taliban had suffered heavy casualties. But the resources of religious barbarism were not exhausted. Once again, recruits - five thousand of them, Afghans and Pakistanis - were hurried from the religious schools in Pakistan to replenish the Taliban. In August 1998 the Taliban retook Mazar and, according to Ahmed Rashid, "went on a killing frenzy" for two days, slaughtering between five and six thousand people.
The Taliban in power (1996-2001)
In their campaign to take over Afghanistan the Taliban had their activities co-ordinated and orchestrated by the Pakistani state. They were given material help and provided with diplomatic and other expertise that was not the Taliban's own and which can in retrospect be seen to have been irreplaceable.
In their capacity of people working for both their own and Pakistan's immediate objectives, the Taliban cleared much of the country of "wild" warlords and bandits, restored political and economic unity to as much of the country as they could conquer, opened the warlord-blocked and bandit infested roads, and lifted most of the tolls and taxes exacted by the local holders of power on trade and enterprise, including the trades associated with the production and export of heroin. Pakistan saw them as Pakistan's. It was true, but it was far from the whole truth. In the way the Taliban ruled, they were never just anybody's puppet.
In their ethnic/national policy within Afghanistan, they were Durrani Pashtun chauvinists. In their capacity of being a religious movement, they persecuted the Shi'a and imposed a social and religious programme unique to themselves. The more civilised, multi-ethnic, and secularised a given city, the more at odds it was with the Taliban and the more savage its treatment.
They imposed it first on the Pashtun city of Kandahar, in November 1994, immediately after they took control of the city. They banned women from working outside their homes and closed down girls' schools. By banning women teachers they in fact thereby closed down boys schools as well. Forty-five of forty-eight schools were closed. Women were forbidden to go out without being draped from head to toe in a moving personal tent with only a narrow latticed slit to peer through, which restricted their vision like blinkers on a horse. Women were beaten up if any part of them could be seen. Wherever the Taliban ruled, women and girls would be a conquered, persecuted species.
The Taliban banned virtually every form of entertainment, of amusement, and all spirituality other than those of its religious forms that they themselves prescribed and licensed. TV, video, films, music, kite-flying, card-playing, chess and other such games, and many sports were proclaimed non-Islamic. Bans and restrictions on some or all of these things has been common to all societies where clerics have influence. In Catholic Ireland, for example, from the 1920s to the 1950s, the clergy unrelentingly campaigned against dance halls as "occasions of sin" and armed with sticks, would patrol nearby fields and dark places to make sure no one seized on the occasion to sin. Religion-based restrictions on what could be done on a Sunday existed in Britain until recently. What was unique in Afghanistan under the Taliban was the comprehensiveness of the bans. It was a religious-totalitarian state, rigorously enforcing its prohibitions with unrestricted violence. The regime imposed minutely-detailed regulation on dress and appearance. They imposed their own primitive version of Islam's Shari'a law. It has been described as "the strictest interpretation of Shari'a law ever seen in the Muslim world." Men were compelled to grow long beards. In the non-Pashtun and more "westernised" cities which they would conquer, ethnic and other oppression would be added to enforced cultural monolithism.
Unrepentant heirs of the iconoclasts, they banned images of people and even of animals as idolatrous; and yet much of their cultural programme, what they banned and what they imposed, was itself a great debauch of superstitious negative and positive fetishism. That summed up what the Taliban were. There was about the Taliban a terrifying simple-mindedness - a murderous innocence. They identified virtue with trivial external things of dress and fashion, things which are very historically-specific and historically malleable. They defined themselves, and tried to define the good Afghanistan they worked for, in terms of such things as the length of beards! Mullah Omar issued a directive about the angle at which the requisite turban should be worn. Silly rules on a vast range of fashion-conscious trivia were enforced by the grim and all-too-serious state,.
It was "secondary narcissism", the feeling individuals and societies attach to such elements of their own identity as regional accents, "national dress" and so on, intensified to the level of clinical paranoia. The fetishism and perpetuation of historically specific secondary and tertiary things - food, ritual, dress, morality - is commonly the daily stuff of most religions. Hasidic Jews go around London and New York dressed as 17th century Poles. Catholic bishops wear ancient Roman mitres. All religions preach as "eternal" moralities codes of behaviour that in fact are rooted in specific societies and in certain levels of material production, or (for food rituals) in climate. The change in sexual morality over the last 40 years is the clearest example of this historic malleability.
Ruling elites sometimes make gods and universal patterns of themselves - thus the literature, music and art which were promoted, and those which were restricted and banned and persecuted in Stalin's Russia, were determined as much by the narrow personal taste and knowledge of the bureaucratic ruling class parvenu elite as by the need of the totalitarian state to control everything and its bias towards propagandist simplicities in the arts.
But even in this tradition, the Taliban's outlook - a uniquely narrow and singularly unenlightened backwoods Islam, wrapped up in naēve self-approbation - was a thing of its own. They tried to cut Afghan society down to a replica of the Taliban itself. Their fanatical fetishism of cultural trivia like the length of beards was intended to ward off the hostile worlds beyond the camps and the schools and protect an inner vision of ancient Islamic virtue and glory - for people using Toyota pickup trucks, helicopters, radios and telephones from the hostile modern world, people promoted, protected, financed and armed by a Pakistani state which has the nuclear bomb. The gallant incomprehension of the relationship of forces, and what that inevitably meant, with which the Taliban defied the Americans in 2001, was all of a piece with the naēve, fear-ridden, superstitious incomprehension that characterised their entire political career.
The capture of Persian-speaking, non-Pashtun Herat by the Taliban marked the point at which Pashtun oppression of the other Afghan peoples became an important aspect of Taliban conquest of Afghanistan. The rule they imposed on Herat was government by a Durrani Pashtun army of occupation and administration by Pashtun Taliban, many of whom did not even speak the local language - rule by an ignorant, rural, alien, new theocratic elite. Of 45,000 children in Herat's schools in the mid-1990s, half were girls. The conquering Taliban closed every school in Herat and forbade girls to study even at home.
Such oppression of women, and of everyone who did not share their beliefs and had to have them imposed on them, was a facet of Taliban rule everywhere. Kabul, though Pashtuns had ruled there continuously until 1992, was very mixed ethnically, and more Tajik than Pashtun. Even in September 1996, though it was as bombed and broken as Berlin was in 1945, Kabul was still greatly distant in terms of historical time from the rural, mono-cultural, narrow and bigoted Durrani Pashtun barbarians who conquered it.
For the cities like Kabul, it was as if a gigantic explosion in rural Afghanistan had blotted out the light, and ash and all-clogging dust were raining down on them, suffocating thought, movement, and life beyond those of its rudimentary forms recognised by the Taliban. Immediately they had Kabul in their grip the Taliban banned all women from working - in a city where one in four civil servants was a woman. The school and college education of 70,000 girls and young women was immediately cut off - as was the entire elementary education for boys. The Taliban knew its priorities: the women teachers on whom the boys' schools depended could not be allowed to go on working. Women, when not imprisoned at home, were compelled to become tented beings. The many thousands of families dependent on the earnings of war widows were reduced to destitution and threatened with starvation.
Barbarous medieval Islamic laws were promulgated: thieves would be mutilated by amputations, adulterers stoned to death. Men were arrested in the street for being clean shaven. A dictatorial committee of six Durrani outsider Pashtuns was set up to rule Kabul. None of the members of the committee ruling over the 1.2 million people of Kabul, most of them non-Pashtun, had ever lived in a large city or even visited Kabul.
We have already seen something of what happened in Mazar-i-Sharif the following year - in a sophisticated quasi-secular modern city vastly distant, in everything from its ethnic character to the treatment of women there, from the Pashtun countryside and the world of those who had known little but the refugee camps in Pakistan. As if the prime business of their war was the subjugation and degradation of girls and women, the Taliban's first act, even before they had disarmed the old garrison in Mazar-i-Sharif, was to shut down the university and the schools where girls were taught and women did a portion of the teaching, and to whip women off the streets.
Taliban rule was dictatorship over 90% of Afghanistan by an armed party consisting in the main of the most backward narrow, naēve, ignorant, and comprehensively inexperienced people in Afghanistan and in the Afghan refugee camps - young men in the grip of a mass paranoid self-righteousness that allowed them to project their conception of themselves onto urban Afghanistan as a moral imperative and, guns in hand, impose it by conquest. Could they have done it without outside help? It is not at all clear that they could have reached "take off" without the shepherding, orchestration, and various forms of practical, political and diplomatic help which Pakistan and Saudi Arabia gave them.
Their rule, which I have been describing above, shows that they were, however, an autonomous movement driven by religious politics that went far beyond the goals they had in common with even the Islamist elements in the Pakistani state which helped them. As they overran Afghanistan their independence from their backers was correspondingly enlarged.
The fall of the Taliban
There was something akin to heroism in the way that, after 11 September, the Taliban, rulers of one of the most backward states on earth, stood up to the USA, the mightiest power on earth, with a military budget greater than those of the nine next-biggest powers all added together, roused to vengeful rage by the Al Qaeda attacks in the USA.
They would not bow down before the great Satanic power, nor would they betray the heroic Islamic fighters of Osama bin Laden. Let the USA first provide proof that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks in America, they insisted, pettifogging and procrastinating, but doing it with considerable dignity. It was as if they simply did not know what the USA could do to them. As if such things as relative power and strength did not matter in a world where the hand of god was everywhere.
After all, eschewing realistic calculation and the horsetradings and the combinations with the warlords it indicated, even against the advice of their Pakistani and Saudi patrons, they had conquered most of Afghanistan: God himself had guided them. In fact, as we have seen, it was the ministrations of the Pakistani intelligence agency, and Pakistani money, that had provided the "magical" element in the Taliban's conquest of Afghanistan. But who, if not God, had inspired Pakistan to do what it did for the Taliban? God would look after his own people, the Taliban, now too.
Thus, characteristically living in their own obsessions, worrying about the length of beards and the angle of turbans, heroically fending off the incalculable harm that a woman's naked face or uncovered arm might do, dreaming happy, foolish, simple-minded, barbarous, religious dreams, the bigoted rulers of Afghanistan sleep-walked to their destruction.
The events of the unpeeling of the Taliban regime are quickly told. In face of US threats, the Taliban's Pakistan and Saudi backers deserted them. God deserted them, too. Where they had conquered Afghanistan in an aura of miraculous competence, now they could do nothing right.
The USA started bombing on 7 October. After a month of bombing, the Northern Alliance enemies of the Taliban exploded from their narrow part of northern Afghanistan and, with even greater speed than that with which it had expanded out of Kandahar in 1995-6, Taliban rule contracted. The Taliban regime proved far more fragile, shallow-rooted and insubstantial than anyone had suspected.
First, the Northern Alliance took Mazar-i-Sharif (7 November) and then marched on to take Kabul (13 November) and Herat (12 November). The scenes in the cities that followed the rout of the Taliban were joyful scenes of national and social liberation. The Taliban lasted longer in the Pashtun lands and in the city of Kandahar, but even there they did not last long.
The base of the Taliban was narrowly Durrani Pashtun. The Ghilzai Pashtuns were easily turned against them. No doubt the weapon - gold - that had played such a large part in the expansion of the Taliban from Kandahar after 1995 played its part now too. Kandahar fell on 9 December 2001 and Mullah Omar became a hunted fugitive, pursued by the agents of Satan.
An uneasy coalition of warlords rules in Kabul, for now invigilated by the international powers that blasted a road to power for them. An Afghan state still does not exist, only warlordships. Foreign troops keep order in Kabul. Large-scale foreign aid is promised. Unquestionably Afghanistan, its economy blasted, the intricate irrigation system on which much of its best agriculture depended deliberately wrecked in the wars, its capital Kabul in ruins, is greatly worse off than it was on 27 April 1978.
Conclusion: Afghanistan and the shape of history
When the USSR attempted to annex Afghanistan it was at the height of its power. Or so it appeared to the rulers in the Kremlin. The USSR was the second superpower, "an industrial giant". Yet, according to the basic ideas of Marxism and of those who made the Russian Revolution, the USSR should not have survived the 1920s. Indeed, the survival of the USSR had seemingly refuted all the old Marxist ideas about the shape of history and the provenance of socialism.
For Marxists, the democratic collectivism that is socialism grows out of capitalism, and cannot come about otherwise. Capitalism develops and socialises the forces of production. It develops the working class. It creates the preconditions for transition to a higher social system - that is, for the material abundance without which exploitative and privileged classes and castes emerge and re-emerge in history, and socialism, the end of exploitation, is impossible.
Those who made the Russian Revolution believed that too. The only correction that they thought history, through their action, was making to the Marxist scheme was that the working class could temporarily take power in a backward country, in itself far from being ripe for socialism and indeed in many ways pre-capitalist. The Russian workers could take state power, but unless the working class in the countries of advanced capitalism which were ripe for socialism soon also took power, the workers could not stay in power in what Lenin called "backward, semi-Asiatic Russia". They would be overthrown by the native and foreign bourgeoisie.
In fact the isolated Russian workers' revolution did not fall quickly. It survived and degenerated. The working class was not overthrown by the bourgeoisie but by a bureaucracy made up of remnants of the old Tsarist bureaucracy and upper classes and of bureaucrats extruded from the working class. They constructed a totalitarian state that gripped society in a vice for sixty years. The first Stalinist state came into existence in the late 1920s, and set out on a forced march to catch up with and outstrip capitalism. When the emerging bureaucracy, still calling itself Marxist and socialist and Bolshevik, first proclaimed such a course, they called it socialism in one country. Trotsky and the working-class Bolsheviks objected to it as utopian absurdity, a reversion on a gigantic scale to the old mid-19th century "utopian socialist" project of building communist colonies in the wilderness that would compete with and surpass capitalism.
Capitalism could only be superseded, overtopped in history, from its own furthest point of development; otherwise, the preconditions for a socialist alternative to capitalism would not exist, as they did not exist in the USSR. Before there could be any question of capitalism being overtaken by such "utopian" competition from the periphery of world development, advanced capitalism would first have to lose its dynamic, decline and regress.
Every one of Trotsky's objections to "socialism in one country" applied equally to a USSR conceived of as a distinct form of class society (bureaucratic-collectivist or, for that matter, state-capitalist). It was still backward, starting from a very low level, compared to advanced capitalism.
Unless advanced capitalism ceased to advance, unless it regressed, unless it was to spiral down in a series of world wars "that would be the grave of civilisation", the bureaucratic collectivist system would not overtake and supplant it*.
The survival and expansion of Russian Stalinism to the position it had at the end of the 1970s seemed to have refuted all such considerations. The shape of history was not as pre-Stalinist Marxism had seen it. Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism, coming from its own line of development parallelling capitalism, refuted it. It refuted Trotsky's view that the Stalinist social system, however defined, could not survive; it refuted the position of those such as Max Shachtman in the 1940s who developed Trotsky's ideas and, while clearly designating the USSR as an exploitative class society, continued to see it as a historical aberration, something that could not survive, an unexpected temporary contradiction of the Marxist conception of the shape of history as an inverted pyramid with world capitalism spreading out at the top and socialism rising out of that. The survival of the USSR, but also the spread of Stalinism, refuted those ideas. There was not one world but two; not one line of historical development - feudalism, capitalism, socialism - but two equally important parallel lines. In the Stalinist line of historical development, capitalism played little part; the Stalinist social system was, so to speak, in itself simultaneously both historical "capitalism" and early socialism. (That was, for example, Isaac Deutscher's view).
In that view of history, Afghanistan too, one of the most backward societies on earth, could be switched onto the alternative, faster, line of progress. All that was necessary was that the right people had the state power and could muster sufficient strength of compulsion.
Isaac Deutscher, a reluctant but wholehearted and poisonous apologist for Stalinism and proponent of the idea that Stalinism had wrecked all the old Marxist ideas about the shape of history, put it with brutal simplicity when explaining why the governing idea of the Bolsheviks, of Lenin and Trotsky, that the bourgeoisie would overthrow the Russian Revolution if the workers did not soon take power in advanced Europe, had been proved false. Deutscher conflated the October Revolution with Stalinism, but his words contain an important truth:
"Not for a moment did Trotsky imagine... that the Russian Revolution could survive in isolation for decades. It may therefore be said, as Stalin was to say... that he 'underrated' the internal resources and vitality of revolutionary Russia... This error, if an error it was, was intimately bound up with his conception of the revolution... It did not occur to him that a proletarian party would in the long run rule and govern an enormous country against the majority of the people. He did not foresee that the revolution would lead to the prolonged rule of a minority... [That] would have appeared to him, as to nearly all his contemporaries, incompatible with socialism. In fact, he did not imagine, in spite of all he had written about Lenin's 'Jacobinism', that the revolution would seek to escape from its isolation and weakness into totalitarianism". (The Prophet Armed, 1954).
When Mao Zedong wrote that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun", he meant the gigantically inflated power that he exercised deliriously - the power to remake China according to his will, and at a tempo he could force, by the unrestrained use of violence against the Chinese people. Taraki's idea of a shortcut to power, after which Afghanistan could be reshaped at will, fell down not as a calculation of what was possible to the PDPA, which could and did take state power, but as an understanding of Afghanistan and the Afghan state. Yet, if the USSR had not begun to spiral into collapse in the 1980s, soon after invading Afghanistan, it would have mobilised sufficient power to compensate for the incapacity of the Afghan state to subjugate the peoples of Afghanistan. Afghanistan would have appeared as one more example of the futility of the Marxist idea of the shape of history and of the revolutionary potency of totalitarianism - of magic-making force in history.
The collapse of the USSR clarified this situation and vindicated the Marxist idea of the shape of history. Capitalism will be superseded from its own furthest points of development by the proletariat it creates seizing control of the means of production it creates, or it will not be superseded at all.
Trotsky got many things wrong about the USSR, but in thinking that such a system was historically unviable he was proved right, though in a very different timescale from the one he used. Stalinism, whether conceived of as "socialism in one country" or as a form of exploitative class society, could not compete with advanced capitalism. Modern history does not have two lines of development; it has one, with some side-detours,
As if in a neat summary final chapter of a book, Afghan Stalinism sums up the experience of Stalinism in history. The Great Saur Revolution was made by a tiny elite - by members of the old Afghan ruling classes who desired to become a bureaucratic ruling class in a social system like that of the USSR - in one of the most backward societies on earth. They pitted themselves against the Afghan people. They thought they could use the state, and USSR help, to work social miracles. Instead, they brought catastrophe down on the peoples of Afghanistan, mass slaughter, mass displacements, apocalyptic ruin. Even in the scale of the bloodshed and the ruination at the end, the Afghan experience summed up, albeit as caricature, the whole experience of Stalinism in history.
Afghanistan, whose "Great Saur Revolution" was the bloody reductio ad absurdum of Stalinism in history, the absurdity too far, played an important role in the collapse of the USSR itself. Karl Marx, in his time, looked to Poland's struggle for independence to help bring down Tsarism. Poland was more developed than the Tsarist Russian Empire which kept it in subjection; Afghanistan, at the other extreme, was immensely less developed than the empire which tried to conquer it. Yet the resistance of the Afghan people to the Russians brought the USSR's rulers up against the state of their own system. They could not muster the will or the resources to complete what they began in December 1979 (or, perhaps better, in April 1978). They could not retreat without cost. They fought a bloody, inconclusive, colonial war for nine years that helped expose the decrepitude of Russian Stalinism.
The Afghan war caused none of it. The Stalinist system was rotten, and it began to totter under its own dead weight. But the heroic resistance of the Afghan rebels, who by every test of the 20th century except their resistance to subjugation were reactionary, helped trigger the final crisis that brought down the Stalinist empire. Having swallowed more than one camel in its history, Russian Stalinism choked on the Afghan gnat. By a strange dialectic, the resistance to Russian conquest of one of the most underdeveloped and "reactionary" collections of peoples on the planet played the immensely progressive role in history of helping bring down the great totalitarian empire.
Amongst other things, the wars of the Islamic tribesmen, who would not bow down before the enemies of their god, for their own freedom - in that, though in that alone, they acted in the spirit of real communism - helped win the freedom of the nations of Eastern Europe, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians. Indirectly, they did what the USSR probably feared in 1979. They helped detach the central Asian republics from Russian rule. But the Afghans have paid a terrible price for the strange and unexpected role they played in the history of the 20th century. They are paying it still.
Anthony Arnold, Afghanistan's two-party communism. 1985.
Michael Griffin, Reaping the whirlwind.
William Maley (ed), Fundamentalism reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. 1998.
Peter Marsden, The Taliban. 1998.
Kamal Matinuddin, The Taliban phenomenon in Afghanistan, 1994-7. 1999.
Asta Olsen, Islam and politics in Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, Taliban. 2000.
Tom Rodgers, Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. 1992.
Amin Saikal and William Maley (eds), Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. 1989.
Mohammed Nazif Shahrani, Revolutions and rebellions in
Afghanistan: an anthropological perspective. 1984.
Sreedhar Mahendra Ved, The Afghan turmoil. 1998.
John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna], Afghanistan: Russian troops out! 1985
John O'Mahony [Sean Matgamna], The invasion of Afghanistan (series of articles on Afghanistan in Workers' Action, January 1980.
The left and Afghanistan
The Russian annexation of Afghanistan at Christmas 1979 led to a new USSR-Western Cold War of an intensity that had not been seen since the "thaw" that had begun with Stalin's death nearly three decades earlier, in 1953. The international left polarised for and against the Russians and the Americans. Independent working-class politics were greatly weakened. Most of those Trotskyists who had drawn sharply away from the USSR after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but without breaking from the idea that the USSR remained some sort of a - degenerated - working-class state, were thrown backwards politically. In the newly re-polarised world of the Second Cold War they were flung to one side, the side of the Russian Empire which, despite everything, they believed to represent historic progress and progressive anti-capitalism.
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia on 20 August 1968 by the armies of the USSR and its Warsaw Pact satellite states, which was - revealingly enough - followed by formal East-West detente in 1969, even the "orthodox" Trotskyists who still adhered to the idea that the USSR remained "progressive" and in the last analysis should be supported against an "imperialist" attempt to destroy it, had drifted into a de facto acceptance that Russia was the second pillar of world counter-revolution and should be kept "ideologically" at a distance. The USSR was - as the invasion of Czechoslovakia to snuff out the reforming Dubcek regime's attempt to create "socialism with a human face" had shown - antagonistic to everything the left stood for, and especially antagonistic to labour movements and working-class freedom.
The invasion of Afghanistan forced all of us - the forerunners of Workers' Liberty were then still, by that stage very half-heartedly, in the "orthodox" Trotskyist spectrum - into sharp choices. We could assess what the USSR was doing on its merits. That meant recognising the invasion as a piece of Russian imperialist brigandage of the sort the old colonial and imperial powers of the West no longer practised on a large scale - even what the USA had done in Vietnam was not that sort of imperialism. Or we could follow the pattern of the new Cold War antagonisms, and side with the USSR because of its allegedly progressive place in historical evolution. That would mean supporting Russia's colonial war against the peoples of Afghanistan.
We could either think about the real world. Or we could enact a parody of what the (largely falsified) histories of the movement said Trotsky had done in 1939, when the USSR invaded Poland and Finland; we could refuse to see the annexation of Afghanistan as something that could be considered "in itself", apart from its place in the new world polarisation which it had brought about; we could see the invasion as a strange new upsurge of revolutionary anti-capitalism by Russia's bureaucratic rulers.
The "orthodox" Trotskyist forerunners of Workers' Liberty faced the choice of either supporting Russia's war of conquest or of looking afresh at the view that considered the USSR to represent the opposite pole in world politics to "imperialism" and so to deserve "unconditional defence".
We could not support USSR imperialism's colonial war. Lutte OuvriŹre in France, never quite a fully "orthodox" Trotskyist group, but one that insisted that the USSR was still a degenerated workers' state, also argued straightforwardly that the USSR troops should get out. There was a big minority in the French Mandelite organisation, the LCR, which took the same view, and a small minority in the British Mandelite organisation - but all the other organisations of "orthodox" Trotskyism came out for the Russians!
At first some of them proclaimed the wonder-arousing discovery that the Russian bureaucracy was "going to the aid of a revolution". That was the interpretation of the big section of the Mandelite Fourth International then grouped around the Socialist Workers' Party of the USA, which has since moved from kitsch-Trotskyism to kitsch-Stalinism.
The general fallback position, a few months later, after they had sobered up and realised that the USSR had embarked on its own Vietnam war, was that though they would not have advocated the Russian invasion, they could not now demand that the Russians withdraw, because that would help the counter-revolution in Afghanistan. This combined the joys of vicarious Stalinist realpolitik with revolutionary socialist virtue, by way of hypocrisy and incoherence.
Over the decade of the war, some of them abandoned that position; others - the Socialist Party is the most important example in Britain - supported Russia to the bitter end.
The SWP UK was at that time on a different trajectory. They did not adopt the bloc-politics approach until 1987, when they suddenly backed Iran against Iraq on the grounds that the US favoured Iraq. Whereas the "orthodox" Trotskyists rejected Third Camp politics because they thought of the Stalinist bloc as, in the last analysis, positively progressive, the SWP version of two-camp bloc politics today is entirely negative - against "imperialism", and for no matter who is fighting the USA, even if it is a more primitive and genocidal imperialism, like Serbia in the 1999 Balkans war.
By 2001, however, many of the orphaned "orthodox" Trotskyists, deprived by the collapse of Stalinism of what they had thought to be the actually-existing world revolution, embodied in the relatively-progressive USSR-centred pole of world politics, and having failed to learn from their experience, had collapsed into the same sort of "Yankophobia" as the SWP. There were some exceptions, at least partial ones. The LCR in France, and the Labour Party of Pakistan, said "No to [US] war, no to [Taliban/Al Qaeda] terrorism". But many of the same currents who in 1979-89 had sided with the USSR's attempted conquest of Afghanistan on the grounds that it was a lesser evil than the victory of the Islamist reactionaries, now sided with the Islamist ultras of the Taliban in a war with the USA which was not a war for Afghan rights against US conquest, but resistance to a bloody US "police action" in revenge and retaliation for Al Qaeda's massacre of civilians in the USA.
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