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Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of 1979-80
Only a Pawn in Their Game
First published in Socialist Review, February 1980.
Copied with thanks from Chris Harman’s Back Pages.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
This appeared as an editorial piece in Socialist Review in February 1980, under the title, Only a pawn in their game.
Our last issue carried a short editorial piece headlined. A New Cold War as a question. The question mark hardly seems appropriate now. after the further raising of US arms spending, the attempts to sabotage the Moscow Olympics. Carrington’s tour of the various dictators and slave owners who run the West Asian chunk of the “free world”. Carter’s insistence that the US must be ‘the most powerful nation on Earth’.
For this reason we make no apology for devoting a sizeable chunk of this issue to the new cold war. In factories and workplaces arguments over it have confronted socialists – arguments that have not always been easy to deal with. And so we also make no apology for summarising our main conclusions here.
- Afghanistan has not been the cause of the drive towards the new cold war. Henry Kissinger admitted that the country was ‘80 per cent’ under Russian influence long before the day in December when Amin was replaced by Karmal. The blast of propaganda in the West about a ‘Russian threat’ to Asia is not motivated by the coup in Kabul. but by a desire to justify a Western build up of arms that began well before that coup (see Andrew Milner’s article).
- The ‘revolutionaries’ whose governments have succeeded each other in Kabul were not put in power initially by the Russians. They were based on a section of the local middle class that sought to push the country along the road of national independence and capitalist or state capitalist ‘modernisation’, so that it could overcome its backwardness and be like any other country. They were ‘progressive’ in the sense, and only in that sense, as the regime of Nasser in Egypt or Boumidien in Algeria. Their goal meant uprooting age-old forms of oppression, but it also meant imposing new forms of domination and exploitation.
It is a general rule that the more backward (or devastated) a country, and the later the attempt to travel along the road of state capitalist ‘modernisation’ and economic independence the greater the barriers to success. For those who try it appears that only the crudest and bloodiest repressive measures can break through these. For the mass of people the resulting oppression can be as great as anything they suffered under the old order. Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia provides testimony to what this can mean in extreme instances.
In the modern world ‘progressive’ national development can bounce back from the barriers to its advance and even force society backwards.
That is why in Afghanistan the Taraki regime fell to the Amin regime, and why the Amin regime lost control of much of the country to the rebels. The efforts of the urban middle class to uproot the past had reached an impasse. The ‘progressive’ middle class could break eggs with increased repression, but it could not produce the omelettes which would, in its own terms, justify the viciousness of its measures.
- The rebel movements did not grow up, in the first place, as national liberation movements. They emerged when the Russian presence was still restricted to a relatively small number of ‘advisors’, in opposition to the nationalist, modernising zeal of the middle class in the towns. They were fighting to defend old localised forms of oppression and exploitation. They stood for the semi-feudal land system as against reform, for the traditional subjection of women as against moves to reduce the bride price, for petty local tribalisms as against the creation of a genuine national entity. It was these aims that gave their Islamic ideology its material content.
If comparisons have to be made, they should not be with liberation movements like those fighting against western imperialism in Africa or Latin America, or under attack from a Russian backed regime in Eritrea, but with the reactionary movements based among sections of the peasantry, that opposed the bourgeois revolutions of the West: the peasants of Western France who rose in the Vendée Royalist revolt against the French revolution; or the Carlists peasants of Northern Spain who fought under religious banners against the most minimal attempts to introduce liberal reforms into Spain in the civil wars of the 1830s. the 1870s and 1936. The fact that such movements gained genuine local support, even from the poorer peasants, does not make them into movements for national liberation
In the east of Afghanistan, the Western powers are seeking to utilise the rebels, not to liberate the country, but to replace Russian by Western domination. The character of the rebel movements will most likely make them easy meat for such manoeuvres.
- The Russian takeover will not break the impasse faced by the regime in Kabul. It will not, in any sense, take Afghanistan forward. In all likelihood it will turn against the regime much of the urban middle class as well as the Muslim tribesmen. It will encourage precisely the clinging to archaic religious beliefs and customs that can be witnessed among the Muslin peoples of the USSR itself (see the article by Victor Haynes). This is shown by the fact that Karmal has already retreated from some of the reforms imposed by his predecessors Taraki and Amin. The Russian presence cannot in any sense solve the problems of the Afghan people. It can only make them worse.
- The motives behind the Russian invasion have nothing to do with a desire to advance ‘progress’ in Afghanistan. Like the Americans in Vietnam in the mid-sixties, the Russians are out to prove that they can police their own sphere of influence. They were worried by the threats to the regime in Kabul because its downfall would have been a blow to their prestige and made it more difficult for them to control the Czechs, the Poles, the Hungarians, the national minorities inside Russia. One of the aims of the tank movements near the Kyber has been to remind workers in Prague and Budapest and Warsaw and Leningrad – of what happened in 1956 and 1968.
- Afghanistan will never begin to be able to escape from the morass of oppression and poverty until it is free from the attentions of all imperialist forces. The Russian troops are not going to solve its problems. Neither would the installation of a US-backed ‘rebel’ regime – it is worth remembering the hundreds of thousands who starved in the famine of the early 1970s, unnoticed by the Western media because there were no Russian tanks to blame.
Even if, by some miracle, the rival imperialisms were to leave Afghanistan alone, the problems facing its peoples would be all but insuperable. The physical resources just do not exist for either capitalism or ‘socialism’ in one country. They could only be provided by a revolutionary breakthrough on an international scale – whether beginning in Iran and the Arab states to the West, the Indian subcontinent to the South, the Russian state capitalist giant to the North, or for that matter, in the distant heartlands of Western imperialism.
- The future for the peoples of the whole world will be grim if, on each side, they allow themselves to be enveigled into supporting their own ruling class and the bloc to which they belong against rival ruling classes belonging to the other bloc.
We have to do our utmost to resist the pressures in this direction, which means standing up against the attempts to create popular enthusiasm for the new cold war in the country in which we find ourselves.
If we were in Russia, that would mean vigorously arguing against the takeover of Afghanistan and welcoming every defeat of the army of occupation. But we are in Britain, where the slogan ‘Russians out of Afghanistan’ is being used to justify in¬creased arms spending, the movement of the US Fleet to the Gulf, the British base in Diego Garcia, the British officers in Oman, the supply of guns to the hangman in Pakistan. We have to oppose these move-and the ideology behind them.
We have to insist: All imperialist hands-off Asia; No arms for the hangman who rules Pakistan or the slave owners who rule the Gulf states; End the American threat to Iran: the US Fleet out of the Gulf: British mercenary officers out of Oman; the Russians out of Afghanistan.
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