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International Socialism, Spring 1981


Jonathan Neale

The Afghan Tragedy


From International Socialism, 2:12, Spring 1981.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


All the paraphernalia of modern war has descended upon Afghanistan: the napalm, the tanks, the night-time executions, the refugee camps slowly turning into tent cities. On the one side the prophets of helicopter gunship socialism talk of “progress” while their Russian masters bomb the peasantry and shoot down the students. On the other side an outraged people fights bravely under the banner of religious bigotry and the leadership of blatant careerists. It seems that neither side can win the war.

It is a time for mourning, not for slogans. But it is also a time for analysis. It may seem silly to produce analyses from within a tiny left wing party thousands of miles away from the fighting. It may seem almost obscene to comment upon Afghanistan from the comfort of legal activity in the British trade union movement. But this article is directed towards arguments on the international left about Afghanistan. Strange as it may seem, these arguments matter. The reason is this: the Afghan left got it wrong. And they got it wrong because the polities available to them were crippled. This was true of the students in Afghanistan, evading the censor to buy bad Persian translations of Lenin and Mao. It was also true of the future Presidents of Afghanistan, Amin and Taraki, as they worked for Masters degrees in New York. There simply was no clear political understanding available to those moving towards revolution. There was only the heritage of Stalinism and defeat, in all its many forms. That is why we should look at what happened in Afghanistan: so that such things do not happen again.

On the international left there have been, broadly, three responses to the Afghan revolution of 1978 and the Russian invasion. The first is to welcome the Russian invasion because the Soviet Union is a progressive force which must be defended against international imperialism. I feel sufficient contempt for this argument to ignore it from there on. The second response has been best articulated by Halliday. [1] He deplores the mistakes and excesses of the Afghan revolutionaries, but argues that it is difficult to see how either the Afghan left or the Russians could have acted differently. Here I will argue that there was an alternative, and that the mistakes and excesses in fact grew with a grim logic from mistaken polities. The third response is typified by Chaliand [2], who writes of the Afghan rebels as if they were nationalists whose struggles against imperialism would be likely to move them in progressive directions. Here I argue they are not progressive; they are Muslims and largely right wing.

But this article is not intended as a polemic with the rest of the left. There will be time enough for us to hunt each other through the correspondence columns of left journals, armed with sectarian rhetoric and quotations from Lenin. What I do here is to develop a Marxist analysis of the roots and forms of the Afghan tragedy. I deal first with the values of the peasantry and their historical traditions. Then I move on to the class roots of the Afghan left, the causes of their coup and the consequences of the Russian invasion. Finally I turn to the question of what we can learn from their tragedy and what attitude we take towards the rebels. My intention is not to lay down a line: it is to show what we can learn.

Afghan Society

Afghanistan is a land-locked country of between fifteen and twenty million people. (All statistics on Afghanistan are very approximate.) Perhaps two million people live in towns and cities, a million and a half are nomads, and the rest are villagers. The working class is tiny; somewhere in the order of 30,000 people. The country has almost no industry, little trade and few handicrafts. The main exports are lamb skins, raisins and opium and hashish. The people have always had to make their living from a barren land of desert and rocky mountain slopes. Hardly anywhere is there enough rainfall to support agriculture.

In a few parts of the lowland plains the peasants can take irrigation water from the larger rivers. In the mountain valleys they tap seasonal streams, and at the foot of the hills they can dig a chain of wells. All these methods of irrigation require enormous investments of labour. In all, only about two per cent of the land of Afghanistan is farmed. Rather more is used for herding sheep and camels. But the pastures can only be used at certain seasons, and there is never enough grazing to go round.

The people of Afghanistan differ greatly from each other. In the south and east the dominant group is the Pushtuns. They speak an Iranian language. The kings have always been Pushtuns, and so have the three Presidents of communist Afghanistan. The army and police are dominated by Pushtuns. In fact, “Afghanistan” is just a Persian word meaning “land of the Pushtuns”.

In the central mountains live the Hazaras, Persian speakers of Mongol descent. In the north live various Turkic peoples: Uzbeks, Turkomans, Kirghiz. In the west and around Kabul live the Tajiks, Persian speaking peasants. All of these people differ in language, in customs, in appearance, in history. But all are Muslims and all have in common a want of land, of pasture and of water.

Most peasants work the land as sharecroppers. In the less fertile areas the landlord takes two thirds of the crop, in the fertile plains four fifths. In either case, the sharecropper is left with just enough grain to feed his family and no more. [3]

The nomadic herders usually employ shepherds under a similar arrangement, with the shepherd taking two or three in twenty of the year’s lambs. Some people work on government farms, some work for wages in the harvest, and some go to the City to work as porters or building labourers. But none of these earns much more than a sharecropper. Nor do the groups of small-holders in the highest valleys who own a bit of marginal land and run a few sheep.

Most of the best irrigated land is owned by a few big landlords, some hundreds of men and their families (sometimes called khans). [4] They can own most or all of a village. More usually, they own land in several villages. They are the local power. They may live in forts and they usually employ retainers armed with Czech rifles. They hold their land ultimately by force. Their own fathers often obtained it by force too. Effective central government control has been rare.

If the capital could extract taxes and occasionally send in troops, that passed for control. Some areas have never admitted government representatives, and in almost all areas real power has lain with the local lords.

Between lords and sharecroppers stand the small peasants. These men may hire one sharecropper or farm the land themselves with the help of their sons. They may also run a small shop on the side or have a son in government service. They are more numerous than the landlords, but they own less of the land. Like the sharecropper, they hate the landlords.

Afghanistan varies greatly, but everywhere these are the three main classes: the lords, the small farmers, the poor. In the river basins of the plains the lords are most powerful; in the highest mountain valleys there are the most small farmers and the fewest lords and sharecroppers. Among the nomads small herders are common, but there are still rich and powerful nomad lords.

Although the different ethnic groups share their poverty, this very poverty drives them apart. For the country is not usually divided into, say, exclusively Hazara areas and exclusively Pushtun areas. Rather, it is a patchwork quilt of different ethnic groups and tribes, each fighting the other for land and water.

For example, in the Hazarajat of the central mountains the high valleys are the home of the Shia Hazara, and the highest valleys the home of the Ismaili Hazaras. The broader plain of Bamian is the home of the Tajiks, Persian speaking Sunnis who have displaced or swallowed up the Hazaras. And the higher pastures are used in summer by Pushtun nomads whose ancestors helped the government conquer this area a century ago. Each group hates and scorns the others, each has fought the other for land. [5]

Again, in one valley in the east of the country the people of the upper valley are Pashai hillmen, speakers of a minor Iranian language. The lower valley has been gradually colonized by the Safi tribe of Pushtuns since the government opened up the area for them a century ago. The Pashai say of the Safi, behind their backs, that they are all thieves. The Safi say the Pashai are wild little men with axes, like animals. Yet forty years ago the government conquered the Safis, and then the Pashai fought alongside the Safis. They said it was a war of the people against the government. The neighbouring Pushtun tribes, Mohmand and Shinwar, fought for the government as irregulars. They had long had quarrels with the Safi, and they called it the “Safi war”. [6]

I could give many more such examples [7] for each valley differs in its people and its history. But all have complex patterns of tribal and ethnic rivalry over land and water. For though Afghans may be poor, their poverty has traditionally led them to combine under the leadership of their lords to fight as tribes and peoples.

The poor are bitter, they hate their lords. But they are rarely class-conscious. And even the poor man often has a stake in the System: his wife and daughters. [8] Women are bitterly oppressed. Up before the men and in bed afterwards, they work almost without stopping. At least the men try to make them work that hard, and may beat them if they slack. A man has the right to beat his wife and daughters, although he ought only to do it for just cause. Yet while some men beat out of jealousy or to punish laziness, other men beat out of anger or neurosis. Women who have affairs before marriage or outside marriage can legally be killed by their husbands or fathers. Of course, most wayward women are not killed: but some are. Divorce is theoretically possible but very rare indeed: marriage is usually for life. And a woman has no say in whom she marries. She is usually sold to the groom’s family for a substantial brideprice, which varies from one to ten years wages for a working man.

The wives and daughters of the rich and the middling city folk are secluded all their lives. Servants or husbands do all the shopping, carry in the water, and even buy the cloth for making the women’s clothes. Poorer folk and nomads need the labour of their women in the fields and with the herds, and so cannot practice total seclusion. But all women are expected to practice modesty and most to veil themselves in front of strangers.

This is oppression. The women are not liberationists, they are Afghan Muslims. But they know they are oppressed. They hate wife-beating, cover up each others affairs, and take lovers despite the ever present fear of a father’s knife across their throats.

Afghan Islam supports every jot and tittle of this. “What is Islam?”, I asked poor nomads, and they said it meant, “This is my wife and this is my camel, and you must not steal them.” Women are forbidden in the mosques, and in the fifties mullahs in Kabul threw acid at the legs of girls who walked unveiled. Islam means the modesty of women and the rights of men. Such Islam appeals to poor men.

For a poor man does not just have to cope with low wages and small shares and barely enough grain to feed his family; not just with weeds to provide relish for his bread and with watching his son die of TB because he cannot afford the medicine; not just with the arrogance of the lords and the casual violence of the police; the poor man also copes daily with shame and the threat of loneliness.

Loneliness because a poor man may have no family. Brideprice can make marriage impossible or delay it into middle age. And, once a poor man marries, the ravages of infant mortality may take away all a man’s children. A rich man without children marries again; a poor old man is desperate.

He may be cast off by his kin, no longer able to earn his own living, perhaps driven to begging. At best he becomes a humiliated hanger-on in somebody else’s home. And a childless man is also lonely.

For all over the country the competition for land is fierce. And disputes over land particularly divide kin against kin, neighbour against neighbour. For it is they who quarrel over inheritance or steal neighbouring fields. The point was summed up for me by a Shinwar, who told me how he and his cousin depended on the water from one spring. It irrigated sufficient land to feed one family, but not two. They had taken the case to court, but the judges had spun It out over years to extract more bribes from the litigants. If they got a judgement within a year they would abide by it. If not, one would quite simply have to kill the other.

This, in extremity, is the position of many. There are no fast friends, no real love, outside the family. All others are distrusted, potential enemies. Your neighbour and kin hunger after your land or your share-cropping contract, or they may just envy you your one good goat. Strangers and members of other ethnic groups are thieves. It is only within your own walls that there is trust, safety, love.

And it is with sons above all that men find love. Daughters marry away, and marriage is a strained and often hostile relationship. [9] Yet men can only have sons if they can get, and keep, a wife. This is constantly under threat.

To use the Afghan phrase, the poor eat shame. It is no shame to be poor: but it is shameful to be unable to feed your guests because you are poor. And it is shameful to have to bow to the power of the government clerks and landlords because that is the only way to feed your family. And it is shameful to ask for the loan of a bag of grain from the neighbours and be refused. It is no shame to be poor, but the poor eat shame.

And the poor man eats shame over his inability to control his women.

While the society as a whole enforces a strict code, the power of any man over his own women is a chancy thing. Because each man’s hand is against the other, men often have affairs with other men’s wives and daughters. It is wrong: it is also daring, romantic, exciting and a poke in the eye for the other man. Women pursue these affairs for the same reasons, and because it is a poke in the eye for their husbands.

A poor man may be unable to do anything about this. A rich man can kill the lover and his wife and marry again. A poor man will have no fort in which to hide from a revenge killing. He will have to risk his life in the course of his daily work, and will be unable to afford another wife. So poor men usually demand compensation, or tolerate the affair and pretend to be ignorant of it, or marry off their daughters quickly. Whatever they do, they sit and seethe and eat shame.

And daily life brings as much shame as adultery. The standards of modesty are set by the rich.

Poor men need the labour of their wives and daughters in the fields and with the animals. Rich men live in large houses and seclude their women within compound walls. The poor live in tents and one room houses. For the poor it is shameful not to seclude their women, but necessary.

And if women are not secluded, shame multiplies. There are infinite opportunities for flirting at the well, or for rumours that a woman was flirting at the well. There are opportunities for the landlord’s son to look boldly at peasant girls as they work in the fields, opportunities for lewd remarks on city streets.

But though a poor man cannot help but eat shame over his women, he still supports the rules of modesty. For it is these very rules that ensure the general dominance of men over women, of himself over his wife. The poor man thinks that without the rules of modesty and the threat of killing, his wife would run away with somebody else and his daughters marry without brideprice. He is right too. And his fear makes it impossible for him to see the other side of such a change. So he supports the whole ideology of shame; an ideology which hangs round his neck hike a stone and continuously drags his head down, rubbing his face in the mud.

Since the poor man can see no way out, his shame just adds virulence to his support for the rules of modesty. For if only all women were modest, if only all could be secluded, if only other men observed the deceneies ... then the poor man would not have his shame to bear.

And Afghan Islam promises exactly this. When the mullahs preach against the unveiling of women in Kabul they might seem irrelevant to the poor villager, whose wife walks unveiled. But what the mullahs and the villagers both feel is that all women should be secluded. Women are forbidden to go to the mosques, but a good Muslim woman prays at home and conducts herself with chastity and modesty.

There is an equality in Islam too. All men pray together as equals in the mosque and all stand equal before God after death. Pushtun may hate Tajik and Tajik hate Turk, but at the Friday mosque in the Kabul bazaar they pray side by side. And while gossip may congratulate a wife-stealer, Islam condemns. In pure Islam, they say, it is not the task of the cuckold to kill wife and lover: it is the task of the community as a whole to stone them both, be they rich or poor.

Afghans, of course, do not actually stone adulterers. But it is the sentiment that counts here. For there is a fury in Afghan Islam. A fury that stares out of the eyes of a Kandahar mullah looking at half-naked tourists. A fury that is seen in the mountains around Jalallabad where a man can be shot out of hand if he is discovered breaking the fast. A fury that is reinforced by that same fast, during which for a month every year nobody eats or drinks or smokes in daylight hours; no matter what their work, no matter what the heat. It is a religion of denial in a land which already denies men its fruits, and that is a fierce thing. But the root of the fury is in the narrow heart of the poor man, the tears standing in his eyes as a government clerk insults him, his helpless jealousy over his wife. The fury comes out of the shame for which there is no relief. For Islam propounds an ideal but in practice offers only ever more stringent and shaming rules. Afghan Islam expresses the fury of the poor, but it cannot appease that fury. It offers no emotional release for a hard pressed people but one: holy war.

Afghan history

And Afghanistan has a long tradition of holy wars. Over the last two centuries this tradition has served to link resistance to imperialism with domestic reaction. To show how this came about, we will now have to look at Afghan history in a bit of detail.

The modern kingdom of Afghanistan was founded in 1747. In that year the Durrani Pushtun lords of the south elected the adventurer Ahmed Shah as their king. He controlled Kandahar, Herat and Kabul. The Durrani lords followed the king and provided him with troops in return for gifts of hand and money. The lords were effectively independent in their home areas. Ahmed Shah kept their allegiance by paying them out of the fruits of his conquests of the fertile plains of Peshawar and Sindh and the lush valley of Kashmir. These areas, in what is now Pakistan and India, provided a surplus which could maintain the Afghan state.

Every king after Ahmed Shah had need of such a surplus. For each had to feed, arm and pay an army. Without the army or the khans there would be no state. And without the money, no arms, no army and no khans. The king could never raise sufficient revenue within Afghanistan, for that would be to attack the khans. So customs dues and revenues from the plain supported the state. [10]

But customs revenues slowly declined with the fall in overland trade. And a series of dynastic wars tore the empire apart. The rising power of the Sikhs in the Punjab took away Kashmir and Peshawar, and the Amirs of Sindh declared independence. So even when the Amir Dost Mohammed emerged as sole ruler of Kabul and Kandahar, he was unable to govern the country effectively. Without Peshawar at the very least he could not get sufficient surplus to hold the country. He asked the British in India for help in retaking Peshawar. The British, frightened of the Sikhs, refused. Dost Mohammed turned to the Russians and the British panicked. [11]

In 1838 they invaded Afghanistan. They installed a former king as their puppet. Most of the khans, and particularly the Durrani khans, were hostile to the Amir Dost Mohammed. For in the absence of foreign revenues he had been cutting back their subsidies and raising their taxes. When the British handed out bags of gold to all the important Afghan khans, Opposition evaporated. The Amir’s army deserted; the invasion was a walk-over.

Afghan nationalism did not exist at that time. And although a few mullahs managed to raise small groups for a holy war, they numbered in the dozens and were easily defeated. And the Amir Dost Mohammed himself was unsuccessful in his attempt to recruit the khans for a holy war.

The Afghans were not automatically opposed to the British. But they soon became so. For the East India Company now realized that in order to hold Afghanistan they would have to pay out more in subsidies than they collected in revenue. So they cut back the payments to the border tribes and the khans. The border tribes closed the passes, the khans turned away from the British. And rumours began to spread that the British were planning to withdraw because of the expense, and the rumours were correct. So it seemed time to change sides. [12]

More importantly, the British had brought a large army and many camp followers to Kabul and Kandahar. They ate up much of the country’s sparse surplus of grain, and the price of bread climbed to double or more the usual. This benefited the khans, but it drove the urban poor to desperation and hatred for the British. [13]

The khans plotted, the border tribes harried, the urban mob rioted. And the resistance began to coalesce into a holy war. For the lords were discredited and the tribes and nations traditionally at loggerheads. Islam was the only banner that could unite them. They smashed the British, wiping out all but a few of the 20,000 man army which began its retreat from Kabul. The British returned briefly to sack and bot and rape and burn (“teaching the Afghans a lesson”). But they couldn’t hold the country. They withdrew, and Dost Mohammed was restored to his throne.

This time he had the benefit of a substantial British subsidy, which enabled him and his son after him to hold the state together. The Islamic resistance disbanded after the British left, but a memory was left behind. And a tradition of popular Muslim resistance had begun. For though the Afghans had not fought the British automatically and had turned against them for largely economic reasons, they had fought them as infidels.

This tradition was revived when the British returned in 1878. Again they claimed they were frightened of the Russians, and sent an ambassador with an escort of 300 soldiers. The Afghans did not immediately attack them. For the kingdom was in bad shape financially, and the Afghan army had not been paid for months. The rumour spread that the British would pay the army. Some of the troops marched all the way from Herat at the other end of the country and presented themselves at the gates of the British embassy for their pay. They were refused, and the unarmed troops returned to their barracks to collect their guns. They wiped out the 300 soldiers, and so began the Second Afghan War.

The British invaded with force and considerable brutality. But at the decisive battle of Naiwand near Kandahar, they were defeated, and withdrew again. But the country was not unchanged. They left behind them a new king on the throne, Abdur Rahman. He was no British puppet, and personally disliked the English. But negotiation with the British had secured him the throne, and they gave him a generous subsidy for the next twenty years until his death.

In most years this subsidy amounted to one fourth of the state’s budget. And just as important, the British gave Abdur Rahman the sole right to import repeater rifles and ammunition through India. The repeater bad already inaugurated modern war at Gettysburg and Sebastopol; it now enabled the Amir to defeat any internal opposition from tribesmen with one-shot muskets.

And the Amir had the money to pay his army without having to rely on the khans. With money and repeaters, he was able to conquer most of what is now Afghanistan in the space of twenty years: Turkestan in the north, the Ghilzai, in the south-east, Kunar and Nuristan in the east, Herat in the west, the Hazarajat in the centre. But while he was able to bring these areas under his control, he was not powerful enough to really break the power of the local khans and lords. He ruled, perforce, through those of them who could be forced to come to terms with him. [14] So while he built a state, the economic and social life of the country did not change all that much.

Abdur Rahman’s state was very repressive. The British liked to call him the “Iron Amir” and say that it took a strong ruler to control such an unruly people. What this meant in practice was a network of spies that the king’s minister was proud to say outnumbered even those of Tsarist Russia. [15] It also meant that robbers were hung in cages at the tops of cold mountain passes until they starved to death and that prisoners had to pay rent for their accommodation. Torture was widespread, and in the prison at Kabul there was a well into which Abdur Rahman threw his particular enemies. No man was taken out of the well upon his death, and the more recent prisoners sat with the rats among the bones of the long serving prisoners and the rotting corpses of the medium term inmates.

The Amir had need of such terror, for his state was weak. He lacked the support of any important section of society, though most came to think it politic to acquiesce. Yet many of them, particularly the non-Pushtuns, came to hate him as a despot and the state as a conqueror. And though he was no puppet, it did not escape the notice of his people that he would have been unable to build his state without British guns and British money. Some began, consciously and unconsciously, to link the tradition of resistance to the infidel with their growing hatred for the Afghan state. All this carne to flower in the reign of Amanullah, the grandson of Abdur Rahman.

Abdur Rahman died in 1901, and his son Habibullah continued to receive the British subsidy. But in 1919 Habibullah was murdered and his third son, Arnanullah, took the throne. He very soon led the country into war with British India. The British were exhausted by the First World War and losing their grip on India itself. They capitulated within days and Afghanistan won its “independence” in foreign affairs.

But the British withdrew their subsidy, and the rest of Amanullah’s reign was a slow lurching disintegration. For without the subsidy Amanullah had to contend again with the old problem of Afghan kings: how to placate the khans and pay the troops. He did the obvious thing and raised taxes, which succeeded in uniting most of the peasantry and the lords against him. In 1924 he put down a serious rebellion in Khost in the south-east of the country. But the writing was on the wall, and his leading general, Nadir Khan, retired to bide his time in the south of France.

Amanullah pulled back for a while, but in the long term be bad no choice but to break the khans. Moreover, be was determined to modernize the country as Ataturk was doing in Turkey. In 1928 he proposed many reforms, including increased education, the unveiling of women, a consultative parliament, western dress for men, and so on. Few of these reforms were carried out and most were of only symbolic importance. But their symbolic importance showed considerable contempt for rural Afghan values, and some of the reforms were going to cost the taxpayer a lot of money. [16]

The attempt to abolish the veil in Kabul was what finally sparked off a revolt. Amanullah said to the villagers that unveiling should not matter to them. After all, their own women walked around unveiled. He was right, of course, but he missed the syrnbolic point. His reforms would begin a process which carried to its conclusion would lead to the emancipation of women from the power of men. And even in his first small steps he was allying the power of the state to the threatening ways of the west.

Moreover, in Afghanistan opposition to the unveiling of women has come to stand in an almost metaphorical way for opposition to the oppression of the state. For in Afghanistan the measure of the power of one ethnic group is its ability to take in marriage the daughter of another group. Throughout the country ethnic groups face each other in rivalries over band and water, with a history of battle and conquest, a difference of language and custom. The dominant group refuses to marry its women to the subordinate, and the subordinate group often asserts its dignity by refusing to give its daughters in turn. [17]

On the personal level the same process applies. Women marry their equals or their superiors. So a man is ashamed in front of his sister’s husband. In this puritan and male chauvinist culture, to have sex with a woman is to triumph over her menfolk.

And behind the hierarchy of marriage there is the threat of adultery and the memory of rape. Of the rich government official who takes the daughter of a poor man. Of the Amir Abdur Rahman who had girls of every conquered people brought to his harem. Of Alexander Burnes, the British political agent in 1838, who seduced so many daughters of great lords and was the first to die in the riots. Of the British army, who burned and raped to “teach the Afghans a lesson”.

Puritanical Islam served to link this defensive sexism to the tradition of resistanee, and the mullahs led the rebellion against Amanullah in 1928. They were particularly threatened by the reforms, of course, which challenged not only their hold on the minds of the villagers but also their monopoly of education. And at the same time the state was looking ever more vulnerable, for as the people started resisting tax collectors Arnanullah started to get behind on the army’s wages.

The people rose as the government disintegrated. Bach-e-Saqao, “the son of the water carrier”, a worker from Kabul, was then a bandit in the hills around Kabul. He and his men made a run for the capital, left undefended by the unpaid troops. He bad himself declared King Habibullah, and the old king fled in his Rolls-Royce.

The new amir promptly discovered he had the same revenue problems as the old amir. Only more so, for the country was in a ferment and Habibullah controlled little outside Kabul. Moreover, in many ways the revolt bad been about not paying taxes.

But Habibullah still had to pay his troops. He used his experience as a bandit and turned to torturing rich merchants until they revealed where their secret lordes of gold were buried. This worked in the short run. But within months trade with Kabul understandably dried up, and customs duties with them. Habibullah ran out of merchants to torture. As trade died, the city started to die, and the new amir’s rule to crumble.

Enter General Nadir Khan, who raised the frontier tribes with British gold and British guns. [18] As the amir’s army deserted, Nadir and his men raced for Kabul. Nadir was declared king. Habibullah was hanged, and the British re-instituted their subsidy of guns and money. Nadir began to pull together a chaotic nation.

Afghan tradition

Let us pause, now, to summarize our arguments about Afghan history. This history must, in large part, be seen as the creation of imperialism. For the British drew Afghanistan’s borders so that they excluded any good and fertile land. They created a poor state, and by giving their clients subsidies enabled them to shape that state. But since they never gave too large an allowance, the king was never able to build a state machine or an army capable of breaking the power of the lords. Yet this was the crying need of the state. Moreover, breaking the khans was necessary to open the way for development. But the lords survived, and by 1930 Afghanistan was almost unique: a country in which there had been little important economic or social change in the previous 150 years.

But a tradition of popular resistance to imperialism had been built under the banner of Islam. Forged in need and want, this tradition had served the people again in resisting their own state. Under Amanullah, Afghan anarchism had joined bands with anti-imperialism and sexism.

This was the two sided heritage of Afghan history. On the one side, an underdeveloped feudal system was crying out for change. On the other side, a popular politics which was hostile to that system but fatally connected with a living, and reactionary faith.

Nadir Khan himself did not survive long; in 1933 a schoolboy shot him dead when he was giving out prizes at a school sports day. But Nadir’s son, Zahir, became king and ruled until 1973. For most of his reign day to day power lay with prime ministers from the royal family. The family as a whole decided any major changes in policy and changed the prime minister when necessary. Some prime ministers were pro-western, one was pro-Russian. All were feudal.

In the early years the government received a British subsidy. [19] But the Cold War released a flood of foreign aid which turned Afghanistan into an “economic Korea”. [20] During the fifties and sixties the country had one of the highest rates of aid per head of any in the world. The government remained neutral, emphasized the country’s strategic position, and raked in the cash from both sides. This aid represented about 80% of the development budget and perhaps half the whole budget. And military aid supported an army of 150,000 conscripts and a modern tank corps and air force. The planes were MIGs, the pilots were often trained in Texas.

For once, the state’s perennial financial problem was solved. And more than solved, for the state was able to go on the offensive. They used their planes and army to bomb and shoot the people in a whole series of little local wars.

The shift in power to the state was decisive. The feudal lords were largely deprived of military power and political independence. But the local people were also deprived of power and independence. And the central government usually acted to build up the power of one local lord, where previously there had been competing khans.

For instance, in the Valley of the Kunar described earlier – the government first effectively conquered the area after the Second World War. Soon thereafter the largest local landowner claimed control of the water from the river flowing down the middle of the valley. This water had always been controlled by a council of local villagers. In earlier times they would have simply wiped out the lord for his temerity. Now they had to take the case to law in Kabul, and the lord had sufficient influence and paid sufficient bribes there to win the case. After that he was far richer and more powerful than anybody else in the Valley. He not only got a third of a million afghanis for the water every year but also controlled the access of all farmers in his villages to water for their crops. He therefore controlled their lives. [21]

This is only one example, but the same sort of process went on all over the country. [22] The state favoured such lords in small things and large. The teacher who failed the lord’s son was transferred; the courts backed up the lord who seized a poor man’s land. At the national level the parliaments of the fifties and sixties were dominated by local lords and their men. Afghanistan in 1973 was a feudal state: one where real political power lay with landlords who lived in forts in the countryside.

Such feudal power crippled economic development. Afghanistan had the problems of most poor countries, and one aid mission after another catalogued them. [23] The state invested little of its own money in industrial development. Private industry had great problems. The state was hostile to the bazaar merchants who tried to develop a private bank and associated industries. Investment was tricky, for the courts were so corrupt and the law so backward that any successful enterprise was liable to takeover by a government minister or the royal family. The elite scorned skill, the civil service was ignorant and inefficient.

There was also no attempt of any size by the government to develop agriculture, outside of three showy foreign aid projects. For the central problem was that the state and the royal family were hostile to economic and social change as such. [24] They liked taking money and they liked handing it out. But they bad not the slightest intention of creating either a rural kulak class or an urban working class. Their power rested on the rural lords, and change could only hurt those lords. Instead, they invested the money in the army, education, and a state bureaucracy. And thus created an educated middle class, which was to be their undoing.

The development of a modern army required a trained officer class to man the planes and tanks. Many of them had to be trained abroad. And the state opened secondary schools all round the country. There was initial resistance led by the mullahs, but as the peasants saw that education led to a secure government job, they sent their sons to school. The aid programmes created these government jobs: tens of thousands of them, for teachers and clerks to sit around in offices and do nothing. The colloquial expression for these jobs was “flying paper airplanes”.

In a more developed economy these officers, teachers and clerks would have been drawn from the children of landlords and traders. But in Afghanistan these classes were so small and growth was so rapid that school students came largely from the ranks of small farmers in the countryside. Not sharecroppers, but the men who farmed the land themselves and might hire one sharecropper as well. Free education made it possible for these men to send their sons to school.

These boys were often the first in their family or even their village to go to school. They came to look at the ways of their fathers with scorn or embarrassment. But they carried with them to the city their fathers hatred for the state, the royal family, and the local lords. And as they became educated, they added frustrations of their own to these inherited hatreds.

For it was they, above all, who felt the constraints of the country’s failure to develop. They were badly paid, by Asian standards. They earned less, in many cases, than their fathers and far less then the lords. And their jobs were meaningless and frustrating. They were supposed to spread learning or development; they faced a state committed to ignorance and stagnation. They were disgusted by the corruption they felt driven to themselves. And since as a class they were dependent upon the very state they bated, they chafed at the restrictions the state put on its own growth.

In the sixties the international student movement of that time came to Afghanistan. [25] Within Afghanistan itself that movement represented the state petty bourgeoisie growing into a consciousness of itself as a class. For with expanding education the students formed a large portion of that class, they were less afraid of losing their jobs than civil servants, and they had diminishing prospects of a job themselves.

The students were mostly democratic and anti-feudal in their politics. In the Shewa valley, in the east of the country, for instance, there were over a thousand students in two secondary schools. During two years in the early seventies they demonstrated against the government’s failure to provide them with any textbooks, against an incompetent teacher, against the headmaster, against government graft which had eaten up the money destined for a food for work program in the area. And they went in a crowd of 200 boys to rough up the local doctor who bad been charging for the medicines which the government provided free. Their fathers told them not to demonstrate, the government would become angry; but they said they were in the right and had to fight. And they often won. They succeeded in transferring the headmaster and an incompetent teacher, but not in getting more textbooks.

It was in Kabul, though, with the country’s university, that the students were most concentrated. There they demonstrated over national political issues. In 1967, for instance, they demonstrated against censorship and for real democracy. One student and one worker were killed by the police. The students at the girls secondary school also demonstrated against the government in 1972, and were beaten up by the police. The girl students also led the fight for women’s emancipation: not contraception and abortion and such, but simply against the veil.

But even as the students became active, the Americans made great cuts in their aid program, in the late sixties and early seventies. The American cut threatened the stability of the state, which could only make up the cuts by taxing the population. This was impossible: the parliament of local lords had already abolished the tax on livestock and would not tolerate new taxes. Nor did the government dare to reduce the clerks or the army, lest they turn on the government. So they played both ends against the middle, holding down the wages of the bureaucracy and creating few new jobs for the school leavers. And the collapse of aid affected a lot of jobs in trade and construction as well.

The Russians now dominated in aid even without increasing it. The result was to augment the political weight of those sections of the army and the royal family that leaned towards the Russians. This meant the king’s cousin and brother-in-law, Mohammed Daoud. Daoud bad been prime minister during the fifties, and bad gained a reputation for favouring state enterprise over private, for virulent nationalism, for leaning towards the Russians, and for heavy repression. In his time many opponents of the government had been taken from their homes and shot at night, and sometimes their sons and brothers died with them. In the words of a left-wing teacher in 1972, “Under Daoud we had repression. Now we have democracy: they only put out your eyes.”

The pendulum was swinging back towards Daoud. Things were brought to a head as a result of the famine of 1972–3. The rains failed two years running. Foreign aid grain came flooding in, but corrupt government officers conspired with the merchants to prevent it reaching the people. In the north and centre of the country very large numbers of people died, and disgust with the royal regime became general.

With the government in financial and moral collapse, Daoud was able to lead a military coup in 1973. [26] The coup brought no great changes: Daoud was a member of the royal family, and the king and his closest relatives got away safety with much of their wealth. But the “Islamic socialism” proclaimed by the coup did mean two things: a swing to domestic repression and a swing to voting with Russia at the UN. This represented the only hope for the old system. For they wanted increased aid from the Russians and a reign of terror at home to hold off any challenge to an increasingly weak state.

This was a frail hope. Daoud’s coup had been easy, for nobody bore much love for the king. But they bore little more love for Daoud. Within a year rumours of new coups were everywhere. The Russians did not increase their aid, and repression just drove the opposition underground. Daoud was doomed by the same forces that doomed the king’s order. In April 1978, the blow fell with a communist coup.

Afghan “Communism” and the PDPA

The Afghan “Communists” had grown out of the student movement and the state petty bourgeoisie. Most students began as republicans and parliamentary reformists. But as the movement grew it became clear to them that there was little possibility of reform. The government was repressive and reactionary, and there was no basis for a “social democratic” movement in the country. There was no class of any size which bad much interest in bargaining with the ruling class. The ruling class had to be overthrown by revolution.

There was cause enough for a revolution. The poverty, the corruption, the brutality, the arrogant local tyrannies of the khans, the very present secret police, the beatings, the torture, the starvation, the strafing of the people, the degraded lives of the women, the oppression of the nationalities, the low wages and appalling conditions of the workers: all cried out for revolution. And the students were not just representatives of a rising class. They were idealists, political men and women, the best of their generation. So they turned to “Communism”. They went out into the countryside they came from to organize the peasants against the khans and the government.

There were at this point three factions among them. The smallest and most left wing were the Maoists. They were particularly strong among the students and among the non-Pushtun groups of the north, for they stood clearly against Pushtun domination. They stood as clearly against Russia, and when the Russian-leaning Daoud came to power in 1973 they promptly went underground. They have been there ever since, with one short period of legality. They are now fighting the Russians.

The two larger groups were the Banner group and the People group. [27] Each group took its name from left wing newspapers published legally for a brief period in the 60s. The differences between the two groups were at first largely personal and factional rather than political. Both groups looked to Moscow for their image of what a socialist Afghanistan would be like. But as time wore on they developed distinct lines, and the People group carne to include much more radical elements than the Banner.

In the sixties and early seventies the Banner and People groups were not tightly disciplined parties. They were more circles of people; newspapers and leaders around whom many people gathered. And most of the left wing students who went into the countryside were not members or followers of any group. Rather, they acted as members of a larger left. And they initially bad considerable success.

They were brave. In Lashkargah, near Kandahar, for instance, the school students went on strike in 1971 and demonstrated in the streets. [28] Schoolboy orators stood on upturned boxes in the street and called for death to the khans. This was not an abstract slogan; they meant certain specific men in the area they had grown up in, certain men who held all the political power. The peasants watched the schoolboys, drawn to them but frightened to ally with them publicly. Across the country in Shewa the fathers of the schoolboys were frightened of the consequences of their sons’ militancy, but in private many were thrilled. A poor labourer told me with delight how the students had roughed up the local doctor.

But in the end the left was unsuccessful. The right, led by the mullahs, mobilized against them and said that they were not Muslims. In Kabul itself left wing students fought pitched battles with right wing students from the theology faculty. For instance, a left wing student tried to buy bread during the day time in the month of the Ramadan fast. He claimed that he was saving it to eat at sundown, when everybody broke their fast. The right claimed he was lying and beat him up. He went back to his lodgings, roused the left, and began street fighting which raged over twelve hours in Kabul’s main bazaar. Again, a fight developed in a university philosophy class over whether in the time of Moses and David it was permitted to drink alcohol, and only in the time of Mohammed was it forbidden (the left position); or whether it had always been forbidden to drink alcohol (the right position). Four left wing students and one right winger were killed in the ensuing fighting with guns and sticks. In the secondary schools of Kabul similar issues were fought out with axes.

These may seem like minor points of doctrine, and in a way they were. But what was at issue here was something very serious: the power of Islam. Many of the left wing students were believers: a few, privately, were sceptical. But all advocated publicity an interpretation of Islam which threatened the mullahs. More seriously, it threatened the values which most Afghan peasants lived by. When the left went to the villages, they faced an Islam born of poverty and shame, hardened in great holy wars against the infidel and small local wars against the government. The left knew the ideology they faced. They had heard it in their villages and from their own fathers; it had powerful echoes in their own hearts. They also knew, more or less clearly, that this ideology was their enemy. They usually did not dare attack it openly. That would be foolhardy, it would alienate their listeners, and it would trouble the believers among the left themselves. But they knew their enemy: they usually expressed it by talking of the ignorance of their people. (Partly liberated by education themselves, they saw education as the key to breaking the old ideology.) They saw their main task, clearly, as breaking the hold of this reactionary ideology on their people.

The way to do this, it was clear, was to attack the king and the khans. If they went, then the old order would crumble and it would, perhaps, be possible to argue with the old ideas publicly. This was an honourable strategy. Many of the left were sceptics and friends of the emancipation of women. Some of them were women. They supported these causes privately and they sometimes supported them openly in the cities. But they did not take on Islam head on in the countryside. It may appear to British eyes that this strategy was similar to that of the western revolutionaries who say that the class struggle comes first when they really mean that the women’s struggle comes never. I have no doubt it was like that for some of the Afghan left. But most of them were men and women working in conditions of considerable danger, often underground and always secretively, in the face of a hostile dominant ideology. They did the best they could, and they failed. In the cities they held their own. In the more important country areas, they were thrown on the defensive and usually driven out. As some villagers in Shewaki, near Kabul, expressed it to me: at first they had supported Babrak Karmal (now President) as their left wing MP because the students said they would get land, and they liked that idea. But then they realized the students were not Muslims, and withdrew their support. This was the general pattern. The left failed because they faced an ideology strongly grounded in feudalism, in male chauvinism, and in resistance to oppression. It was a contradictory ideology, but its contradictions seemed only to lend it strength and ferocity.

It would have taken the development of capitalism to break this ideology. But that is exactly what was not possible without a revolution. For the feudal regime blocked all development. In Pakistan or Iran there is Islamic reaction, but there is also a working class. Lessons have been learned, slowly and patchily. Some people have come, in confusion or in clarity, to see the link between the Islam of the village and their own poverty within the system. Secularism has not won the day, but there is a space among the common people for the debate to take place. In Afghanistan, in the sixties and early seventies, this space did not exist.

So the mullahs said that the left were tools of the Russians. That the Russians were infidels, worse even than the British bad been because the British at least had a holy book. They said on the radio that when the Russians wanted to have babies a group of men and women had an orgy all night long and nine months later put the babies in machines to be raised to adulthood. [29] They said men had not gone to the moon, for the Holy Koran said it was impossible. People did not believe everything the mullahs said. But they believed the general drift, and the left were unable to work in the villages.

One faction of the “Communists”, the Banner group (“Parcham”) tried to work with Daoud’s regime. The second group, the People (“Khalk”) went underground. Daoud soon turned on the Banner. They joined the People underground, where the two factions combined to form the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Driven out of the countryside, they turned to the city; they had before them the example of Daoud’s coup, and so they began to work underground in the army. But not among the enlisted conscripts. They might be too poor to afford socks in bitter mountain winters. But they were also the sons in uniform of the very peasants who had just rejected the communists. Rather, the PDPA worked through the officers. These were part of the new educated class, men much like the PDPA themselves in backgrounds and interests.

In April 1978 it appeared that Daoud was moving to kill oft the PDPA, and they were strong enough to pre-empt him in a coup. [30] But the April revolution was unlike most coups. The PDPA announced on the radio that they had “wiped out” Daoud and his family. There was serious fighting in Jalallabad. The new government immediately announced a series of decrees whose effect would have been to smash feudalism. They announced a land reform to distribute all farms of over 15 acres to the poor. That took away the lords land and left the small farmers land intact. If ever anything would unite the Afghan peasantry, it seemed that such land reform would do it. [31]

A second set of decrees authorized more education for girls and reduced brideprice to a token amount. Not, perhaps, revolutionary measures in Copenhagen, but in Kabul they stood for, and were meant to stand for, the beginnings of a revolution in relations between the sexes.

These measures showed that the PDPA was intent on a life and death struggle against feudalism. But they hadn’t a cat in hell’s chance. Not, as some would have it, because they made “mistakes” and committed “excesses”. But because they came to power through the officers, not the enlisted men. They came to power behind the backs of the peasants, not by working from the bottom up but by seizing the state and then trying to work from the top down. And since they had already once lost the struggle in the countryside, they had no way of making their reforms work on the ground.

Instead, the countryside erupted in many small revolts. The population began to pick oft a policeman here, a soldier there. For it was clear that the state was suddenly weak. For most Afghan peasants, the prospect of living without the state is an attractive alternative. It is not utopian, it means living like your fathers before the conquest or like the tribes along the border. [32] There are still lords and oppression, but at least no state and no taxes. So, as often before, the peasants were moving to get out from under a weak state. [33]

Their rebellion was Islamic. In many areas the mullahs led the men in demonstrations against female education. In all areas they campaigned against the PDPA, against the godless Russians, against female emancipation.

The CP must have expected this. But they had only three ways to fight it; all bad: the party cadres, the police, and the army. Because they had no base in the countryside they had to send in the party cadres. [34] But these were the very people the peasants had earlier rejected. They were the sons of small farmers, not sharecroppers. And they returned this time often in western dress, sometimes in government jeeps. They came like the local government officers before them, as representatives of a state that the peasants hated as folk hate the state almost nowhere else. The state that had conquered and bombed and strafed and tortured as far back as anyone remembered. It might have been different if the peasants had felt they had won the state. But they hadn’t; it had been seized. So the cadres came, laid down the law, and went. Islam and the mullah remained. The peasants feared the return of the lords if they farmed his land. The land reform failed, and the tradition of holy war revived.

Where the cadres were helpless, the government turned to the police. They increasingly acted like every government before them. They had their armies of spies, their prisons, their torture chambers, their midnight killings. These were not “mistakes” and “excesses” as some would have us believe: they were the only way the CP could restrain a hostile population. [35]

But the police also failed. And then the state turned to the army, to guns and tanks and planes to bomb and strafe the villages. Police terror can be selective. Terror from the air means war between government and people. Rumour had it that the planes were flown by Russians. Rumour might be right or wrong. What counted was that it was believed.

Police and planes failed. For they only made the CP look like every feudal regime before them. And there was a reciprocal logic in the rise of the resistance, the rise of repression, and the further rise of resistance. By the summer of 1979 the government held only six of the 26 provinces. In the six provinces they held only the roads and the main towns.

Under this pressure the People’s Democratic party began to fragment again into the Banner group and the People group. The Banner group felt it was necessary to moderate the revolution in order to win over the peasants. The People group felt it was necessary to continue with greater revolutionary ferocity, for only by ramming through the land reform could they win over the peasants. Both groups were wrong, which made the dispute ferocious. Moderation would not fool the fundamentalists, and force would not convert the peasantry. Each group could see clearly the faults of the other. So while in the fall of 1978 the People group had only exiled the Banner leaders by sending them to be ambassadors abroad, by the summer of 1979 they were using the secret police and hit squads to wipe out local Banner groups.

At this point the Russians began to take more of a hand. There is no reliable evidence for their participation in the April 1978 coup. I suspect that it came as a surprise to them. There is little in the Russian record to lead one to believe that they would have preferred an unstable and genuinely revolutionary regime to Daoud. For Daoud, whatever else he was, was a strong friend of the Russians. Be that as it may, the Russians bad little alternative but to support the coup after it happened.

As the civil war intensified the PDPA were thrown back more and more on Russian support. They needed Russian aid, they needed Russian “advisors”, and they needed Russian parts and petrol. But as they became more tied to the Russians every day, so did the Russians become more tied to them.

And it looked to the Russians as if the CP’s days were numbered. They attempted to get the People group to moderate their policies. They failed in this, and after a bloody shoot-out the hardline Amin replaced and killed President Taraki. The Russians were frightened of the effects of a defeat for the PDPA. It would be the first time a Russian backed CP government had been defeated, and the ripples would spread throughout the Russian empire. Not least to the Turkish and Persian speaking Muslims of Soviet Central Asia. So the Russians panicked, and in December 1979, the tanks began to roll into Kabul. [36]

The consequences of the invasion

The Russians shot Amin and installed Babrak Karmal as President in his place. Karmal was the leader of the Banner group and had been in exile in Russia for the previous year. Karmal and the Russians bad a three pronged strategy: unify the PDPA, appease the rebels, and smash the resistance on the ground. Most of this strategy has failed.

The new government did make significant concessions. Karmal began all his speeches by invoking the name of God. He decried earlier state murders and blamed them all on the murdered Amin. He released almost all the political prisoners, though he immediately began collecting new ones. He offered the rebels an amnesty and paraded mullahs on the television to praise the regime.

All, of course, to no effect. Afghan peasants may be illiterate, but they are not that stupid. And the invasion united and enriched the resistance.

Now it was no longer a civil war. The mullahs had been proved right: it was a war against the infidel. Here was the infidel, in person, in tanks. At first the Russians used troops largely drawn from among the Muslim minorities of the USSR. The hope was that the Afghans would see that the invaders were Muslims too. The danger was that the Soviet Muslims spoke the same languages as many Afghan peasants. In many cases the Afghans could talk to the soldiers in their own tongue and the Slavic officers could not understand. The Muslim units have now largely been withdrawn.

It is a holy war against the infidel, like the holy war against the British. After all, the Russians gave money and arms to every previous feudal government. It stretches the imagination to believe that the invasion will show the Afghans that the Russians are no longer cynical imperialists hike the British and Americans.

Of course, the Russians have used napalm, strafing, fragmentation bombs, helicopter gunships, and tanks. These weapons have been effective. [37] The Vietnamese defeated a similar American strategy. But they had rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, anti-tanks guns, a bush countryside with good water supplies, and considerable backing in food and arms from the Soviet Union and China. Not to mention an experienced, dedicated, and disciplined cadre behind them, an anti-war movement in the enemy’s own country, a broken American army at the end, and the help of the North Vietnamese tanks in the final push. Even with all that, it took incredible bravery and forty long years to liberate their country.

The Afghan resistance bas none of these things, except time and courage. In particular, they do not have decent arms. Interviewed in the Pakistani camps, the refugees ask over and over again not for food but for arms. [38] Anti-tank guns, surface to air missiles, modern arms for modern war. Without them they are helpless. And nobody has given them modern arms yet.

The Afghan resistance had assumed that the United States would send in arms and money. [39] This has not happened. There has been a trickle of money and a lot of CIA spooks; but not much else. Saudi Arabia has provided several million dollars, with American approval, to buy Chinese arms which are then smuggled in through Pakistan. But the United States bas done nothing directly and the Chinese arms do not include anti-tank guns and SAMs.

Why? Several reasons. The Americans profit greatly from the Russian invasion. They would not profit from a rebel victory. The invasion has done great harm to the Russians in the third world and in many Muslim countries. The invasion has stretched the Russian economy and the war machine: it has made an invasion of Poland that much more difficult. It has made it much easier for the Americans to start to intervene militarily in El Salvador. While the war continues, the Russians bleed slowly and the US reaps propaganda victories.

But if the Americans were to fully support the Afghans it might push the Russians too far. Too much of the West is too dependent on trade with Russia, too many Western bank loans to Poland. And were the rebels to win the United States would be saddled with a regime that would make the Ayatollah look like Mary Poppins. It would be a regime of “mad mullahs” that the US would be responsible for. And the regime would fall apart in weeks as the different tribal and ethnic groups fought their way out from under the new state.

The Iranians, too, have done little to support the Afghans. The Iranian leaders have made sanctimonious speeches about the Afghan struggle. But they do not run refugee camps or let the rebels run local offices, as the Pakistanis do. They have not allowed arms to flow into Afghanistan across the border. Of course, as long as they remain the enemy of the US they are well advised to remain the friends of the Russians. But more to the point, along both sides of the Afghan-Iranian border the people are Turkomen and Baluch. It is only a shortage of arms that keeps these people tenuously within the Iranian state at the moment. So whatever their verbiage, the Iranians do nothing to aid the rebels.

The Pakistanis do rather more. They tolerate the Chinese arms smuggling. They run refugee camps, and try to distribute UN food. They treat the rebels with a nod and a wink. Officially the rebels are not allowed to operate from Pakistan, but they have offices there, they control the refugee camps, they go back and forth across the border.

But Pakistan is desperately stretched to find food for them. And everybody in Pakistan is waiting nervously for the fall of General Zia’s government. It seems only a matter of months away. And the government that replaces him is likely to be led by the Bhuttos (mother and daughter). It is quite possible that they will be willing to do a deal with Karmal and the Russians [40] though it is difficult to see what deal. They can certainly stop arms smuggling. They would find it difficult to repatriate a million and a half refugees. And they would face civil war in North West Frontier Province if they tried to smash the rebels mihitarily there. But some sort of deal might well be possible.

It is also possible, on the other hand, that the Americans may decide to send Chinese surface-to-air missiles to the rebels. The CIA is against this: they argue that the rebels are unreliable and that such weapons would only provoke high level saturation bombing, as in Vietnam. But Reagan is well to the right of the CIA and his emotional loyalties may win out over the CIA’s cold good sense.

For now, the Afghan rebels sit in their refugee camps and their hideouts, trapped by the ways of geopolitics. Though military victory looks beyond their grasp, politically the Karmal regime looks weaker than ever. For they have lost their base even among the students and civil servants. In the spring of 1980 demonstrations began in Herat, the third city of Afghanistan. Herat lies dose to the Iranian border, and the population is largely Persian speaking. The demonstrations were modelled on those that brought down the Shah. By day the shops in the bazaar were closed. At night men went up on the roofs and shouted “God is Great”: daring the army to shoot them down for piety. These demonstrations spread within days down the main highway to Kandahar, a Pushtun town and the second city of the country. And then the demonstrations came to Kabul.

In Kabul they changed their character, for Kabul is a different sort of city. There the students took to the streets by day. Many of the civil servants stayed away from their offices. The textile workers north of Kabul struck. And the students at the girls secondary school joined the demonstrations. They called on their men to fight, shaming them to fight as their grandmothers shamed tribal armies. This was the same school whose students led the fight against the veil, the younger sisters of the girls who demonstrated against Zahir Shah. The students and civil servants were the very class who had been the base of the PDPA: it was they who now led the fight against them in the cities. The students were shot down in the streets. They came back and demonstrated again and again. The bazaar struck repeatedly.

In the end the government closed the Kabul schools. The urban movement died down. When the rebels put out a call for a general strike in Kabul this winter to mark the anniversary of the invasion, it flopped. There were no demonstrations and people went to work. That is the way with movements in the streets: they ebb and flow. But what the spring demonstrations did show was that the government had lost its base: opposition was now general.

The Afghan army has also been disintegrating. It is hard to judge the extent of this: the CIA “sources” and the rebel propaganda both lie so wildhy that it is hard to sort truth from trash. But there were certainly rebellions by army units at Ghazni and in the Bala Hissar in Kabul. There have equally certainly been mass desertions from the army. After all, it was always a badly paid conscript army whose peasant soldiers bitterly resented doing their time. In a war they do not believe in they are unlikely to want to get themselves killed. And as the Afghan army crumbles the Russians have had to bear more of the burden, especially along the Pakistani border, around Kabul, and in the north.

Under all this pressure the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan shows signs of fragmenting again. Many of the cadres are dead already: some in the fighting, many in pogroms by the rebels, and many at the hands of the secret police. [41] Now the People group are arguing that they did not invite the Russians in, that they are nationalists, that it is all the fault of the Banner group. There may be much truth in this. But they still stay stuck to the government by fear, for they would not survive two weeks without the Russian presence. Karmal, the president and leader of the Banner group, threatened the Russians with resignation last summer if they did not let him purge his party as he saw fit. A special commission began at the top, sending the surviving leader of the People group off to be ambassador to Ulan Bator. Since then Karmal appears not to have resorted to executions, but there certainly has been shooting on the streets between People and Banner.

Some may find it tempting to sneer at this kind of factionalism. But the Afghans of the PDPA are now living at the centre of impossible contradictions. It is this which is producing the factionalism and lending it such hatred. For each faction spins on the pin of the contradictions, none with any honourable way out, all living in the ashes of their hopes and the blood of their people. It would be different for them if they were time-servers, Brezhnevs and Kosygins. They are not. They are enormously brave men and women, the flower of their generation. They worked pubhicly and underground for years against feudalism, reaction, corruption, and the oppression of women. They and they alone had the daring to seize the time, to try to roll back the forces of inertia, backwardness, bigotry and ignorance. They fought one of the most repulsive regimes in the world under some of the most difficult conditions revolutionaries have faced. And it has come to this. Now they stand up to their mouths in the blood of their people, helpless prisoners of helicopter gunship “socialism”, seen as traitors by the very people from whom they came. It is no wonder that in their confusion and their anger they have begun to kill each other.

It is rumoured in the Kabul bazaar that President Babrak Karmal’s father has closed the door of his house to his son forever. This is probably true. It was also rumoured last year that Karmal had attempted suicide and been prevented by the Russians. This was probably not true. But it shows that the Kabulis remember Karmal as the man they respected, the man they elected to Parliament, the man who led the opposition to Zahir Shah from the forties onwards. For no one would think less of Karmal now if he took that way out.

And what of the people of Afghanistan, whose suffering has only begun? The Russians have been clearing free fire zones by bombing out the population in large areas. They have used napalm and fragmentation bombs. It all makes military sense: it is in the manuals on how to fight guerrilla warfare. The rebels have accused the Russians of worse; even of poison gas and ploughing under the wounded with bulldozers.

For now, Kabul is swollen to a million and a half people, in a city which was overcrowded at half a million. There are few jobs for those people, though the Russians keep the price of bread steady in fear of bread riots. In Pakistan there are over a million refugees, and the number is rising. [42] It is said that at first the Pakistani Pushtuns welcomed them and some even represented themselves as refugees, for at least the refugees were fed. But it is now becoming apparent that the refugees will stay for years. Along the border too many people are pressing upon too little food, too little grazing, too little work for poor people. Tension grows between Afghan refugee and Pakistani villager. [43]

It is hard to tell at this distance what is happening inside Afghanistan itself. The Russians and what is left of the Afghan army hold the towns and the roads. This is more than the PDPA held on their own. They do not, it seems, face large scale attacks. They face pin pricks: a guerrilla attack here and there. Casualties and expense for the Russians, but nothing they cannot bear. There seems to be more fighting in the north now than along the Pakistani border, but it is hard to judge the scale of fighting. There must be problems in many areas getting the crops in, and the nomads will have seen their livelihood smashed. For their migrations would be too uncontrollable for the government to permit, and if they do not migrate to escape the heat then their sheep die.

But for now the refugees sit along the Pakistani border. They sit in their white army tents, which are too hot for the summer and too cold for the winter. Disease waits in the background, and they talk of Islam and past battles and remembered heroism. The Pushtun men mostly used to let their wives wander freely round the village, for the poor men needed their labour in the fields and there were only fellow villagers to see them. In the camps there is no work, so they do not need the labour. And there are men from all over to look at their women, tempt them, shame the men of the household. So the men confine their women to the tents, hot narrow prisons where there is no place to wash. the Pushtun men even boast they would not let a doctor see their women. The men say this is all for honour, for their honour as men and the honour of Islam. [44] Those women in those tents: they are the measure of the failure of the PDPA.

It is possible to present an apologia for the strategies of the PDPA. One can say that the coup was a response to murderous repression, that the rebels were aided by the CIA, that without the Russian invasion the PDPA would have fallen to bc replaced by a vicious right wing regime. All this would be true. And it might perhaps be possible to present torture and strafing villages as “mistaken” and “excesses”. But they were mistakes and excesses that sprang with a grim logic from the course the PDPA set themselves upon when they determined upon a coup by the officers. The PDPA confronted a people with a reactionary and anti-imperialist Muslim tradition. They knew this tradition. They knew their people were tangled in a knot of poverty, bitterness, class hatred, ethnic rivalry, male chauvinism, anti-imperialism, sexual jealousy and hunger. The task they faced was to disentangle this knot. That could only be done by years of fighting the state, supporting women’s demonstrations, supporting breakaway ethnic groups, supporting strikes. And gradually weaning the people away from the reactionary parts of their beings.

Such a long march would have meant death for most of the Afghan left. And it would have seemed a frustrating task: for the country was so hidebound in feudalism that it cried out for revolution at the same time that the feudal conditions made the revolution impossible. It must have seemed almost utopian to work for that long march when a coup by the army officers was possible. But the consequence of that coup has been to tighten the noose ever tighter around the necks of the Afghan people. All that has followed has driven the peasantry and the urban classes further into the arms of Islam and reaction. If the Afghan CP had foreseen that they must become the jailors of their people, the prophets of helicopter gunship “socialism”, they would not have gone down that road. Now they are on that road, and those of them that survive are possessed by it.

The lessons to be drawn

We turn now from the Afghans themselves to the lessons that we in Britain and the western left can draw from their tragedy, to the small questions of what attitude we should take to the Russians and the rebels.

First, we can learn that you cannot build socialism behind the backs of the people. In the end, you either build socialism with the people or against the people. Building socialism with the people means winning their support. Building it against them means making war on the population. The result is not socialism; it is a police state.

Secondly, we must oppose the Russian invasion. It has united the Afghan right. It has smashed any base the left might have had. It has brought catastrophe to the Afghan people, and it has set back the left in Pakistan and Iran. Even in England we have it thrown at us in the canteens. In countries nearer the fighting the invasion defines socialism as something to do with tanks.

Thirdly, what attitude do we take to the rebels? Their leaders are clearly right wing. They are pious clerics in clean pressed clothes, fat landlords with bandoliers, western educated careerists with the backing of the CIA. They are unrepresentative of the people they claim to lead, and the people know it. If they once came to power in a “free Afghanistan” they would squabble over everything, united only in their contempt for the poor. And their new state would fly apart. The pressures of ethnic separatism and Islamic utopianism would pull it apart far more strongly than they are now pulling Iran apart.

Nor should we have too many illusions about the people, the “moujahedin” themselves. They were bigots before; they are worse now. Their ideas will not be changed slowly or easily. they are brave freedom fighters giving their lives in a struggle against imperialism. they are also poor men, fighting for a system that abused and humiliated poor men.

But if we turn from the rebels to their rulers we can see no way out. The remnants of the PDPA are locked into being Russian puppets; there is no other way they can survive. There are not that many left, and they become ever fewer. Those who stay on to run a Russian client state will be changed and diminished in the process: we have seen such things before. And the thinning ranks of the cadre will be filled by the careerists and the bureaucrats and the people who need the money. That too we have seen before.

For myself, if I were an Afghan I would bc demonstrating in the streets or fighting in the mountains alongside the rebels. I do not see any way out of the impasse of the Afghan left which does not involve getting rid of the Russians. And that means fighting them. If any significant section of the left were to fight alongside the rebels it would mean that in the end there would bc at least a space for the left to work in. Just as now there is a space for the Iranian left because of their long struggle against the Shah.

For the moment there does not seem to be such a left. Certainly some individuals from the People group are going over to the rebels. Certainly there are small Maoist groups. But for now there seems to be nothing significant, and I cannot conjure it up by writing articles. In the end, it will take the actions of the Iranian or Pakistani or Russian working class to create that left.

For us now in Europe, we can argue that the Afghan regime will have to be overthrown if any progress is to come, and that the Russians will have to be driven out. We can keep our lines open to any section of the Afghans or their neighbours who might be remotely interested in talking to us.

And we can look at the Afghan tragedy and start to get our own politics clear. It is no secret that there has been something realy wrong with the politics of much of the international left for a long time. Least of all is it a secret from the international working class. For too long we have allowed it to be said that you could have workers democracy without free elections at the place of work. Some have turned out mountains of special pleading and many of us have tolerated this. For some democracy is a frill, Russia is somehow special, the Vietnamese have special problems ... The list is endless. The confusion is simple. Nobody can free other people, it can’t be done by education or state power or coups or decrees. We are our own liberators.

It is past time that we on the international left got a few simple things clear. For if you want to see what we have come to three generations after the Bolshevik revolution, look at Afghanistan.


1. Fred Halliday, Revolution in Afghanistan, New Left Review, No. 112, pp. 3–44 (1978) and War in Afghanistan New Left Review, No. 119, pp. 20–41.

2. Gerard Chaliand, articles in New Statesman 12 and 19 December 1980, and in New York Review of Books, 2 April 1981.

3. This is a generalization. Dupree, in American Universities Field Staff Reports, 1980, No. 23, argues that one half was the more usual share for landlord and sharecropper, and that the sharecropper often cheated to increase his share. I believe he cheated, but doubt the usual half share. In any case, actual arrangements on the ground were usually highly complex and variable. What wasn’t variable was that the sharecropper got barely enough to live on.

4. This is a rough statement. There is no accurate Afghan census, let alone a politically far more sensitive record of landholdings. The revolutionary government has published figures, but these are guesses too. Moreover, any table of individual land ownership will obscure family ownership, which is politically more important.

5. Robert Leroy Canfield, Faction and Conversion in a Plural Society: Religious Alignments in the Hindu Kush, Anthropological Papers, Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan, No. 50.

6. This is based on my own research in 1971–3, part of which is described in my forthcoming book, Poverty and Sexual Politics in Afghanistan.

7. Examples are to be found in (a) Asger Christensen, The Pushtuns of Kunar: Tribe, Class and Community Organization, Afghanistan Journal (Graz, Austria), 7:3. pp. 79–92 (1980), (b) the articles in Jon W. Anderson and Richard F. Strand, eds., Ethnic Processes and Intergroup Relations in Contemporary Afghanistan, Occasional Papers of the Afghanistan Council of Asia Society, No. 15, New York 1978, especially the articles by Strand and Barfield, (c) Nancy Tapper, Marriage and Social Organization among Durrani Pushtuns in Northern Afghanistan, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, University of London 1979.

8. The account of Afghan sexual politics that follows is developed for the particular case of some poor Pushtun nomads in Neale, Poverty. What seems to me a very similar situation is described in far greater depth and detail for nomads and farmers in Northern Afghanistan in Tapper (op.cit.). Canfield (op. cit.) describes much the same thing in the central mountains of the Hazarajat. So does Inger W. Boesen, Women, Honour and Love: Some Aspects of the Pushtun Woman’s Life in Eastern Afghanistan, Afghanistan Journal, 7:2 pp. 50–59, 1980, for village women in eastern Afghanistan.

9. Canfield (op. cit) is particularly good on the tensions within the family and between neighbours.

10. The relative importance of the various revenues at this point is laid out in detail in Mountstuart Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Caubul, Vol.2, Karachi, 1972 reprint of 1839 edition.

11. This is my reading of the negotiations, which have long been a subject of controversy. They are summarized in John William Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, Fourth Edition, Vol.1, London, 1878, pp. 166–210.

12. J.A. Norris, The First Afghan War, 1838–1842, Cambridge 1967, Chapter 14.

13. See the articles on the First Afghan War by M.E. Yapp, in the Bulletin oft he School of Oriental and African Studies, (London), Vols. 62, 63, and 64 (1962–4), especially vol. 64.

14. This can be seen from a careful reading of Hasan Kakar, The Consolidation of Central Authority in Afghanistan under Abd Al-Rahman 1880–1896, M.Phil. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1968. Later published in Kabul in 1971.

15. S. Mohammed, The Life of the AmirAbdul Rahman, London, 1900.

16. Leon Poullada, in Reform and Rebellion in Afghanistan, 1919–1929, Ithaca (NY), 1973, argues quite convincingly that the war was more about tribal power than reforms. But he ignores the symbolic importance of the reforms.

17. Tapper (op.cit.) discusses this in detail for inter-ethnic relations in the northwest. Also see the article by Barfield in Strand and Anderson, eds, Occ. Paper 15, and Neale, (op.cit.).

18. I can’t prove that’s where the arms and money came from, but I’m sure. Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence is that in Nadir’s brother’s memoirs he doesn’t ever say where the arms and money came from. See Shah Wali, My Memoirs, Kabul, 1970.

19. And considerable aid from the Axis powers: Germany, Japan and Italy. See Louis Dupree, Afghanistan, 1980 edition, Princeton, chapter 22.

20. The phrase is Dupree’s.

21. This is from my own fieldwork.

22. For a detailed discussion of one case, seen from the lord’s point of view, see M. Nazif Mohib Shahrani, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Aghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers, Seattle 1979.

23. Maxwell J. Fry, The Afghan Economy, Leiden, 1974, catalogues them all too. Personally I find Fry’s economics a bit odd, but his is the most truthful account I have come across of what was wrong with the Afghan economy under Zahir Shah.

24. Fry is about the only source I have come across who insists on this obvious point in print. It is the sort of thing economists say to each other, but not in public.

25. What follows on the student movement is based on my own research in 1971–3.

26. Mike Barry, Afghanistan, Paris 1974 (in French) gives a good account of Daoud’s coup and the background, pp. 166–183. See also Dupree, Afghanistan, Epilogue.

27. For the factions see Halliday, 1978, and Dupree, Afghanistan.

28. My own research again.

29. Or so I was told.

30. This is Halliday’s quite plausible argument, 1978, pp. 31–32.

31. From 1978 on there is a problem with the sources, which had better be mentioned now. Reporters have not generally been allowed into Afghanistan, and those that have gone in have not understood the language or the people or both. The Afghan government reports have been nothing but lies, as have the reports of the rebels and most of the CIA sources given to newsmen. On the mechanisms of this fog of disinformation, see Philip Jacobsen, How they feed the Afghan newshounds, Sunday Times, London, 27 July 1980. Most of the western reporting is preserved in the Quarterly Afghanistan Council Newsletter, issued by the Asia Society, 112 East 64th Street, New York NY 10021. It is possible to construct some picture of what is happening by reading these sources and weighing them very, very carefully. A better source are the stream of Louis Dupree’s American University Field Staff Reports, of which several now come out every year. Dupree is the leading scholarly authority on Afghanistan, knows a wide range of people, and lived there for twenty years. However, his testimony needs to be weighed not for lies but for bias and for a certain political naiveté. (He thinks, for instance, that Afghanistan is an egalitarian country.) Another reliable source is Le Monde, the Paris newspaper, especially when they have reports from special correspondents who know the country. The account that follows is based on weighing all these sources and trying to construct a picture of what has been happening. I think this picture is correct in broad outline, but there are bound to be mistakes in detail.

32. For a description of these tribes in the seventies, see Akbar S. Ahmed, Pushtun Economy and Society, London 1979.

33. It is interesting to note that the first areas to rebel were Nuristan and Pakhtia, the two most rebellious under the previous monarchy.

34. See Halliday, 1980, and Dupree, Reports, 1980, No. 23 for a consideration of the implementation of the reforms.

35. Halliday, 1980, is wrong on this. Dupree, Reports, 1980, No. 28 and No. 29 describes some of the police repression.

36. I have not dealt with the causes of the Russian invasion in much detail here. This is because they are explained clearly by Hillel Ticktin, The Afghan War and the Crisis in the USSR, Critique, Glasgow, No. 12, pp. 13–26, 1980. In an unconvincing discussion of the same thing, Dupree does make the important point that the Russian military at least will have welcomed the invasion, for they have had no practice at war at all since 1945, while America and its NATO allies have had extensive practice, particularly in combating guerrilla warfare, and the USSR has no experience of that important area at all. See Reports, 1980, No. 37.

37. A sober account of the military situation can be found in Gerard Chaliand, Bargain War, The New York Review of Books, April 2, 1981, pp. 31–32. However, I think he underestimates the recent extent of resistance in the north.

38. Afghan Exodus, produced by Andre Singer, Granada Television International, London and New York, colour videocassette, 1980. See also Mike Barry’s reports in Le Monde in the summer of 1980.

39. The speculations on geopolitics that follow are based partly on “sources” and partly on my own reading of likely motives for indisputable actions.

40. The recent hijacking to Kabul may mean that at least some sections of the PPP have already promised Karmal a deal.

41. See Dupree’s account again, Reports, 1980, Nos. 28 & 29, and Halliday, 1980.

42. For the situation of the refugees see Afghan Exodus and the Newsletter of the Afghan Refugee Information Network, London, Nos. 1–5.

43. Afghan Exodus. See also the series of articles on the refugees in RAIN, the Royal Anthropological Institute Newsletter, London 1980.

44. ibid.

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