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Peter Hadden

Afghanistan – Why the Russians Withdrew

(March 1989)

From Militant Irish Monthly, March 1989.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

After 9 years of fighting in which over one million people have died, Russian troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan. In terms of their objectives when they invaded at the end of 1979 – to stabilise the Stalinist regime in Kabul by a mixture of reform, economic development, and the military containment of the Mujahideen – the Russian intervention has been a signal failure.

Because of the absence of reliable statistical information, and due to the distorting propaganda of both the capitalists and the Stalinists, it is not easy to get a clear picture of what has been and is happening inside the country. Nonetheless, the view of a society teetering on the brink of chaos is unmistakable.

The writ of the Najibullah regime does not run beyond the major cities and this is now under threat. The countryside is controlled by various Mujahideen commanders, who have little more love for each other than they have for the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) rulers in Kabul, and whose political horizon, in many cases, does not rise beyond the “liberation” of their valley.


These groups, and the 15 squabbling political factions who back them from bases in Pakistan and Iran, are utterly reactionary. Some stand for the restoration of the King, who was deposed by a coup led by young army officers in 1973. Others are Islamic fundamentalists, who stand for the veiling of women, amputation of the hands of thieves, the banning of radios and other “western influences”. One such leader has advocated the throwing of acid in the faces of women who do not wear the veil. These groups are divided on religious lines, between the majority Sunnis and the Iranian-backed Shias (about 15 per cent of the population). One Sunni fundamentalist leader recently pronounced that when the Jihad (holy war) against Russia as won, a second Jihad against the Shiites should begin

The massive military aid and assistance given by the imperialist, powers has not been enough to forge united opposition out of these desperate elements. The likely overthrow of the Kabul regime by any combination of these groups would be a victory for reaction. No stable national government could emerge. At best, there would be a further period of bloody civil war and turmoil. At worst, Afghanistan, as a recognisable political entity, would disappear from the map.

Militant opposed the Russian intervention when it took place in 1979. It provided an enormous propaganda weapon to the capitalist powers in the west, assisting the US administration to recover from the effects of its defeat in Vietnam and to move Russian soldiers leave Afghanistan.

Towards a policy of global interventionism

However, once the Russian army had gone in, we did not join in the international capitalist chorus demanding their withdrawal. To do so would have been to demand a victory for the imperialist-backed Mujahideen, which, no less than did the invasion, would have strengthened reaction internationally. At the time of the invasion Afghanistan was one of the most backward societies on earth. Life expectancy was 37. Two children in ten died at birth. Literacy was about ten per cent for adults, but three per cent for women. There was little or no industry. 85 per cent lived on the land – at subsistence levels. Medieval social customs prevailed. So did medieval land relations. 45 per cent of the land was owned by five per cent of the people.

In April 1978, a faction of the PDPA led a coup and established a proletarian bonapartist state (a dictatorship based on nationalised property as in Cuba, Vietnam, and other countries). Their government tried to introduce reforms and modernisation, but did so in a particularly ham-fisted and bureaucratic manner. In order to redistribute land, giving land to 200,000 families, a decree confiscated without compensation the land of anyone owning more than six hectares.

Stalinist methods

The crude Stalinist manner in which these, and other measures were taken, gave rise to resentment and opposition and the Mujahideen campaign began. The Russians invaded to save the regime from ppossible collapse.

Nine years on there is very little evidence that they have been able to make progress with reforms or economic development, outside of the cities and very restricted areas.

The intervention of a foreign army roused, fierce national, resentment, and provided a new impetus to the Mujahideen. Over a period, as the Russians failed to control the country areas, they fell back more and more to military methods – keeping open the main supply arteries and aerial bombing and shelling of villages and Mujahideen areas.

To the mass of the Afghan population who still live outside the main cities, the Russian appeal has less and less been in the form of seeds, food, education, and land, and more: and more in the form of wrecked villages, blown-up irrigation canals, tons of explosives and millions of mines. No matter what limited reform there has been for some, especially in the cities, overall society has gone backwards.

Leaving aside the probably wildly exaggerated Mujahideen accounts of destruction – some of which they themselves have been responsible for – there is no doubt that agriculture has been devastated. One survey by a Swedish group found that 30 per cent of the land cultivated in 1979 has since fallen out of use and that total agricultural output is only 4% of what it was in 1978. The country no longer feeds itself – and this without the return of the five million or so refugees in Pakistan and Iran.

Russia failure in Afghanistan is a condemnation of Stalinism; the policy of errors and miscalculations arises from the bureaucratic self-interest of the Kremlin bureaucracy and its Kabul counterpart. However the gleeful comparisons in the western press with America’s defeat in Vietnam are totally misleading.

America intervened in Vietnam to protect its imperialist interests in the region against a national and social revolution. Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan to prop up a friendly regime against reactionary forces was mainly out of fear of the effects an Islamic fundamentalist regime on its doorstep would have on the Muslim populations of its southern republics.

America was driven out of Vietnam by a combination of military opposition plus the disintegration of its army and a mass movement of opposition at home. Despite the obvious demoralisation of the Russian troops that they are leaving without a victory, the army has not disintegrated, nor was there open mass opposition inside Russia. Whereas the US was compelled to leave Vietnam, Gorbachev could, if he wished, maintain his forces in Afghanistan.

To win the war the Russians would have to commit extra troops and possibly invade Pakistan to cut off supplies. The international consequences rule this out as an option. So the choice is to maintain the present situation or withdraw.

That the Russians have chosen to pull out is for other than military reasons. Gorbachev desperately wants to cut military spending, now a colossal 15 per cent of Russian GDP, so as to divert resources to the production of consumer goods and buy time for his programme of reforms.

To do this he needs to reach an agreement with the west on arms reduction. In order to achieve this the Russian bureaucracy has been prepared to do deals with imperialism in areas like the Middle East, Angola and Central America. Likewise Gorbachev is prepared, if necessary, to throw the Afghan people to the mercies of the Mujahideen in order to remove this obstacle to a rapprochement with imperialism.

Speaking of the attitude of the Kremlin to the rights of the Ukraine in the 1930s. Trotsky said that it “is the same as it is toward all oppressed nationalities, all colonies, and semi-colonies, i.e. small change in its international combinations with imperialist governments”.

These words are apt to describe the Kremlin’s attitude to Afghanistan, except that it is now necessary to add a rider; the “International combination” between the two Stalinist super-powers, Russia and China, is also a factor. A Peking/Moscow summit is in the offing. Gorbachev wants an agreement with China on Vietnam/Kampuchea and on Russia’s eastern borders with China. The Chinese have put a resolution of the Afghanistan issue as part of the price.

What will now happen is uncertain. Despite the fact that Kabul is surrounded the divisions among the Mujahideen and the fear of those of Its inhabitants who are associated with the PDPA regime In any way of bloody retribution – should the city be taken, mean that its immediate fall is not certain. Much depends on whether supplies can be maintained and on the morale of the local garrison.

Even should the Najibullah regime hold on for a period its long-term position appears untenable. An internal coup by some section of the regime who would try to reach an accommodation with a section of the Mujahideen is not ruled out.

Civil war

Alternatively, the Russians already have contingency plans to airlift the government to the northern town of Mazari-Sharif with the objective of creating an administration in this region which the Russians could more readily supply and which would provide a buffer zone between Russia and whatever hostile regime or regimes might rule the rest of the country.

The only certainty is that civil war, and possibly a number of civil wars, will continue. Pakistan also will be affected as it is unlikely that any significant number of refugees will go back for a further period but the demands of the local population that they should go will strengthen.

The Mujahideen will not be able to form a stable national government even if they take Kabul. No matter in what way it comes about a likely outcome will be the effective division of the country between different factions and through them into spheres of influence of Russia, Iran, and Pakistan, the latter acting as an agent of the imperialist powers.

All this is a defeat for the small working class end the peasants of Afghanistan. Only on the basis of a movement for workers’ democracy and socialism can there be a way out. It will now take time but such a movement can eventually develop. It would need to link with the struggles of the workers and peasants in the surrounding states; for the socialist transformation of society in Pakistan and Iran and for the political revolution to overthrow the bureaucracy in Russia. On the basis of socialist federation with democratic workers’ control over various nationalities and tribal groups, Afghanistan could be modernised and developed.

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