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Jonathan Neale


The horse changes riders

(Summer 1988)

From Capital & Class, No. 35, Summer 1988.
Copied with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


The Russo-Afghan War is over.

The killing has not finished yet. Tens of thousands will still die, a few of the sons of Kiev and Tashkent, many of the Sons and daughters of Herat and Kandahar. That is always the way with Geneva settlements. But the issue has been decided. The Soviet army has been defeated. The Mujahedin have won.

For forty years the USSR and the USA have policed the world. This is Russia’s Vietnam: a major defeat for imperialism. As such it is more than welcome. It increases the space for popular movements in Poland and Hungary, in Armenia and in Moscow.

But if this is a defeat for helicopter gunship “socialism”, it is also a victory for the mullahs and the landlords. The Mujahedin are an authentic mass movement: the Afghan peasantry in arms. But the leadership and the politics of that movement are reactionary. Whichever faction of the resistance finally consolidates power in Kabul, they will lead a brutally repressive right-wing government.

How did this happen? Why? What is likely to happen next? These are the questions this article will tackle.


A small demonstration on the dusty main street of the town of Lashkaragah, in southwestern Afghanistan, during the autumn of 1971. It is the fast of Ramadan, and teeth are on edge. About fifty secondary school students are gathered around an upturned box. The bravest among them take turns mounting it to deliver speeches.

The speeches are simple: no more than a few shouted slogans. But it takes courage to give those speeches. The most common slogan is “Death to the Khans.” This is not an abstract political statement. The students have in mind a small number of men they have known all their lives. They are declaring their intention to build a political movement large enough to kill these men.

The khans are the large landlords who hold power in the villages. In other parts of Afghanistan they may go under the tide of arbab or malik or pasha. Everywhere they are the ruling class. A khan may own much of the land in one village, or in several villages. In some villages two khans compete for power. Sharecroppers work their land, and the khan takes between two thirds and four fifths of the crop. Their power is brutal: if a poor man stands in their way they have him killed. They hold their land rights partly by inheritance and partly by the legal theft of the land of weaker men.

It takes courage for these boys to defy the khans. There are secret policemen in the watching crowd, and the Afghan state in 1971 is based on the khans. There is a King in Kabul and even a sort of parliament. But in every constituency outside Kabul the MO is either the most powerful local khan or one of his relatives or henchmen. The King rules through the khans, and does not challenge their power.

It’s a brutal state. As one Communist teacher puts it: “In the fifties we had dictatorship, and they took a man away and all his brothers and killed them all. Now we have democracy They take only one man and they only put out his eyes.”

The boys are not all Communists. But the bravest of them are. And they are part of a national student movement that looks to the Communist parties and hopes for revolution.

They have good reason to want revolution. In 1972 I visited a friend, a poor yoghurt peddler, in the m sanitarium in Kabul. It had taken a bribe to get him into the hospital. Once he was in, it took a bribe to get the hospital workers to give him his food. It had taken a bribe to get the prescribed medicines actually given to him. When he needed an operation, his mother had to go beforehand to the bazaar to buy the blood in case a transfusion was needed. The hospital workers had sold the blood. I asked him why there were so many bribes. “Afghanistan, Zulumistan”, another patient said. “The Land of the Afghans, the Land of Tyranny.” All the patients smiled.

A few years before there had been a robbery and murder near the camp of tents where the yoghurt peddler lived. The police had taken one of his uncles away for questioning. The next day they brought him back. The body was black from beating and his stomach torn open. They dumped him on the ground in front of his widow, told her he had eaten a bad watermelon at the police station, and laughed.

There is a small crowd watching the boys demonstrate on the streets of Lashkargah. They are the peasants and sharecroppers of the surrounding villages. Their faces are shut: showing nothing. Like the boys, they hate the khans. But they also fear the state. In the evening, they will warn their sons of their folly, but some will be secretly proud. It is these peasants and sharecroppers who will determine the fate of Afghanistan in the next seventeen years. The tragedy of those brave boys in Laskargah is that they will end up making war upon that crowd.


In 1971 there were roughly fifteen million people in Afghanistan. (All Afghan figures ate rough guesses: there has never been a census.) Something like twelve million of them lived on the land, two million were nomadic shepherds, and a million lived in towns and cities. It was an arid country, with about two per cent of the land under cultivation. In the countryside there were three main classes, the khans, the middle peasants and the sharecroppers. The middle peasants owned enough land to feed themselves and might employ one or two sharecroppers or own a shop. They bated the khans and hung onto their land. The khans were always a small minority In the high mountains there were usually a lot of middle peasants and in the irrigated plains there were usually more sharecroppers. But on a national scale the sharecroppers were probably the majority

Among the nomads the class structure was the same. A few powerful khans owned large flocks. Many nomad families owned their own small flocks and might employ one or two shepherds. And many worked only as shepherds for a share of the lambs each year or for a wage.

In the cities there were very few industrial workers, perhaps less than 20,000. There were more construction workers and casual porters and labourers, perhaps 200,000. The industrial workers went on strike: the others did not.

Workers, sharecroppers and shepherds lived at subsistence level. A man’s income was enough to buy bread for himself, a wife and two children, and almost nothing else.

Afghanistan was a country of many nationalities. The Pushtuns (Pathans) lived in the south and east and were about half the population. All the kings but one and all the Communist Presidents have been Pushtuns. In the central mountains were the Hazaras, speaking Farsi (Persian) and claiming descent from Ghengiz Khan. In the East and around Kabul the majority were Persian speaking peasants called Tajiks. In the north the Turkish groups predominated, particularly Uzbeks.

But in most areas there was a mixture of ethnic groups, divided by a history of warfare and disputes over land and water. And there were many other smaller nationalities: the Aimaq, the Turkoman, the Kirghiz, the Pashai, the Nuristani, the Baluchi, the Brahui, the Wakhi and so on.


In 1971 the Afghan state was in crisis. The roots of the crisis lay in fiscal problems of the monarchy.

Afghanistan was a poor country mostly desert. The good lands to the north had been seised by Tsarism, to the east by British India and to the west by Persia. Since about 1800 the Afghan king had always depended upon the support of the more powerful khans to hold his throne. This meant that while he might at times have the power to bring most of the country under his military control, he did not have the power to extract a sufficient surplus from the countryside, because he did not have the power to extract it from the khans.

So until 1838 there was an almost continuous civil war between the barons, rather like the Wars of the Roses. In that year the British invaded and were defeated by a mass popular uprising. So from 1842 onwards they settled upon the King enough of a subsidy and enough arms for him to run the state without breaking the khans.

In 1878 they invaded again and were again defeated by an uprising. From then on until 1919 they gave enough money and arms to Abdur Rabman and his son Habibullah to enable them to consolidate the state without breaking the khans.

In 1919 Habibullah’s third son Amanullah killed him and declared war on the British. They conceded formal independence to Afghanistan and withdrew their subsidy Amanullah tried to raise a surplus by taxing the countryside and breaking the khans. Another popular uprising deposed him. By the next year Nadir Khan had taken the throne with the help of British arms and money. His son, Zani-Shah, ruled from 1934 to 1973.

After Indian and Pakistani independence the Afghan monarchy looked around for new sources of subsidy. They found them in the Cold War.


Throughout the fifties and sixties the USSR and the USA competed for influence by pouring military aid and money into Afghanistan. The Americans gave more, but the Afghan monarchy used Russian aid as a counter weight.

The sums involved were not large from the point of view of the superpowers, but they revolutionised the position of the Afghan state. Reliable figures are impossible to come by, but aid provided probably more than half the budget of the Afghan state. The chronic financial instability of the state was solved. Finally they could build a large standing army and bring most of the country under central control.

But they had a problem spending the money The King and the khans did not want to develop the economy To do so would have created a bourgeoisie and a proletariat: two classes that would have challenged their power.

So the government spent the money on the army, on education and on the government bureaucracy By doing so they created the class that destroyed the old state. There were suddenly thousands of university students and tens of thousands of secondary school students. The government pacified them each year by hiring the university graduates to man an expanding state bureaucracy as teachers, civil servants and police and army officers.

In a more developed economy these students could have been drawn from established urban classes and the children of landowners. But the expansion in Afghanistan was so rapid that the majority of students came from the families of the middle peasants in the countryside.

They brought with them their parents’ hatred of the state and the khans. To this they added their own frustrations. As in many third world countries, this new class saw its historical task as the modernisation and development of the state. But in feudal Afghanistan this is precisely what they were forbidden to do.

So their jobs were often meaningless. Many civil servants had nothing at all to do. All were ashamed of the corruption of the state. And their wages were low, even by Asian standards. A teacher earned twice as much as a poor shepherd or sharecropper. A University lecturer earned three times that, no more than his father the poor peasant.

From the 1960s on two political forces competed for the allegiance of the students and the new middle class. One were the two Communist parties.

The Khalq (People’s) Party was led by Taraki. It was the larger of the two, more radical, at the base more Pushtun, more rural and poorer. The Parcham (Flag) Party of Babrak Karmal was somewhat smaller, more moderate, with a better base among more affluent Kabulis and in the non-Pushtun areas.

Both parties were orthodox Communist parties who looked to the USSR as a model for socialism. (There was also a Maoist Party which was important until 1973 and strongly anti-Pushtun.)

The other political force were the Muslim fundamentalists, whose stronghold was the Theology Faculty at the University of Kabul. They learned their politics from Al-Azhar University in Cairo and were much influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the early seventies they fought each other at Kabul University and in the streets and secondary schools of the capital. They used fists, axes and guns. But above all they argued for the minds of the uncommitted students.

In Kabul the Communists won the argument among the new middle class. In the villages they lost it. As some villagers near Kabul put it to me, they had at first supported Babrak Karmal as their MP. But then the mullahs had mounted a campaign to prove he was no Muslim, and they realised the mullahs were right. Both the Communists and the Muslims hated the state. The King attempted to balance between them. But in the early seventies two things weakened the state decisively. One was structural. After 1968 the American state began to withdraw its aid. The Vietnamese defeat and economic weakness led them to decide it was not worth such a massive direct investment. This threw the state into fiscal crisis. How were they to employ all these students? How were they to pay the army? How were they to raise revenue? Tax the Khans?

Then there was a famine in the north and east. The local officials and the khans stockpiled aid grain and sold it off at ten times the going rate. Hundreds of thousands starved. A journalist asked them why they did not storm the grain stocks. The peasants said the Air Force planes would bomb them. The planes were Russian MIGS flown by American trained pilots.

Fury over the famine and fiscal crisis meant the writing was on the wall for King Zahir. In 1973 Kabul was full of rumours of coup and counter-coup. While the King was abroad, Mohammed Daoud struck first with a military coup.


Daoud’s project was an attempt to square the circle. He was brought to power by a conspiracy of younger army officers, many of them influenced by the Communists. He himself was a former Prime Minister and the King’s first cousin. He announced the end of the monarchy and the introduction of “Islamic Socialism”. This meant that in foreign affairs he would lean towards the Soviet Union and attempt to get more aid that way In domestic affairs he would preserve the power of the old ruling class through a harsher and more military dictatorship.

The Parcham communists made the classic mistake and supported Daoud until he didn’t need them any more. Then he turned on them and drove them underground. The Khalq communists, more radical, went underground from the first. So did the Islamic fundamentalists. In 1975 they attempted to lead an insurrection and were smashed. Their leaders fled to Pakistan, and are now the leadership of the fundamentalist wing of the Mujahedin.

Daoud ruled from 1973 to 1978, but could only postpone the crisis. The Parcham and the Khalq united underground (probably at Russian insistence) into the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, the PDPA. One thing they had learned from Daoud was the importance of building underground among army officers. They began to prepare a coup.

In April 1978 Daoud arrested the entire Central Committee of the PDPA. It was probable he would kill them. [1] The army officers who supported the PDPA knew they would be next, and soon. They launched a coup, killed Daoud and gave power to the PDPA.


At first the “April Revolution” seemed successful. There was fighting in Jallabad, but little elsewhere. This was because the PDPA had a real social base: the educated middle class. The army officers supported the PDPA because they were part of that class. The Daoud regime had a base only in the old ruling class, and that was by now a small and isolated force. So almost nobody fought for him. And from the point of view of the PDPA, it seemed there was no choice. If they had not staged the coup, they would have been killed.

But they had one decisive weakness. Their support was among the officers, not the soldiers. In the sixties and early seventies they had tried to win the political argument in the countryside and they had comprehensively failed. So now they had to attempt to make a revolution from above.

They set about doing so. They were not reformists or time-servers or believers in class compromise or the parliamentary road. They were the flower of their generation. They hated the society they had grown up under. They meant to change it.

Almost immediately they passed two important sets of decrees. One was on land reform: all holdings over 15 acres were to be broken up and the land given to poor peasants and sharecroppers. This was a full scale assault on the khans.

The second set of decrees announced more education for girls and reduced brideprice to a token amount. These may not seem like revolutionary measures. But in the Afghan context they were a declaration of support for women’s liberation and an attack on Islam.

Feudal Afghanistan was deeply sexist. Brides were bought, and the price ranged from three years wages for a poor man to ten years wages. A man without sons could not defend his land against larger families. A really poor man could never marry And because each family’s hand was turned against the other in chronic disputes over land and water, no poor man could easily defend his marriage. Divorce was illegal, women worked from before dawn to after dusk, and were beaten if they refused to work. If somebody stole a man’s wife, he shot him if he was powerful and ate great shame if the other man was a powerful khan he dare not challenge.

The oppression of women was central to the tradition of Afghan Islam. Mullahs preached the veil and threw acid at the legs of unveiled women in Kabul. Most poor women had to work in the fields and their husbands could not seclude them. But the richer families in each village could, and the poorer men aspired to be like them. For the sharecropper lucky enough to marry or the poorer peasant with little land, his wife was all he could control. If he lost her he lost all love, all possibility of children, all support in old age.

In an unequal and corrupt society, Islam preached equality and honesty The Law would be obeyed. All orders of men prayed together in the mosque, all equal before God. And if only the rich could protect the modesty of their women in reality, Islam said that the community as a whole would punish adulterers in the name of God.

The Afghan communists had grown up in these families. They knew the oppression, the personal bitterness, the sexual pain. And many of them were women. For them, as for the Muslim right, the position of women was a fundamental issue.

But to push through land reform and bring women’s equality, they had to make their revolution from the top down. That meant doing it through the Afghan state. And the Afghan peasants hated the state. In the non-Pushtun areas they regarded the state as a form of Pushtun conquest. But in most Pushtun areas too people had memories of local wars against the state. Everywhere there were mote recent memories of the secret police. And for Afghans anarchy was not a utopia. In most areas people remembered when they had been independent of the state. Along the Pakistani border hundreds of thousands still lived in effective independence.

The mullahs began to organise. They said that the communists were infidels (mostly true) and tools of the Russians (not true). And there was a long history of rebellion against the state and imperialism under the banner of Islam. The Afghans had fought two successful Jihads against the British in the nineteenth century and an insurrectionary Jihad in 1928 had brought down King Amanullah. This tradition was remembered.

The PDPA had to win the argument against the mullahs in the countryside. If they had had a real base in the countryside and among the conscript soldiers, they could have fought for their reforms from the bottom up. They didn’t. So they sent in jeeps full of men in Western suits protected by ambivalent conscript soldiers. The peasants looked at them, and saw the enemy coming.


The first risings were in the traditional centres of rebellion against the state: Nuristan and Pakhtia. But everywhere the mullahs and their followers tried demonstrations and isolated shootings at government officers from behind the rocks.

Without a local base, the PDPA could only react with arrests and torture: police terror. And in fact their politics fitted with this. They looked to the Soviet Union as a model, and there too an enlightened minority ruled with police terror.

But Afghanistan in 1978 was not Stalin’s Russia in 1928. The arrests only fuelled the resistance. The families of those who died in custody looked for revenge. And as the local resistance grew stronger, the PDPA turned to helicopter gunships to bomb the peasantry into submission. But while police action can be a selective form of terror, napalm could only be a form of class war against the peasantry. And so it united the peasants behind the mullahs and fed the resistance.

Of course, the resistance had nothing like the scale of popular support it now enjoys. But the PDPA’S base was a weak one simply because the urban middle class was a weak class in an overwhelmingly peasant country. And as the repression increased that base began to splinter. Under these pressures the PDPA itself began to splinter. The old Parcham activists said that they were going too far too fast and should hold off the reforms to win the peasants. The old Khalqis said that only repression could keep them in power and push through the reforms. Both were wrong. Neither repression nor moderation could win over the peasantry now.

So the communists began to kill each other. The Khalq faction took control of the state and filled the jails with Parchamis. The Khalq itself began to break, and in the autumn of 1978 its leader, President Taraki was killed by the radical Mohammed Amin. None of this stopped the collapse. The prisons and the graves filled as the government lost control of the countryside.

Then, in December 1979, the Russian army invaded.


The Russians had not planned the “April Revolution”. (Whatever the American right may say) Daoud’s was a friendly government, and the Russians are not in the habit of organising social revolution against friendly governments. The PDPA saw itself as a communist party, but not as a tool of the interests of the Russian state. Their revolution was home grown.

But when they seemed to succeed the USSR treated them as effectively part of the Soviet bloc. But the deep social conservatism of the CPSU meant that they Were appalled that the Khalq was risking everything on a programme of real reform.

They argued strongly with the PDPA for calling off the reforms and building a “Fatherland Front”, a coalition with the khans and the mullahs. They saw Mohammed Amin, the effective leader of the Khalq, as the main opposition to this.

And indeed Amin was the leader of those communists who were not prepared to become Russian puppets.

First the Russians supported the Parchamis. After they were arrested or went into exile in the Soviet bloc, the Russians persuaded the Khalqi President Taraki to kill Amin. In the ensuring gun battle Amin killed Taraki instead and took over as head of state. The Russians tried another assassination attempt and failed.

Then they invaded. It is difficult to be absolutely sure why. (Kremlinology like Contragatology, is an opaque science.) But it looks like there were several reasons.

Firstly, it looked like the Afghan government would fall. No part of the Soviet block had ever fallen to a popular insurrection. And this was a state on the Russian border with a Muslim fundamentalist opposition. It was just after the Iranian revolution, and the Russians must have been worried about reverberations in the Muslim south of the USSR.

But secondly, they probably thought they could do it. The Red Army did not expect to lose a war to a bunch of bandits in the hills.

And thirdly, they seemed to have believed that if they could remove Amin and implement a sensible moderate strategy, they could win over the peasants So they killed Amin and put Karmal, the leader of the Parchamis, in his place. Karmal proceeded to call off the reforms, pray ostentatiously on television and promise to call off the repression.

The Russian strategy failed. Nobody believed Karmal. But even if they had, there were now over 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. The mullahs had been saying the PDPA were Russian tools. Amin had not been. Karmal was.

This was a nation with a living tradition of successful Jihad against imperialist infidel invaders. The tradition was revived. The Afghan peasants swung solidly behind the Islamic resistance.

So did the urban middle class, the old base of the PDPA. The students demonstrated in Kabul, led by the girl’s school that had been the centre of agitation against the veil under King Zahir. The civil savants went on strike and joined the demonstration. Some of the Khalq led sections of the army mutinies. The peasants took up arms.


And so began eight years of war. But if Afghanistan is Russia’s Vietnam, the Mujahedin are unlike every other national liberation movement. They are not united, they are not led by one party and they are deeply reactionary.

Classic guerrillas are a disciplined force relying on popular support. the Mujahedin are not an army swimming in the sea of the people: they are the people themselves in arms.

The Russian strategy since 1980 has been to hold the cities and towns. In rural areas they have relied on sending in tanks and armoured infantry supported by helicopter gunships and bombing. With this strategy they can kill a lot of people. Several hundred thousand have died.

They can also drive out most of the farming population and the nomads in the areas they choose to make free fire zones. Of about 15 million Afghans, over 3 million are now in refugee camps in Pakistan, 2 million scrap a living in the slums of Iranian cities, and a million refugees live in Kabul.

But this strategy cannot defeat rural guerrillas. The Russians have clearly found the cost of leaving the shelter of their tanks too high. So they send in the planes and armour, the Mujahedin melt away, the Russians return to base and so do the Mujahedin.

In most rural areas there is a sort of stand off. Both sides shoot at each other. The local garrisons of the conscript Afghan army have an informal agreement not to fight. If the Mujahedin attack the cities, the Russian army will come to the villages and massacre. So the killing goes on and the battle lines do not change much.

The building blocks of the Mujahedin are the “base” units. Each base is the old “qaum”, the old local units in arms. In some areas each small village is a base. In sour villages which were spilt in the old days between two factions each faction is now a base. In valleys with more than one nationality or sect each one will have it’s own base. So, quite typically, a small valley with six villages may have ten bases.

Each base has an operational and military independence. There is no overall commander. Bases in the same area may combine for a raid on a nearby army post. But they may not.

People fight in or near their homes. If they can, they farm their land. If it is a free fire zone, the women and children and old men go to the camps in Pakistan. The men take turns going back into Afghanistan to fight. When they can, they keep an eye out for planes and continue farming their land.

And they farm the land of the absent khan. For the old ruling class are conspicuous by their absence from the struggle on the ground. They sit in Peshawar and Paris and New York. They have abdicated their power.

With the partial exception of the strategic Panjshir Valley no commander controls a mobile army he can order into battle where it is needed. Several base units may combine from the Pakistani camps to the home village. But they try to avoid fighting on the way. And they pay cash for food on the way.


Each base is affiliated to one of the seven parties of the Mujahedin in Peshawar. Different bases in the same valley often belong to different parties. The choice may be ideological, but it also reflects old rivalries between villages, nationalities, factions and clans. The leader of a base will often take his men to another party. “I was with the Harakat, but my enemy kept saying bad things about me, so I went over to the Hezb.”

The parties are the conduit fir money and guns. The Americans and the Saudis supply the most money and the Chinese some. The Pakistanis supply little money, but without their base in Pakistan the resistance would probably have collapsed.

A lot of the money and guns never reach the fighters on the ground. Various Americans and Saudis doubtless skim. But the bulk of the theft is by Pakistani bureaucrats and the national and local leaders of the Afghan parties.

This combines with the corruption produced by the hugely profitable drug trade. In many areas of Afghanistan opium is the cash crop best adapted to local conditions, and no central authority has an interest in closing it down. Nor do the pious Americans, for the Mujahedin have to eat. The effect has been to slowly rot the Pakistani state and army

But if many resistance leaders are individually corrupt, they are very serious about their politics. And they are deeply divided.

The main political division is between the “traditionalists” and the “Islamists”. The traditionalists are based on the old ruling class and the mullahs. One (Gailani’s) looks to the old King, Zahir, now waiting in Italy. One (Mujaddidi’s) is more frankly secular and one (Muhammadi’s) is based on the network of traditional Pushtun mullahs.

But the traditionalist wing is the weaker. The mullahs have been active on the ground: the khans have not. The traditionalists have tried for some time to organise a “loe jirga”, a traditional national tribal council of the ruling class inside Afghanistan, to call for the return of the King. They have failed.

The CIA tends to favour them as a relatively moderate force. But when Professor Majrooh, a leading traditionalist, was recently assasinated in Nshawar, everybody knew the Isamists had done so. Yet none of the traditionalists had the courage to say so. They complain in private about the Islamists; they do not feel strong enough to argue publicly.

There are four Islamist parties; two of them are important. One is the relatively “moderate” Jamiyyati Islami. They are led by Rabbani, a former Professor of Theology in Kabul University. Their cadre are University students and mullahs, and most of than are Farsi speaking Tajiks from the North. Like all the Mujahedin parties they want to install a truly Muslim state in Kabul. Unlike the traditionalists, they mean it. They continue the tradition of looking to Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The radicals are the Hizbi Islam of Hekmatyar, the Party of Islam. Hekmatyar himself was an engineering student at Kabul University in the 60s and a leader of the Muslim right then. Even more than Rabbani’s, this is the party of that part of the new middle class that hated the King and the State but looked to an Islamic revolution.

The Party is much more organised and disciplined than the other organisations. They definitely see themselves as the future government of Afghanistan, and all other parties complain that the Party attacks their base units and assassinates their militants.

Rabbani is to some extent an Islamic utopian. Hekmatyar is completely so. He looks forward to an Islamic state without oppression, without wasteful riches, without injustice, without indecent women and without an opposition. And with private property of course. It is a dream of a bourgeois state without greed. But it is not a dream of a return to the old feudal ruling class. They are firm that there should be no return to the King and his ways. Hekmatyar’s Party talks abstractly of social justice and means an end to the power of the khans.

Both parties, and particularly Hekmatyar’s, are the political expression of the right wing of the new middle class created by education. In class terms, they are the same people as the communists. Their leading cadre is not the product of the Russian invasion. Masood, Rabbani’s commander in Panjshir, for instance, is often represented as a heroic nationalist. But he was a student militant of the Muslini right in the early seventies, like Hekmatyar and Rabbani, and had to flee to Pakistan after the Islamic insurrection of 1975 was crushed. The political goal of this cadre remains what it was then: to take control of the Afghan state and build a centralised bourgeois dictatorship.


Are the resistance party simply tools of the CIA? No. The Mujahedin would have collapsed without American, Saudi and Pakistani support. But the relationship is not simply one of master and puppet. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the debate in the American government over Stinger missiles.

Since 1980 the Mujahedin have been loudly demanding surface to air missiles. They felt that these would immobilise the Russian helicopters and air cover, and make a decisive shift in the military situation.

The Jesse Helms wing of the Reagan administration supported them. The cut has been against it. Helms is an ideologue: the CIA has the actual job of managing the American empire, and a much clearer idea of what is happening on the ground. They were more than happy to supply the Afghans with enough money and arms to be a thorn in the flesh for the Russians, and a continuing propaganda plus in the Muslim world.

But a victory for the Mujahedin would be something else again. The two great enemies in American domestic propaganda in the 80s have been the drug peddler and the Islamic fundamentalists. A Mujahedin victory could well bring to power a regime that was to the right of the Ayatollahs. That regime would preside over a state faced with the choice of tolerating a massive drug trade or trying to deprive millions of poor peasants of their livelihood. If Noriega has been embarrassing, that could well be far worse.

Moreover, it would be a regime the Americans supported and were in some sense responsible for. But it would not be a malleable client state. Hekmatyar’s Party in particular would be a nightmare. When the Mujahedin leaders went to the UN, Reagan invited them to Washington for a photo call. They had to refuse, because Hekmatyar refused to shake Reagan’s hand. He holds that both super powers are imperialist and anti-Islamic.

Two yeas ago the CIA lost the argument in Washington. They stalled for months on actually delivering the Stinger missiles. But in the end they had to do so The military consequences have been dramatic. For the last two years the Russians have been losing one helicopter or plane a day, on average. That costs them a lot of money


The Stingers have been one element in the Russian defeat. Of course, the Russian withdrawal is part of a much larger project. The USSR faces an economic crisis. On the domestic front, the Gorbachev wing of the CPSU sees no alternative to rationalisation of industry (perestroika). On the international front, the cost of military competition with the USA has become too high. This is at the heart of Gorbachev’s worries over Star Wars and his desire for a deal on limiting missile expenditure. It has also led to serious attempts to negotiate settlements with the South Africans over Angola and Namibia and with Pol Pot, Sihanouk and the Americans over Kampuchea.

The Afghan withdrawal is part of this. The cost of the war has been too much. Of course the main cost has been half a million to a million Afghan dead. Only some 10,000 to 20,000 Russian troops have died. But for the Russian state the economic bill has been more important.

Precise figures are unavailable, but the best guess is that for the last three years the cost has been running between four billion and twelve billion dollars a year. It is, in Gorbachev’s words, a “bleeding sore”.

And they have not won the military battle. The countryside is in the hands of the resistance. For years now the Mujahedin have held the suburbs of Kandahar, the second city and been able to operate in the city centre at night. The Russians hold Kabul, but the Mujahedin can regularly bring down Soviet planes landing at Kabul airport, two miles from the city centre.

The strategy of junking reforms and winning over the tribal leaders to a “Fatherland Front” has also failed. In a last attempt the Russians deposed Karmal and replaced him with Najibullah, supposedly a more moderate and acceptable negotiator. As he was for years the head of the secret police, it is not surprising that the Afghan masses have not flocked to his banner.

So the Russians have lost the political battle and the military battle. Of course, they have not suffered total defeat. They could hang on indefinitely. They could even win if they were prepared to commit two million men and suffer ten times the casualties.

But the Americans could have stayed in Vietnam if they had been prepared to commit five million men. The French could have stayed in Algeria on the same terms. But in both cases the resistance meant that the political and economic cost was too high for the occupying power. And in a situation short of total war, like 1939-45, that is what defeat means.


Within a year, the Russian army will be gone. Without Russian support, the Afghan army will not fight. Diplomats in Kabul now debate whether the regime will collapse in three months or two years. Rumour says that the leading cadres of the PDPA are sending their families abroad.

The Mujahedin will take power. But which Mujahedin? There is no one disciplined army. For the moment the Peshawar parties have cobbled together a provisional government. But the political and personal differences are too large for that government to hold together.

And the Afghan peasantry is armed. They are still organised along the traditional ethnic, tribal and factional cleavages. They have fought for their freedom. They will be happy to see an Islamic government in Kabul, but not happy to submit to the real authority of that state. There are the makings of a hundred local land wars. The khans preserved their landholdings by force and their links with the old state. Now they will come back to claim that land.

But force and legitimacy will lie with those who remained to fight the war. For the moment there has been a labour shortage on the land with so many men in the refugee camps. But when they return there will be pressure on the land.

That pressure will be exacerbated because so many of the irrigation works and chains of wells have been destroyed during the war. If everybody returns to the land at once, they face ecological disaster and starvation. But anybody who does not return risks losing the control of their fields.

At first the state will have no repressive apparatus independent of the base units. And many of those base units will be tempted to fight each other for control of land rights and water rights they have sullenly disputed for generations. If these feuding base units join up with opposing parties, there could be the makings of a civil war.

And there is the national question. The Jammayati Islami is majority Tajik: the Party of Islam is majority Pushtun. And in the central mountains the Hazara people have been independent for eight years.

The Hazaras, fifteen per cent of the population, are Farsi speaking mountain people claiming Mongol descent. They have always been the lowest and most despised ethnic group. They return that hatred for the Afghan state and the Pushtuns. From the first the Russians decided it was not worth the effort of conquering their mountain region.

At first the old ruling class set up the shura, the committee, to run the Hazarajat in the old way. But unlike the other Afghans, the Hazaras are Shiahs. Those who hated the old ruling class looked to the Iranian example.

The Peshawar parties are all resolutely Sunni. They have been influenced by the Iranian example, but they have contempt for the Iranian regime. This is because the Ayatollahs have done nothing to help the Afghan resistance. They have provided no arms, no money and no refugee camps. They consider the USA the larger threat and do not wish to cross the USSR.

But the more militant a-students and middle peasants in the Hazarajat had always hated the khans who made up the Committee. They organised into two parties, both modelled on the Iranian example. The first was Nasr, a fundamentalist party that began to attack the Committee. They were joined by the Sepah, a direct client of the Iranian Pasandaran (Revolutionary Guards, a sort of Freikorps.) An affiance between the Sepah and the Nasr drove the Committee and the Khans from the Hazarajat.

The base units of the Sunni Peshawar parties now cross the Hazarajat to their homes in the north. The Nasr and Sepah extort money and guns from them. The Peshawar parties say they must not fight the Hazaras now: the current need is for unity against the Russians. But they say that when the Russians go they will settle with the Nasr and Sepah. They will, and it will be bloody. The Hazaras have tasted independence, and they have their arms.


There will be many small land wars. These may or may not combine into a civil war. The new state will certainly move to crush the independent power of the bases. It will not be easy.

Who will win? One of the Peshawar parties. It is impossible to say which one, but the fundamentalist parties have the best chance. The traditionalists stand for a discredited class. The fundamentalists have the enormous advantage of focusing on control of the state. In a fragmented and shifting political situation, that concentration of effort will probably be decisive. As the new middle class won in the Hazarajat, one fundamentalist party or another is likely to win on a national scale. The resulting regime will be extremely right wing. It will be the enemy of women, of sharecroppers, peasants and workers. And that is the tragedy of the Afghan communists.

In 1978 when Daoud moved to kill them, it seemed to them as if they had little choice. But because they tried to make a revolution through the officers rather than the enlisted men, through the state from the top down rather than from the bottom up, they have met with a fate far more shameful than death.

They chose the path of helicopter gunship socialism. Napalm and electrodes have destroyed any possibility of socialist organisation in Afghanistan for a generation.

Those boys in that street in Lashkargah in 1971 will now be men in their thirties. Some will have been killed by other communists, and some by the Mujahedin. Some will have gone over to the resistance. But as the last Russian helicopters leave their base at Lashkargah, one may scramble for safety. As the Americans did in Vietnam, the Russians will push him back. This time he will not face a re-education camp. He will face death.

Those boys who appealed to that peasant crowd against the state went on to use the state against the peasants. Now that crowd will be coming for them.


On a world level, the Russian defeat is a blow against imperialism. The American defeat in Vietnam opened up the space for mass movements in Nicaragua, Iran, the Philippines, Haiti and Korea. The Russian defeat is not on the same scale, but it will be felt.

The Russian army and the Russian state have not suffered a defeat for sixty years. Their grip on the Soviet bloc has much to do with the feeling that the state is invulnerable. In 1980-81 the Polish activists were always looking over their shoulder for the tanks. Now in Warsaw and in Budapest and Prague the militants can say, maybe the tanks will not come. Maybe they can be defeated.

The Russian army in Afghanistan was a conscript army on tours of duty, like the Americans in Vietnam. Perhaps 600,000 citizens of the USSR have lived through a defeat of the Russian state. Some of them will have been on the streets of Armenia. Since 1945 the world has been policed by the US Marines, the Sixth Fleet and the Russian tanks. Now that grip is breaking on both sides. In the space that opens up, there will be a place for mass movements such as has not existed for forty years.

The Mujahedin victory is welcome for creating part of that space. After 1979, there was never any way forward for a democratic and socialist movement in Afghanistan than support for the Mujahedin. But whatever part of the Mujahedin wins power, they will not be a regime any socialist can support.

In Afghanistan, it is time to welcome peace after long years of war. It is time to recognise that as the TB patients said, the land of the Afghans will still be the land of tyranny. It is time to weep for the tragedy of Afghan communism.

Further Reading

The three essential things are Jonathan Neale, The Afghan Tragedy, International Socialism 2:12, 1981, also available in German as Die Afghanische Tragödie, translated by Kurt Stronski, Aurora Verlag, Hamburg, 1982; M. Nazif Shahrani, State Building and Social Fragmentation in Afghanistan: A Historical Perspective, in Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (editors), The State, Religion and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, Syracuse University Press, 1986; and Olivier Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, Cambridge University Press, 1986, available in French as L’Afghanistan: Islam et Moderne Politique.

In addition: the best book on Afghan communism, from the point of view of the American state, is Henry S. Bradsher, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, Duke University Press, 1985 edition. Most journalistic books on the Mujahedin are Boy’s Own or Girl’s Own adventures: the exception is Arthur Bonner, Among the Afghans, Duke University Press, 1987 I have condensed a very complex history: for the detail see my 1981 artice and Shahrani.

There are several excellent ethnographies: Robert Canfield, Faction and Conversion in a Plural Society: Religious Alignments in the Hindu Kush, University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology Papers, No. 50, 1973; Thomas J. Barfield, The Central Asian Arabs of Afghanistan: Pastoral Nomadism in Transition, University of Texas Press, 1981; M. Nazif Shahrani, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers, University of Washington Press, 1979; Veronica Doubleday, Three Women of Herat, London, 1988; and Nancy Tapper’s 1979 London Ph.D. thesis, Marriage and Social Organisation among Durrani Pushtuns in Northern Afghanistan, which should be published immediately.


1. In the original: “they would kill him”

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Last updated: 22.7.2012