Ellis Garvey writes about the socialist history of Afghanistan and its eventual attack from both Afghan counter-revolutionaries and western imperialism.
A land torn apart by war and devastation imposed by the United States and NATO for decades may seem as if it was always this way. However, in this article I wish to dispel that notion and tell the tale of the heroic Afghan people and their struggle for progress and independence. Afghanistan is a land rich in history and culture, as well as resources, which has seen a long-drawn-out class struggle by its people. This is its story both before and after the collapse of socialism by the hands of US, NATO and the nations of what would become the EU.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country sandwiched between the former Central Asian states of the USSR, Pakistan, Iran and China. Its strategic location made it a target for imperialism, Afghanistan would be relegated to being a ‘buffer’ state between the Russian Empire and the British Empire – in what was termed as “The Great Game.” By the 1960s, it would remain mostly undeveloped, still ravaged by old feudal relations, at the behests of the US imperialism who had invested in the country for cheap resources rather than developing industry. The Royal Family of Zahir Shah lived in luxury whilst the peasant dominated nation would own near to nothing. The peasantry was frozen in old land relations which had proved to be neither helping develop the agricultural growth nor provide sustainability in Afghanistan. Despite being a ‘constitutional’ monarchy, the Parliament provided little to no representation and was subject to incredibly low levels of trust. Republican and secularist parties were outlawed but the new People’s Democratic Tendency would grow in support.
In 1965 socialists led by Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal would bide their time and draw support from the failing Socialist Party of Afghanistan. Taraki would be elected the Secretary General of the newly formed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), rapidly seeking support throughout Afghanistan. The ruling Afghan government was attempting to play both sides of the Cold War for aid, and many Afghans had the opportunity to go to the USSR and learn about the successes of socialism in developing Central Asia and Russia. Taraki and Karmal would go on international meetings to the USSR to gain international solidarity for the cause of progress in Afghanistan. In 1966, the newspaper Khalq (meaning masses), would be set to run and quickly spread the message of the PDPA, but was forced to stop running and replaced with another newspaper called Parcham (meaning banner or flag).
They would start running candidates in 1965 and several, including one of the first women in modern Afghan politics, Anahita Ratebzad, would be elected to the legislature. Eventually, tired of the lacklustre progress, Afghanistan would undergo a coup by the hand of Mohammed Daoud Khan, a relative of King Zahir Shah, partially with the assistance of members of the PDPA. Daoud Khan would establish a republic with himself as the President and the leader of his own party, the National Revolutionary Party of Afghanistan (NRPA), and would become the head of the country. The policies that followed would be a series of social democratic style measures aimed towards improving the country. This would also lead to the growing influence of Wahhabism; as exiled religious leaders in Pakistan, who would later become leaders of the Mujahideen, declared Jihad against Daoud Khan – denouncing him as a communist.
The PDPA would become split into two groupings named after the two different newspapers. The Parcham represented a reform path in which they assisted Khan’s republican project from the beginning. The other group, the Khalq, criticised the Parchamis’ position, they demanded the entrenchment of a national-democratic revolution led by the PDPA as the vanguard of the working-class and not the petit bourgeois NRPA. This proved to be true as Khan started to turn 180o away from the USSR, and began to deepen relations with the West, alongside opening the country to Saudi Arabia and monarchist Iran.
The USSR encouraged the PDPA to stay together to prevent a potential collapse. Members of the military, many of whom came from the lower classes, were appealed to by the PDPA to finally put the country in the hands of the workers and end the opportunist regime of Daoud Khan. Students in Kabul were a haven for the PDPA to help unite the progressive classes of Afghanistan into a single vanguard; they would be vital in providing a future for Afghanistan as a new young nation.
Khan prepared a massive purge of the Parchamis from government and consolidated his leadership. Several protests broke out through the mid-70s. This culminated in the 1978 assassination of Mir Akbar Khyber, the editor of Parcham newspaper and a former police academy ‘Ustad’ (instructor), who had infiltrated the military in favour of the Parchami faction; with Khan placing the responsibility of the assassination on the growing Islamists led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Many suspected it was an assassination by supporters of Khan to finish off the Parchamis in government. Mass protests of thousands would be held, PDPA realised now was the time to rally the masses against foreign interference (CIA and the Iranian SAVAK) in the country. Daoud Khan would moved quickly to imprison Tarakiand Karmal.
One of the heads of the Khalqis, Hafizullah Amin, who had extensively infiltrated the military in favour of the Khalqi faction, asked to be taken to prison after merely being placed under lenient house arrest; during which time, he had orchestrated the coup that was to follow only a few hours later.
On the 27th of April the Saur Revolution/coup had begun. Daoud was informed of the unfolding coup and his guards. Refusing to surrender Khan was killed in the infighting. The PDPA, led by the victorious Khalqi faction, declared that it was a national struggle, and that it represented the anti-imperialist trend global trend which opposed the robbing of Afghanistan’s resources and would now be dedicated to providing a path of social justice.
Amin and Taraki would help form a government dedicated to building a society based on social justice with the PDPA as its vanguard using a Revolutionary Council. The country would be renamed to the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and a new constitution would gradually take shape as revolutionary changes are conducted. The changes would include a struggle to eradicate illiteracy (which was at a high of 90%) and achieve secularisation. It would also include the emancipation of women and women taking positions in government as well as the outlawing of feudal practices of forced marriages, Sharia Law and, importantly, changing the relations of production. A Land Reform decree was conducted, and land was given to the tiller and taken away from feudal rulers. However, some of the social changes, such as changing the nation’s flag and incorporating “revolutionary red colours” into almost every aspect of life, were taking place too quickly; promoting USSR General Secretary, Brezhnev, to advise Taraki to slow down.
Counter-revolutionaries would try to destabilise the government and make the reforms unpopular by disrupting them through boycotts and terrorist attacks. The problem of Islamic Fundamentalism was a growing problem as the PDPA would attempt to modernise the country by re-educating the populace. Worse still Western Europe, the US and China (which at this time had cooperated with the US against the USSR) would all condemn the PDPA and the Saur Revolution. The foreign powers would fund and train the Mujahideen which had declared a Jihad against the DRA. With neighbouring Islamist Iran and far-right Pakistan providing a place to train and supply the opposition. Negative coverage on the international scale would continue and this would lead to the eventual boycott of the Soviet Union’s Olympics in 1980 harming the DRA’s reputation.
Bitter rivalries inside the PDPA were not resolved. Parchamis would criticise the fact that Afghanistan’s peasantry and workers needed more time in order to properly achieve a revolution. This would lead to the purging of the Parcham faction of the PDPA, with its leaders being exiled as ambassadors to foreign countries; and many of the faction’s followers being tortured, imprisoned or executed.
As the pivotal year of 1979 progressed, Hafizullah Amin grew more and more impatient with the state of affairs and the leadership style of Taraki. Amin would have Taraki killed and accused of trying to start a personality cult around himself (even though it was something that Amin had himself cultivated around Taraki) and having followed weak policies that did not go far enough. Efforts to curb the uprisings going on in several cities such as that in Herat would take place and would be crushed. The oppositions ranks were stamped at every corner and mass arrests of “potential Islamists” began, many of whom would be executed.
Amin’s hardline stance on opposition, from within and outside of the party, stocked a fear of uncertainty with the Soviet leadership; as did his talks of forming a coalition with the infamous warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. This was particularly worrying for the Soviets, as they would have faced a Wahhabist state on the borders of some of their Muslim-majority republics – Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Furthermore, Amin had requested direct assistance from the Soviets around 18 times, as he was disenfranchising more and more people, including from within his own Khalqi faction of the PDPA.
For these reasons, on the 27th of December 1979 the KGB would launch an operation that would assassinate Amin; and the leadership of the country would be passed onto the next most senior member of the PDPA,the leader of the Parcham faction, Babrak Karmal. Karmal would seek to work with the Soviets towards stabilising Afghanistan; with one of his first acts being the declaration of full amnesty to the thousands of folks imprisoned during the fascistic reign of Amin.
However, the foreign powers were now able to cultivate the myth of ‘Soviet imperialism’ in Afghanistan. Trying to appeal to the broadest possible people, Karmal formed a national front and moved to write a constitution to unite the country. Women’s rights were still pushed with the Afghan Women’s Council (AWC) being reinforced; with Parcham figure, Anahita Ratebzad, given the responsibility for this task. The AWC would work tirelessly to emancipate women, and by 1981, 230,000 where in schools and 7,000 women where in higher education; they also achieved a record number of 190 female professors and some 22,000 teachers in the education system. Social security became a massive concern in winning people over.
Initially there was a lot of potential, with the DRA securing control over the majority of provinces; with the Mujahideen forces only controlling small pockets. However by 1985 any hope of modernising Afghanistan’s economy became a distant dream; Gorbachev’s faction in the Soviet leadership, no longer caring about the national revolution, gradually abandoned Afghanistan and pinned the blame on the DRA leadership. Karmal’s days became numbered. Gorbachev, only a couple of years his junior, asked Karmal to resign and hand over his position to somebody younger. Karmal, fearing a potential political crisis within the fragile Afghan leadership, reluctantly accepted.
The leader of the state security, Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, would utilise the support of the USSR and the reformation of the political institutions (which were to be clarified in the 1987 Constitution) to ease out Karmal’s policies; as in 1986, he was elected the head of the PDPA. By November 30th of 1987 the new constitution of Afghanistan was ready, and the country was renamed the Republic of Afghanistan, the new document, whilst proclaiming social justice, did reaffirm the role of Islam as the state religion and began diminishing the role of the PDPA as a Marxist-Leninist party – parallellng the Zahir Shah era constitution.
Insofar as foreign policy was concerned the focus was anti-imperialism as described in the following paragraph:
“The Republic of Afghanistan supports the struggle of peoples and nations for peace, national independence, democracy, social progress and the right of nations to self-determination and fights against colonialism, neocolonialism, Zionism, racism, Apartheid and fascism.”
Political parties were partially legalised, excluding the most radical Islamic fundamentalists, as the government was preparing for a broad coalition; in order to complete the policy of national reconciliation. In a Western-style system, a Senate and a House of Representatives was set up formally to provide a place for the opposition parties alike. Most Islamists were not interested in reconciliation and more interested in demolishing the system of social justice and anti-imperialism; even the more progressive Mujahid warlords, like Ahmed Shah Masoud showed to be little more than stooges of imperialism. Some liberals did take up the offer and many left leaning parties helped form a new government gradually. Accords were achieved in Geneva to oppose Pakistan’s support for terrorism, but this fell on deaf ears, as the US refused to abide by them and the socialist states could no longer pay attention to the situation in Afghanistan – having been neglected by the USSR and dealing with growing internal instabilities themselves.
The problems became compounded as Najib relinquished control over key strategic areas in Afghanistan as part of his reconciliation policies.
The last economic plans that went out would have seen Afghanistan’s industry and agriculture improve massively, but this was not to be; with Najib’s liberal reforms in Afghanistan mirroring those of Gorbachev’s Perestroika policies in the USSR, the DRA entered economic problems. Slowly the cracks started to appear and by 1989 Afghanistan would have no more assistance from the USSR; as Gorbachev was moving to abandon support for socialists internationally.
The Pakistani secret service, the ISI, would attempt to launch a massive offensive in the city of Jalalabad which cost many lives but was ultimately repelled. A few hardline Khalqis, in coalition with Hekmatyar, had attempted to launch a coup against Najibullah, but to no avail.
At this point, many more Afghans began fleeing the country.
By 1990, the party constitution of the PDPA was reformed to induct Islam and the PDPA was transformed into the Watan (Homeland) Party; which would remove any trace of class struggle or representative function of the Working-Class, instead regarding itself as more of a liberal party.
Afghanistan would rapidly decline with the fall of the socialist bloc; few countries were willing to defend it. Najibullah told the infamous revisionist renegade Shevardnadze that “I didn’t want to be president, you talked me into it, insisted on it, and promised support. Now you are throwing me and the Republic of Afghanistan to its fate.”
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Afghanistan would collapse into anarchy in April 1992; as Russia refused any aid. By this time the Mujahideen factions had surrounded Kabul, the heavy ISI and CIA support would allow them to converge on Kabul. A UN Accord would be signed to transform Afghanistan into a reactionary neo-colony of the US known as the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The country would still be in a state of civil war as factions of the Mujahideen refused to recognise any changes; the factions of Hekmatyar, Ahmed Shah Masoud and others would brutally attack Afghans in their sectarian conflicts. This led to two reactionary regimes in a constant fight with one and other. Kabul for 4 whole years would see a brutal never-ending battle. Meanwhile a growing fascist group created by the ISI, known as the Taliban, were amassing support from the bitter hatred of the people towards the Mujahideen.
In 1996, the Battle of Kabul would end with a Taliban victory; having come from nothing to the most organised fighting force. Kabul was left in ruins and its residents subject to atrocities. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was formed on even more reactionary lines than the Islamic State of Afghanistan, and subjected the people to brutal feudal relations designed at purging the country of all ‘Western influences’. Women were reduced to an underclass and mass persecution ensued. Najibullah was taken, from his safety within the UN compound in Kabul, to be tortured and then executed by hanging. The only ‘good’ from this period was the removal of the drug traffic and lack of engagement with the West. Arab fighting forces in the country, led mostly by Osama Bin Laden, would lead atrocities in hunting down the opposition.
Following 9/11, the Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden and other Jihadists; however the US were more interested in saving the regime of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The US would invade Afghanistan in 2001; in a move that was ironically more extreme than the USSR’s protection of the DRA. The US would begin a campaign of bombarding Kabul and bringing havoc to the country. The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan would replace the Islamic State of Afghanistan; though the country is still embroiled in a bitter Islamist civil war, and has become little more than a neo-colony of US interests. Corruption runs rampant and the government is totally ineffectual; it is often more interested in lining its own pockets with foreign investments than fighting for the workers and alleviating the severe poverty and hunger. Socialists and leftists are actively suppressed both in Afghanistan and internationally.
This is the sad reality of what has happened in Afghanistan today. The only government in Afghanistan’s history which looked out for its workers and peasants was attacked from the start by the imperialism of the US and NATO. Being completely isolated following the fall of the socialist camp has caused people to reassess the history of the DRA and PDPA. However, it is important to see where Afghans are going and how working-class politics are regaining ground as doubt in the system appears and Afghans clamour for peace and independence.
I spoke with Iraj from the Khalq Collective. Having grown up in Afghanistan and now living abroad, Iraj tells us some reflections of the DRA, its lessons and what has happened since. The Khalq Collective is a group of socialist and anti-imperialist Afghans and Iranians.
Ellis: Hello I am very pleased to have a chance to speak to an Afghan socialist.
Iraj: Hi there. Pleased to be talking with you today.
Ellis: When looking at history, what brought about and made the PDPA successful? And what led to the success of the Saur Revolution?
Iraj: The PDPA was successful because it took up the mantle of the vanguard party; at a time when the global movements for independence and emancipation, contributed to the overall class consciousness of the propertyless/toiling-class, as a global class, reaching an all time high. The conditions of a patriotic-democratic revolution (meaning a “class-collaborationalist” or a united front of workers, peasants, farmers and the national bourgeoisie against the comprador/finance bourgeoisie) in Afghanistan seemed inevitable, particularly following the events of Khyber’s assassination and Daoud Khan’s repressive measures. However the Saur Revolution, that is the bloody coup/Blanquist adventurism at the behest of the fascistic Hafizullah Amin, set up the revolutionary potential of the country for a fall. This is not to take away from some of the positive elements of the reforms that came about following the events of 7th of Saur (27th of April). Nevertheless, had Amin not orchestrated the coup, or even taken Karmal’s advice against executing the Daoud family; there would be less proverbial ammo to assassinate the image of the PDPA with.
Ellis: What were the positives of the period of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, what did the PDPA do well in the governance of the country?
Iraj: There were many positive elements: land reforms, especially in the case of raising the living standards of farmers and ethnic minorities; women’s emancipation, particularly in rural areas; cultural elevation, specifically in terms of music and poetry.
Ellis: What mistakes were made during this time? What is your take also on the struggle between the Khalqis and Parchamis?
Iraj: To reiterate, the bloody/Blanquist coup, conducted by the fascistic Hafizullah Amin was a mistake; Karmal and the Parchamis favoured a united front revolution, which seemed inevitable especially given the material conditions post-Khyber assassination. When in power, Taraki entrusted Amin to carry out most of the party’s policies; amongst which were the mistaken reforms to the flag and other social changes that were taking place far too quickly. Therein radicalising folks against the party. Overall, Amin was an bloodthirsty opportunist, who wasted little time in getting rid of any opposition to himself; including executing Taraki, exiling Parchami leaders (like Karmal, Dr. Anahita and Dr. Najib) as ambassadors, and torturing and killing other Parchami members of the PDPA and their supporters – including executing approximately 3000 Parchami members of the PDPA. Rumours of Amin being a possible CIA agent had been circulating since his return from the US. By the time he had executed Taraki, even some Khalqis began to question whether or not Amin was indeed a CIA agent. His lack of theoretical understanding certainly did not help his cause. For example, he would refer to the DRA as, something along the lines of, “The democratic dictatorship of the military of the proletariat.”
Ellis: Soviet intervention is trumpeted as an invasion by the western media but what was your experience and view of this period whilst in Afghanistan?
Iraj: I was born in 1990 so I don’t have a lived memory of the events; however, going back into the history of the events and speaking to family members and other folks, they recall how it felt – and it did indeed feel like an invasion. That is to say that although it was an anti-imperialist intervention (as many senior PDPA members felt that Hafizullah Amin was likely to have been a CIA agent – a claim refuted by the US); nevertheless, the Soviet Union’s into Afghanistan was meant to be a display of might. They were supposed to show their brute strength, as an older brother would to the children picking on their younger sibling; they were to secure the country on the basis of internationalist solidarity and leave in a matter of months. The reality of the situation however, is that it was an orchestrated final curtain for the Cold War, designed by the likes of Zbigniew Brzezinski in the US, to “give the Soviets their own Vietnam;” a prolonged “Bear Trap,” which would see the Soviets stuck in a quagmire that drained their reputation, resources and morale. For Afghan citizens, the Soviet intervention had been a relief, “a great deed” in as far as it had resulted in the removal of the bloodthirsty Hafizullah Amin.
Ellis: Do you think the PDPA could’ve retained power if they handled the situation better?
Iraj: Yes. I think Dr. Najib’s reforms weakened the country, especially with regards to its economy and military capacity. The PDPA went from controlling the majority of the country when Najib took power, to declining rapidly; as his policies of liberalisation of the economy (as advised by Gorbachev and Shevardnadze) and his reconciliation policies with the Mujahideen, were paralleled with a negative cult of personality. That is to say his often televised speeches/discussions would go something like, “our disenfranchised brothers (the Mujahideen) said they wouldn’t stop until the last Soviets were out of the country. Well I kicked them out. Najib told them to leave. So what is stopping you from entering into peace talks?”
Ellis: Was there any particular sources of blame, any individuals, responsible for the decline of the DRA and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? Either internal or external?
Iraj: There were many factors. King Zahir Shah’s 40 year reign without material improvements for the rural population. Daoud Khan’s repressions. The Islamists declaring Jihad against Daoud. The assassination of Mir Akbar Khyber. Hafizullah Amin’s bloody coup. Khalqis rapid social changes. Collapse of relations with Pakistan; Pakistani leadership wanting to see “Kabul burn slowly, slowly”. Islamic Revolution in Iran. Afghanistan’s geopolitical location; US wanting to give the Soviets “their own Vietnam.” Gorbachev becoming leader of the Soviet Union and implementing Perestroika reforms; mirrored in the DRA by Dr. Najib. And of course the fall of the Soviet Union, which in of itself was utterly catastrophic for the majority of the world.
Ellis: What was it like following the fall of Afghanistan to the Mujahideen? What facilitated the rise of the Taliban?
Iraj: The Mujahideen era or the “Tanzimats” (reformists, as they were more commonly called) was disastrous. Kabul fell victim to unprecedented crimes, too brutal and graphic to describe. This was part of the reason as to why the people of Kabul were somewhat optimistic when the Taliban entered the capital. The rise of the Taliban occurred mainly due to their creation as a proxy force/puppet government by ISI; if you were to google “father/godfather/mother of the Taliban,” the results will always yield a Pakistani state official’s name.
Ellis: Today what problems do Afghans face?
Iraj: Afghanistan is a neo-feudal colony occupied by US+NATO. There’s an opioid epidemic, malnutrition, illiteracy, and the oppression of women runs rampant throughout the country. Afghanistan today faces almost the same problems that existed in China pre-1949 revolution.
Ellis: What do you see for the future of Afghanistan?
Iraj: As things stand, 20 years of US+NATO occupation have brought more misery and stagnation to Afghanistan. The puppet leader, Ashraf Ghani, has stated a number of times that the Afghan government would collapse within 6 months of US withdrawal. This isn’t wrong necessarily; as by design, the US has kept the country in a state of war and instability to have an excuse to remain in Afghanistan – in order to extract from its >$3T worth of (known) resources. This after all is the modus operandi of US imperialism.
Ellis: Is there any working-class resistance? What is the state of the trade unions and are there any old PDPA or socialists still trying to fight for an independent Afghanistan?
Iraj: As you can imagine given the conditions of the country, it is incredibly difficult and dangerous to organise genuine trade unions let alone working-class resistance or dual power. Whilst there are some left-leaning elements in Afghanistan that engage in admirable struggle (especially given the conditions of Afghanistan) and advocate for the withdrawal of US forces, they do not hold a favourable position when it comes to the DRA. However, some of the old PDPA party members (mostly from the Parcham faction), who refused to recognise Dr. Najib’s reforms of the party (e.g. changing its name to Watan), operate in exile; their operations are largely limited to writing and publishing articles. If they or any affiliated groups were to operate openly in Afghanistan calling for anti-imperialism, they would be denounced and executed immediately by members of the corrupt mafioso Afghan state.