When the US goes home: an interview with Assadullah Keshtmand, part I

Afghan communist Assadullah Keshtmand spoke with Challenge on the situation in his home country last year. Comrade Keshtmand was formerly a key figure in the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and served as ambassador to Hungary, Iran, and Ethiopia
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Could you introduce yourself and explain your role in the PDPA?

I am Assadullah Keshtmand, born in 1949 in Kabul, Afghanistan. I became a member of the PDPA two years after its formation, in 1967, more than 50 years ago now. I have always remained loyal to the party. Between 1970 and 1978, I studied Agriculture in France to postgraduate level. During this time, I was also an active member of the French Communist Party in Toulouse.

After the military uprising of April 1978, what followed first was a very harmful phase for the country when power was seized by the Khalqis. This phase came to an end in 1979, after the fall of [Hafizullah] Amin’s government. I emerged from my underground role to become editor-in-chief of the state’s newspaper, Haqiqate Enqelabe Sawr. Later on, I began working in the international relations department of the central committee of our party. I stayed in that post for six years. Lastly, in the final years of the PDPA, I worked for five years as an ambassador to Hungary, Iran and Ethiopia, respectively. I have been living in London for the past 20 years.

Why was the PDPA rule a revolutionary period in Afghan history?

The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was founded on 1 January 1965, and because it reflected the interests of the people, it quickly grew. A little over a decade later, the party came into power. I want to highlight that there were two specific periods during the 14-year rule of the PDPA. In the aftermath of the military uprising (27th Apr 1978) in which the PDPA took power, there were two factions – the Khalqis & the Parchamis. Following a split in 1967, these factions had reunited within the party in 1977, a year before the military uprising. After the uprising, the Khalq faction completely usurped the Parchamis. Some sections of the party leadership were exiled and others were imprisoned.

There was also a broader ferocious reaction against the intelligentsia, which also affected the Parchamis. This pushed the Parchamis underground and they were forced to step away for a year and eight months.

In that epoch, I was in the underground organisation of the Parchamis. We opposed the government of Taraki and Amin. It was a dark period of history as the Khalqis managed to eliminate about three thousand of our comrades. The best of us were subjected to heavy repression, including torture and executions. These were very sad events.
Our faction came to power on the 27th December 1979. The overthrow of the cruel Khalqi government was a collective effort between our underground comrades in the party, our comrades who had infiltrated the army, and the essential help of the Soviets. Soviet troops had already been stationed in Afghanistan for several weeks, at the formal request of the Afghan government. We put an end to Amin’s government and the Parchamis subsequently stayed in power for 12.5 years.This war weighed heavily on our people. The whole capitalist world set out to undermine our morale, as well as to physically destroy our most vital infrastructure, such as power lines, bridges, roads, schools, factories and hospitals. Nothing was spared.

The Pakistani president Zyaulhaq would say “Kabul must burn” and that is what they did – they set Kabul aflame.
Naturally, all of our efforts shifted to focussing on how to minimise the impact of this war, to defend our country and defend our political achievements. We needed an economy, a culture, and a social fabric that favoured the Afghan people.

Unfortunately, we were not able to achieve everything. Afghanistan is still a developing country and, at the time, our starting point was from a much more backward stage as there were high levels of illiteracy and poverty. Yet despite everything, our party managed to drastically reduce poverty levels, and to reduce class inequalities. With the economic assistance of the Soviets and other socialist nations, we managed to meet the material needs of our people.

However, we were subject to large waves of propaganda, misinformation and various operations to subvert our government and its policies. Unfortunately, a section of the population came to oppose the government, and the counter-revolutionaries seized the moment to fuel a politics of division and war.

The governments that succeeded us proved they were incapable of addressing the needs of the people. Life became unbearable for ordinary people in 1990’s, and in this situation, Pakistan formed a new force under the watchful eye of the United States – the Taliban.

The Taliban came into power for the first time in 1996 in Kabul. Although they seemingly brought the nation much-desired security compared to when the Mojahedin were in power, this came at a cost as the country turned into a graveyard. The people had no hope as the Taliban took what remained of their liberty and dignity.

When the Mujahidin came to power in 1992 they looted everything – they emptied the treasury and looted peoples’ homes. They even stole the hinges from the doors of schools. Meanwhile, there was a growing conflict between different groups over the spoils of war. There was no government, no institutions, and society had broken down.

Afghanistan had two main factions of Mujahedin, one pretending to be a legitimate government (Rabbani & Massoud) and another so-called opposition to this government (Gulbuddin Hekmatyar). They fought each other with heavy armaments – Gulbuddin would launch missiles over Kabul and Rabbani would respond with air strikes and canons. Kabul was turned into a city of spirits and not of the living. It was completely destroyed. No social life remained, schools were closed, and ordinary life had stopped completely.

The Taliban had lucky timing, as they came to power at a time of absolute chaos. They were backed directly by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and many believed that they were led indirectly by the CIA and MI6.

They began by taking away the rights of women. Women could not go out without being escorted by a male relative. Men could no longer shave, or dress as they liked. People could not practice their faiths on their own terms. Everything had to be halted, prayer had to be overseen and publicised.

It was the peace of the graveyard. Our population was in complete disarray and had to accept it. They had no choice, as without security death was certain. At least with the Taliban you had a chance to live, if only on their terms.

Do you think there is nostalgia for the years of the PDPA?

Certainly. Our population had lived through two stages, one with Mujahidin and another with the Taliban, until 2001. The people who passed through this dark period finally realised that they had lost something very precious in the PDPA. That rare moment in our history, a time where people’s rights were respected, education and healthcare were free and accessible to all, poverty was in retreat, and there was freedom. Of course, there were restrictions during the war, but for the most part liberties were upheld. The people understand that they have lost something very precious.

Before the Taliban retook power this year, if you were to board almost any taxi in Kabul, you would see pictures of the last president of that era. You see framed photos of our comrades in people’s homes, and I will tell you, there is PDPA memorabilia in the chambers of the Ministry of the Interior, and even in some military barracks. There is a strong nostalgia for this period.

When the PDPA were in power, all workers received the basic necessities of daily life – flour, oil, sugar, tea, soap etc. All this was made accessible for free via a voucher system on a monthly basis irrespective of background. Everyone received it, both civil servants and people who worked in the private sector.

There were very concrete measures and programmes to ameliorate the lives of many. People remember this; you see when those programmes were gone, it plunged millions into poverty.

The Soviet Union and the socialist countries helped enormously. Their support was not just military but primarily economic. We had links with Uzbekistan at the border of Hairatan, which was a lifeline that kept going for years. We did not have a railroad but we had lorries going to and fro with all manner of supplies for our people.

As there was war throughout the country, our economy slowed down. At the time, the most important sector was agriculture, most of which was decimated by the counter-revolution. To protect our people, we had to defend against attacks by the counter-revolutionaries. As a result of this undeclared war, the traditional irrigation systems and wider infrastructure in the country were destroyed.

The assistance of socialist countries was vital for us to function as a country. This enabled us to have depots of supplies around Kabul and other major cities that had the capacity to sustain the population for 3 to 4 months. This assured the delivery of necessities in the whole country. The population was not at risk of famine. In contrast, you see today about 90% (by Ashref Ghani’s own admission last year) of people are under the poverty line and at risk of going hungry.

In Afghanistan, we were not only at war against the counter-revolutionary groups, but the rest of the capitalist world as well. There was seemingly no end to this difficult period for our people. We were fighting military, political, ideological and economic battles against the enemy, in defence of the country. Our party showed over a period of 12 years that we were capable of serving the people.

After the fall of our government, it became clear to all that the leading figures of our movement all lived on normal salaries throughout their tenure, and did not enrich themselves. Nobody stole from the people, and to this day I am proud of that. Our leading comrades were not corrupt, unlike those politicians put in place by the Americans.

PDPA supporters carry portraits of Noor Mohammed Taraki, Kabul, 1978

Since the Taliban have power now in Afghanistan, they claim to have reformed and changed, do you think this is the case? And what significance does it have for the region?

Yes of course, it has been 20 years since the last time they were in power. Everything is different, and the Taliban have changed more than other Afghan political actors. However, we need to talk about the kind of change, and the nature of the Taliban as a movement.

Since 2012, I would say that there are two factions of the Taliban. One faction sat in their political office in Doha. Many sources indicate that these people are largely comprised of those who have passed through Guantanamo Bay and Baghram and other undisclosed American prisons and torture sites. It is likely they were exposed to extraordinary methods of torture and brainwashing, as a result of which all those who abandoned their positions under pressure now work for the Americans.

This specific faction that was transferred to Doha is in power at present, and they remain more or less aligned with the US. But there is the ‘other Taliban’, the ones who have remained in Afghanistan all this time. They have been slow to change, they continue to hold onto the old status quo, old ideas. The internal Taliban did the groundwork, they fought the occupation, and they remained the pretext for the American-controlled war in Afghanistan for about 20 years. This was responsible for the destruction of Afghanistan, and the prioritisation of American lives at the expense of Afghan civilians.

The Americans needed this controlled war to justify the cost for US taxpayers, and to evade the scrutiny of the international community. George Bush said that if they did not fight their enemies in Afghanistan, the Taliban would fight them in New York. To justify the occupation, they needed the Taliban as a credible threat.

The Taliban did initially however put up a strong resistance to the Americans. When the invasion happened in 2001 the Taliban waged an all-out war against US troops. They were decimated, forced to retreat, they were hunted down and for five years they went into hiding. You see them tentatively return onto the scene in 2006, at which point the Americans allowed them to regroup.

It was a very well calculated mission by the US in Afghanistan. Starting from 2012, they waged a PR campaign to change world opinion about the Taliban. They slowly reintroduced the Qatar-based Taliban as legitimate opponents and US representatives began negotiating with them in 2018. This farce suggested the Taliban were not the old savages we used to know, that they were ready for negotiation. We can say that yes, in those terms the Taliban has changed, but the Doha group (which was being groomed by the CIA to take over the country) is working beside a resentful faction of Taliban militants who remained on Afghan soil.

Recently, the media has reported that a small number of Taliban dignitaries met in Norway to work on diplomatic activities and improve their international reputation. If they are changing, this is the direction they are going in, as American pawns on both sides of the board. To fight the US in the name of liberating Afghanistan, and to work cohesively with the US as a diplomatic ally.

Finally, we saw that power naturally changed hands between friends. The Taliban did not have to try too hard to take over the country, there was no fighting involved.

We have to question why. The Afghan army had 350,000 soldiers, who had been trained for 20 years, who were well equipped with modern technology, who were present everywhere. How can it be that such an army crumbles like a house of cards?

Afghanistan’s fate was in the hands of the Americans. They made a decision, they abandoned the government that they had put in place in Kabul. They told them “well your work is done, leave it for someone else”.

We also have to question why the Americans would do such a thing. The Americans have far grander plans for our region. They have in mind the creation of disorder, civil war, and a so-called ‘spring’ for Central Asia, for Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang in China, for Iran, and maybe for Turkmenistan, our neighbours. In addition, in some way, the US also has plans against Pakistan, which is very involved in the situation at the moment in Afghanistan. In a certain way, Pakistan is associated with power, but this is a façade, as can be seen from the bloodiest conflict between those who defend the interests of Pakistan, and those who defend the interests of the USA – which is to say the [Taliban] office in Qatar.

At first glance, the US’s reasons for seeking to transfer power to the Taliban appear ambiguous. Why did they not lead their strategic plans of aggression against the Central Asian countries through the old government of Ashraf Ghani? In order to carry out such a policy against the Muslim countries, our neighbours, they need a firmly fundamentalist government. Ashraf Ghani’s government was a technocratic one. People such as Ghani, educated at the World Bank, they just paved the way for this situation. These people were not made to infiltrate Islamist movements. Another tool was needed, another system, another government, another perspective – the Taliban. Therefore, the Taliban is the best option for their plans.

Everything happening today between the Taliban, Russia, China and Iran is a political game and no one is under any illusion. They all know very well that if the Taliban can harden and implant themselves properly, the next stage will be a ‘spring’ in Central Asia, it will be war. There will be enormous difficulties in this region.

I recapitulate on this point – the Americans need a government of fanatics, such as the one in Saudi Arabia, to prepare action against China and the remnants of the Soviet Union. This was not a task suited to the old administration installed by the US.

Now there are new difficulties for the Americans. Can they successfully carry out their policies, given the differences within the Taliban? The Taliban who are very close to the Pakistanis, and at the core of the ‘other’ Taliban (those who have taken power and are connected to the Americans) there are enormous internal contradictions within that group too. These contradictions are inherent to the nature of the Taliban. Those who fight, those who make up its strength, they are very backwards, very fanatic, often illiterate, and so the Taliban [leadership] in Doha is held back in some way by these forces. Now, every day we hear of the difficulties in Afghanistan between those factions.

That is not to mention the other issues Afghanistan is facing, such as the liquidity crisis, all the government’s money is blocked. As the Taliban consolidate, the Americans will try to help bit by bit, they will give indirect help and aid. They do not have any moral concerns beyond their own interest. Their biggest interest yet might be to get rid of the Taliban leaders who are too stubborn, those who are connected to Pakistan.

I would say the Taliban have changed, it is a change steeped in contradiction, and perhaps the source of their future undoing.

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, September 2021

If the Taliban leadership has disagreements with its base, do you think these poles may come to war with each other in the future?

It’s very likely, like I said they deviate ideologically, their views and politics and method of working are distinctly different. There’s a good chance that the Doha office loses control of its mission.

Beyond that, within Kabul and other regions, the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban are also in competition. These figures are at war with each other, we hear of clashes everyday, and a lot of civilians are getting caught in the crossfire. The conflict is often oversimplified. Lets’ not forget the existence of ISIS in Afghanistan, who are waiting their turn to create conflict in Central Asia. They too have been planted by the Americans in Syria and Iraq and have moved to further American interests in Central Asia.

One feature of ISIS is that it’s a multi-ethnic group, composed of people from the Caucasus, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Cossacks, Chinese Uyghurs and Chechens, etc. They have been in Afghanistan for several years and they have intimate knowledge of the surrounding cultures and territories. They now have homes, lands, families and more or less lead a normal life in the region. However, their political allegiances are not with the people.

Whilst there are small conflicts between ISIS and the local Taliban, they both have the same aims looking to Central Asia. Keep in mind that Pakistan probably would not have accepted this current situation in Afghanistan if it did not give Pakistan some advantage in the regional politics of Central Asia (given the resources in the region). We have to wait and see, because things are moving incredibly fast; we will have to see what alliances will be formed, the reactions of the Central Asian republics, China, and Russia.

Do you think the current Taliban government is better than the one they succeeded?

I think it is too early to say, because the Americans have very strict goals for the coalition of Doha to achieve. When the Taliban came to power again, they were able to surprise the civilian population. They took care to maintain an almost perfect image, which was not entirely disagreeable to the locals in the first few days. For example, they imprisoned the big military chiefs such as Ismail Khan, etc. They took over their huge mansions, and they had the correct response to the women who protested in Kabul (reminder this interview was in October). Those protesting women were not beaten or killed, which was unexpected from the Taliban.

There was a big spectacle of respectability, but now the Taliban is coming back en masse and they are butting heads. What will happen between the two factions, this will show where power lies, the current situation is transitional.

We should also admit that the deposed government was corrupt to the core and estranged from the demands of the people. A puppet state. Despite all that, the Americans entertained a certain semblance of democracy and there was a relative liberty.

The Taliban have promised that they will re-establish civil liberties. Will they really do it? I don’t know. Will they become as corrupt as their predecessors? I can’t say. It is too early to say.

What are the prospects for trade unions, popular organisations, and left parties in Afghanistan today?

The Taliban has much less tolerance of the left than the old regime. They see certain left parties as anti-Islamic. We can only imagine the façade of freedom they intend to present for other parties, but it certainly won’t apply to the left, not the real parties of the left.

In addition, what you need to understand is that during the occupation, the left was almost annihilated in a very calculated way. Some parties composed of old PDPA members had no other choice but to work with Ashref Ghani’s coalition. The left was otherwise firmly kept out of political life.

In the era of the Taliban it is too early to say, it wouldn’t be too bad if they could accept the activity of some broad social and cultural organisations. Perhaps there would be space to advance policies which promote the interests of the people.

Moving on from the practical situation of the left, what are the prospects for socialism generally in Afghanistan?

Let me begin with my personal view. I think humanity itself is deeply in love with social justice, and socialism is the root of that. Now the winds blow in all different directions. We tried to build a democratic society in Afghanistan to create the conditions for socialism and we had many victories, but we were defeated. However, the yearning for social justice has not abated, and it will never go away. Yes, I believe in the future of socialism.

It depends on the balance of forces. If the people want socialism, it will come from them; it might not happen now, in the historical shadow of our old revolutionary government. However, it will happen eventually, in its own way, under its own terms.

What concerns Afghanistan specifically, we have been set back years by the destruction the Americans caused. They swept away the material and the moral base we had established. Unfortunately we are now behind other nations in the struggle for emancipation. Yet, I hold out hope.

Afghanistan has a strategic position and an abundance of resources. It has always attracted unwelcome attention from predatory empires. It is a nation that will never be left alone, because the capitalist interests in the world are directed towards our country. They will not abandon Afghanistan, they will exert influence under different forms.
I suppose the future is bleak, not very joyful. I am not a dreamer or an idealist, but I understand the wishes of man, the logic of class struggle and the ways in which the people have the power to change the world. The people can bring forth such miracles, you don’t know what to expect.

You spoke at another meeting recently about the anti-Taliban resistance in the Panjshir valley – what is your analysis of this movement?

The resistance against the Taliban is a natural fact, if it doesn’t take hold today it will emerge again in future. There’s no hesitation on this point, and first before going into detail, all uprisings against the Taliban are positive.

Concerning what happens in Panjshir itself, if you support liberty you have to support them. Nonetheless, there is a concern as to whether those people are willing to stick it out in the long run. Because this is not a popular uprising, it is the remaining sections of the old regime, led by very wealthy people. I doubt they will see it through. Eventually, they will look after their own interests.

The resistance in Panjshir does not lack resources, as they have plenty of weapons, money and the support of certain Western countries. The question is can they gain the support of the masses? A resistance that is not based on the demands of ordinary people cannot be sustained. What did the old government offer to the people? They deprived the people of a good life and instead enriched themselves. You cannot expect much from them.

I am sure that, if the Taliban show their teeth, they will meet a forceful reaction. They have splintered us along religious and ethnic lines. Take the Hazaras and Shias for instance; they are being massacred. Likewise, Uzbeks and Tajiks are being targeted for their ethnicities.

The Taliban consider the Shias absolute infidels, enemies of Islam, and it is legitimate to attack them. The current Interior Minister has said that Shia lives are considered worthless. This highlights another issue within the Taliban, that they are wilfully excluding a large portion of the population. Not just excluding ethnic groups from power, but denying them the right to live a normal life in Afghanistan. Of course such arbitrary repression will create resistance.

Is there anything else about the situation you would like to mention?

Yes, to continue on the point of ethnic politics in Afghanistan, there are some pressing matters, such as the repression of the Hazaras.

This repression is extremely strong. The other day, 13 people were executed, just for the fact that they were Hazaras. Now we see that Hazaras are being eliminated. If this hateful politics takes root in Afghanistan, it would have disastrous consequences, leading to much bloodshed. It would open a deep wound of oppression and exclusion across the land.

We need to fight against social, cultural, political and economic exclusion based on ethnic background and religion. If we do not fight against this problem, it could lead to genocide.

Given the current state of Afghanistan, the role of public opinion and progressive forces is vital to containing the Taliban. Human rights organisations, progressive forces and all proponents of freedom, equality, and justice must support the people of Afghanistan during this difficult period. In addition, the UK government must apply pressure on the Taliban to abide by universal principles of freedom, equality, and justice.

This interview was written up and translated by YCL members, Sumaya H and Pierre M in October 2021

A follow-up interview with comrade Keshtmand is forthcoming and will cover more recent developments in Afghanistan since last year.

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