Afghanistan

The tragedy which is the history of Afghanistan was lost in the wake of 9/11. From that moment, in the eyes of a West now baying for revenge, it was a country reduced to nothing more than a terrorist base and terrorist training camp run with the blessing of a regime that gave new meaning to the word evil. Yet before 9/11 those same terrorists had won the paternal affection of government apparatchiks in Washington as a band of courageous liberation fighters who, with ‘our’ help, had successfully forced the Soviet Union to abandon a country it had invaded in order to add to its evil empire ¬- at least according to Reagan and the coterie of right wing zealots who formed his administration back then.

But to understand why Afghanistan was and remains so important to US strategic interests is to understand the role it has played throughout its history in the global struggle for empire and hegemony waged by the great powers. This mystical land, occupying a strategic location along the ancient Silk Route between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, has been the subject of fierce rivalry between global empires since the 19th century, when the then British and Russian Empires vied for control of the lucrative spoils to be found in the subcontinent of India and in Central Asia in what came to be known as the ‘Great Game.’

The British desired to control Afghanistan as a buffer against Russian influence in Persia (Iran) in order protect its own interests in India, at that time the jewel in the crown of an empire that covered a full third of the globe. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought during this period. The first saw the complete annihilation of a 16,000-strong British army in 1842, the second resulted in the withdrawal of British forces in 1880, though the British retained nominal control over Afghanistan’s foreign affairs. This control lasted through to 1919, when after a third Anglo-Afghan war the British signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, heralding the beginning of complete Afghan independence from Britain.

In terms of its development, Afghanistan remained untouched by the industrialisation that swept through the subcontinent at the time, as the British mercantile class set about the wholesale plunder and exploitation of India’s human and natural resources. By contrast, Afghanistan’s value to both the British and Russian Empires was solely strategic, which, along with a paucity of natural resources and rough, mountainous terrain difficult to traverse, combined to retard the country’s economic development. A primitive agrarian economy predominated, supporting a feudal system of social relations that has continued in the countryside in one form or another right up to the present day, with self-styled warlords wielding power of life and death over those who live under their control.

There was a period in Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, however, when a determined effort to lift the country and its people out of backward agrarian feudalism and develop the country’s economy was attempted. The failure of that attempt is directly linked to the current conflict, and provides yet another salutary lesson into the role of Western intervention and imperialism as a major destabilising factor throughout the developing world.

The communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was formed in 1965 in opposition to the autocratic rule of the country’s then King Zahir Shar. They helped to overthrow the regime in 1973 in a coup led by Mohammed Daud, the king’s cousin. In the years following Daud sought to distance himself from the PDPA and from the Soviet Union, which was Afghanistan’s biggest trading partner and source of aid throughout the 1970s. In 1978, when Daud’s intention to purge the army of its communist officers and cadre became known, he himself fell victim to a coup staged by the PDPA with support from the Afghan army.

The coup enjoyed popular support in the towns and cities, evidenced in reports carried in US newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, no friend of revolutionary movements, reported at the time that ‘150,000 persons marched to honour the new flag and the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic.’ The Washington Post reported that ‘Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned.’

Upon taking power, the new government introduced a programme of reforms designed to abolish feudal power in the countryside, guarantee freedom of religion, along with equal rights for women and ethnic minorities. Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasise an end to repression. In the poorest parts of Afghanistan, where life expectancy was 35 years, where infant mortality was one in three, free medical care was provided. In addition, a mass literacy campaign was undertaken, desperately needed in a society in which ninety percent of the population could neither read nor write.

The resulting rate of progress was staggering. By the late 1980s half of all university students in Afghanistan were women, and women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers, and 30 percent of its civil servants. In John Pilger’s ‘New Rulers Of The World’ (Verso, 2002), he relates the memory of the period through the eyes of an Afghan woman, Saira Noorani, a female surgeon who escaped the Taliban in 2001. She said: “Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go where we wanted and wear what we liked. We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian movies. It all started to go wrong when the Mujahideen started winning. They used to kill teachers and burn schools. It was sad to think that these were the people the West had supported.”

Be that as it may, the government’s crude attempt to impose its reforms on the countryside and dismantle the feudal structure, which dominated life there, proved deeply unpopular and opened the door to US covert support and funding of opposition tribal groups. This covert support began under the Carter administration.

An initial $500 million was allocated, money used to arm and train the rebels in the art of insurgency in secret camps set up specifically for the task across the border in Pakistan. This opposition came to be known as the Mujahideen (those engaged in jihad), and so began a campaign of murder and terror which, six months later, led the Afghan government in Kabul to request the help of the Soviet Union. What resulted was an ill-fated military intervention which ended ten years later in an ignominious retreat of Soviet military forces and the descent of Afghanistan into the abyss of religious intolerance, abject poverty, warlordism and the violence that has plagued the country ever since.

It is a point worth emphasising, however, that contrary to the official Western history of the period, the Mujahideen did not arise in response to a hostile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but rather the Soviet Union intervened at the request of the Afghan government in response to the instability being wrought by a US funded and armed insurgency.

To the question of why the US would arm, fund and train an insurgency comprising religious zealots in Afghanistan, the answer is simple: namely for the same reason successive US administrations have armed, funded and trained insurgents and death squads in any part of the world where progressive, secular and left-leaning governments and movements have attempted to institute social and economic justice: to halt the spread of a good example.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, three years after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, the US began a reach for global hegemony which continues to this day and which lies at the root of the occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan. With regard to Afghanistan in particular, just as with the rivalry between the British and the Russians back in the 19th century, its strategic location is the primary reason for the presence of Western troops. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that the huge deposits of crude oil located in the Caspian Basin were now up for grabs. What US and Western energy corporations required was a pipeline to transport this crude to the nearest friendly port from where it could be shipped out. Iran wasn’t an option, which left Afghanistan as the only viable alternative; with the proposed pipeline to pass through and on into Pakistan to the port of Karachi on the coast of the Arabian Sea.

In fact so important was this pipleline to the US that in 1996 a high level Taliban delegation flew over to meet with Unocal executives at their headquarters in Houston, Texas, to discuss its construction. The Governor of Texas at the time was none other than George W Bush.

Despite ruling a country in which women were stoned to death for adultery, in which men were tortured and had their limbs amputated for misdemeanour crimes, in which music and television was banned, in which it was illegal for girls to attend school, these high-ranking representatives of the Taliban were given the red-carpet treatment, put up in a five-star hotel and even accorded a VIP visit to Disneyworld in Florida. However, after they left it was felt that they could not be trusted and the plan for the pipeline was shelved.

With 9/11 came the opportunity the US ‘oilocracy’ had been waiting for to achieve their long-held desire for a pipeline through Afghanistan. It was an opportunity that undoubtedly added impetus to the invasion that was mounted to clear the country of former US allies like the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. Eight years on and Afghanistan’s onerous distinction as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, and the largest producer of heroin, is all that has been achieved, with the writ of the beleagured and US-installed Kharzai government running little further than Kabul.

The current summer offensive in Helmand, designed to clear the Taliban in advance of elections in the autumn, has to be seen in this light. Simply put, it constitutes a desperate attempt by the US and British governments to salvage some sort of victory in a war that was lost as soon as it began eight years ago. In the process lives are being sacrificed and families torn apart. More importantly, as more and more civilians are killed by US, British, and NATO forces, support for the Taliban increases. The latest such outrage occurred in May, when a botched US airstrike killed 147 villagers in Farah province during fighting between US forces and the resistance.

Another question that needs to be asked is who exactly are the Taliban? It has become a received truth that they are comprised exclusively of Islamic fundamentalists from mostly Pakistan, motivated by nothing more than a hatred of modernity and a desire to reprise the regime which they presided over previously. However, evidence points to the fact that this picture is far from accurate.

Anand Gopal is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, who has written extensively on the so-called global war on terror. In a recent article titled ‘Who Are The Taliban?’ he described today’s Taliban as ‘an umbrella organisation made up of many different groups fighting the Afghan government and Western forces’. Some of these groups, he states, certainly do espouse the doctrine of global jihad commonly ascribed to the Taliban. However, an increasing number are Afghans fighting for national liberation.

Interestingly, Gopal cites in his piece a statement by a NATO intelligence officer, confirming that “Al Qaeda has not been able to hijack the [Afghan] insurgency the way it did in Iraq.”

As to how much support the Taliban enjoys among the Afghan people, Gopal writes: ‘Support [for the insurgency] is heavily tied to ethnicity. The insurgents are predominantly Pashtun and enjoy more support in areas where Pashtuns live, namely, the south and east. They find little favor with other ethnic groups. Some rural Pashtuns view the insurgents – especially the Taliban – as a lesser of two evils compared with the Afghan government.’

He then quotes from a report by Matthew Du Pee, a researcher on Afghan affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who writes: ‘One of the most important things to an Afghan, especially in the context of the last 30 years of open warfare, is personal security. The central government and to a degree NATO/Coalition forces have failed in this regard. The Taliban, in the view of ordinary Pashtuns, is the only entity able to impose law and order.’

With a growing resistance movement able to inflict increasing casualties on Western troops, combined with a lack of popular support among the civilian population for their presence, the only viable option is withdrawal. What might follow such a withdrawal is of course open to question. What we do know is that nothing will be achieved by continuing to follow a futile policy of military occupation which history reveals has zero chance of success.

The sooner all Coalition troops leave Afghanistan the better it will be for all concerned.

39 comments on “Afghanistan

  1. Andy newman on said:

    John – this is a very good article.

    It is also worth pointing out that while it is often assumed that the destruction of Afghanistan’s infrastructure took place during the Russian war, this is not the case.

    Most of the destuction, and the slaughter was the result of civil war between the various Mujhadin groups fighting among themselves after the Soviets troops left. The Taliban coming to power was not really a step backwards, as their record of oppressing women was no worse than the war-lords they replaced, and they at least brought some stability and an end to the fighting.

    But one important point you mak enow, is that now “taliban” doesn’t mean a continuance ideologically, politically or organisationally with the forces of Mullah Omar – it is just a catch all phrase for anyone with a turban and a gun fighting the NATO troops. Indeed, there have been some reports I have read of taliban soldiers dancing and listening to music

  2. #1 Andy: “taliban” doesn’t mean a continuance ideologically, politically or organisationally with the forces of Mullah Omar – it is just a catch all phrase for anyone with a turban and a gun fighting the NATO troops.

    Yes indeed, millions of pounds a day of UK Exchequer spending has succeeded in rescuing the Taliban from their death bed and turning them into the defacto national liberation movement in Afghanistan.
    All those on the left who argued in favour of Western intervention in Afghanistan can get their coats.

    Watch Seumas Milne at a Media Workers Against War meeting here;
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_X-_dDJRWk

  3. Armchair on said:

    Yes good article. And the irony is that not a few erstwhile ‘tankies’ who agreed with the disastrous soviet intervention now support the imperialist occupation. Just as ironic as some of the islamaphobes at HP who supported the mujahadeen at the time.

  4. #2
    Eddie, I attended the meeting organised by Media Workers against the War the other night. Seumas Milne spoke really well.

    Guy Smallman gave a fascinating talk re the massacre at Granai (4th May 2009) where 140 civilians were killed, he had visited the village at the end of May. His photographs are heartbreaking and harrowing esp. of the children who are traumatised by that massacre. But as usual the American military covered it up and produced a whitewash of a report which lets them off the hook!

    Around 93 of the dead were children, and at one of the burial sites 55 people were buried in the same place as they were all blown to pieces by a 2,000lb bomb dropped by a B1 bomber. Yet nobody will be held responsible for this war crime.

    I wrote a report of the meeting at my blog.

    http://harpymarx.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/the-good-war-afghanistan-in-the-media-2/

  5. communist on said:

    Excellent article John, particularly in your explanation of the achievements of the PDPA government and the real reasons for the Soviet intervention.
    It was an honourable intervention, motivated by the best principles of international solidarity and what a pity we stil hear psuedo-left reactionary nonsense from Armchair, who still uses the obsolete and utterly meaningless “tankie” term.

  6. This is a very good piece of political writing that explodes the pretence that this war and occupation is about bringing modern values to Afghanistan.

    The only regime to enjoy popular democratic support based on political consent was that of the PDPA and John Wight brings out its essentially progressive character and its base in the modern elements in Afghan society and the conflicts with traditional elements that inevitably ensued.

    Of course political reality in societies like Afghanistan is highly complex and the central progressive dynamic of the PDPA regime conflicted both with regional pressures, including from Pakistan, Iran and China and that highly toxic combination of Saudi money, US weaponry and British political intrigue. The internal stresses and strains of the Afghan left and the security and political anxieties of the Soviet Union were all factors that complicated the situation but John Wight’s piece is an admirable attempt to recover historical truth.

    It was Thatcher who invited the self-confessed bomber and anti-communist terrroist Abdul Haq and the torturer Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to No 10. Hekmatyar is currently allied to the Taliban and ‘wanted’ by the US.Blowback indeed.

  7. johng on said:

    Aside from the usual polemics this subject always opens up the key line is the one concerned with the unpopularity of abolishing feudalism in the countryside. Of course the US exploited this, but nevertheless there had to be something to exploit.

    One aspect of the long term historical tragedy of Afghanistan relates to the loss of fertile land to Persia and on the other side Punjab in the 18th century at the hands of the persians on the one side and the Mughals on the other.

    This meant that in the period which co-incided with the rise of the new western global system local powers came quickly to be dependent on what today would be called ‘foreign aid’ in order to pay the army and keep the impoverished countryside in order.

    This produced on the one hand a uniquely backward social order (there was simply no incentive to develop the country) and on the other hand a tradition where the revolt of the countryside against the towns took on the charecter of a revolt against foreigners.

    The ideology best suited to bringing togeather otherwise disparate tribes and peoples was Islam. Hence the revolt against the towns whose inhabitants got their wealth from administrating and plundering the countryside periodically took the form of Jihad against the foreigner.

    The natural suspician of the peasent against the city folk was thus buttressed by a long history of revolt under the banner of Islam. In the meanwhile ‘official politics’ was dominated by traditions associated with intrigue and faction as might be expected in an urban enviroment where most peoples livlihoods were dependent on stipends often paid out by foreigners.

    Such was the unpromising terrain in which young radicals read books about Marx and Mao in universities, and such was the enviroment in which it was possible for students to play such a large role in the internal politics of the towns.

    The countryside was however a different matter. Whilst a new generation of the educated amongst the better off peasentry emerged and became the central actors in the new revolutionary politics, they had little in the way of any base in the countryside where traditions of revolt were not anti-feudal but anti-urban and anti-imperialist.

    This tragic constellation of forces could only have been bought to crisis by a situation were actual foreigners, and self professed athiests to boot, arrived in tanks, initially to perform the role of repressing one faction over another in the internal politics of the towns, but were soon forced to turn their attention to the hinterland.

    The Afghan peasentry was divided against itself on a number of different levels. But foreigners in tanks carrying out the will of the city: it was a gift to the most reactionary of the religious factions.

    I’ll never forget seeing a short clip of some British soldiers arriving in Helmand just after they were sent. They walked heavily armed into a deserted town and stood around forlornly hoping no-one would shoot at them. Eventually some of the tribal leaders came out to stand about ten or fifteen yards away from them, eyeing them with polite suspician.

    There was an attempt to be friendly but it was clear that for the inhabitants of this small town the presence of troops just meant trouble. Its always just meant trouble. There is no basis or reason in the history of Afghanistan for peasents to welcome foreign troops representing central government into their village.

    And the experiance of the Soviet occupation is just one in a long line of occupations engineered by desperate factions in far away Kabul, whether for revolutionary or reactionary purposes.

    There are few places in the world were there is such a block on the possibility of progressive politics. Afghanistan is one of them. I don’t think there is any point in pretending that any kind of foreign intervention, however well intentioned, would ever succede in Afghanistan.

  8. Johng #11: “Aside from the usual polemics this subject always opens up the key line is the one concerned with the unpopularity of abolishing feudalism in the countryside. Of course the US exploited this, but nevertheless there had to be something to exploit […] And the experiance of the Soviet occupation is just one in a long line of occupations engineered by desperate factions in far away Kabul, whether for revolutionary or reactionary purposes.”

    Hmmm. And the lesson to be drawn is, apparently… dammned if you do, and dammned if you dont.

  9. Nick on said:

    *eyes roll* where to begin?

    ‘In 1978, when Daud’s intention to purge the army of its communist officers and cadre became known, he himself fell victim to a coup staged by the PDPA with support from the Afghan army.’

    A coup staged with Soviet backing, incidentally.

    ‘Thousands of prisoners under the old regime were set free and police files burned in a gesture designed to emphasise an end to repression.’

    Actually, the new government conducted mass executions of thousands of political prisoners. Between the establishment of the Taraki/Amin regime and the Soviet invasion of December 1979 an estimated 27,000 people were killed.

    ‘It is a point worth emphasising, however, that contrary to the official Western history of the period, the Mujahideen did not arise in response to a hostile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but rather the Soviet Union intervened at the request of the Afghan government in response to the instability being wrought by a US funded and armed insurgency.’

    Correct – the insurgency began before the Soviet invasion, w/out US backing.

  10. johng on said:

    There was a quote from an ex-Soviet General the other week who intervened in the debate going on among the British military stating that he had once believed as fervently as they did now that that his war had been worth it. But that now he recognised that it had been futile and a waste of life. Of course these are establishment arguments. But I think it is telling that almost exactly what happened to the Russians is starting to happen to the Americans and British: without in this case much in the way of foreign support for the insurgents. And in a country where the leaders of the last government, the taliban, thought that the United States had a King or Shah, its doubtful if many of those fighting in the countryside make much of a distinction between the various foreign invaders who from time to time are invited in by Kabul. To them its an older struggle. What is telling about the late 1970s is that the Russians were originally invited in, not to fight the Jihadists in the peasentry, but simply to oust another urban faction. Despite the real differences in politics, this was a pattern which went right back to the 19th century. And as always, in the end, it was the folk in the countryside who ended up suffering, and those who originally hoped for support from the foreigners ended up helplessly dependent and hated by the very people they had wanted to help. Thats not to say that after the almost unbelievable suffering wrought by war after war, and imperial intervention after imperial intervention people wouldn’t want change. But not according to this old pattern. And it looks like the whole thing is unfolding in precisely the same way all over again.

  11. Nick

    #15

    What a load of lies, what is your evidence for saying that the coup had soviet backing?

    In fact, Former KGB officer Alexander Morozov stated, in an interview conducted after the end of the cold war, that the Soviets did not even become aware of the Afghan coup plans until shortly before the coup had begun. After discovering the plans, Soviet officials in Kabul received “confused messages…from the Foreign Ministry and KGB headquarters” about how they were supposed to respond. Selig Harrison, who interviewed many of the principal figures, concluded: “The overall impression left by the available evidence is one of an improvised, ad hoc Soviet response to an unexpected situation.”

    There were of course two coups, one by the air force, that handed power to Taraki, and a later one by the Amin faction of the PDPA.

    The USSR was unaware of the first coup, and actively opposed to the second coup by Amin, which they regarded as a very dangerous move. After the Amin coup, the tone in Soviet documents became more anxious. One post-coup report noted despairingly that “all the levers of real power by now are essentially in Amin’s hands,” and added: “Amin has ignored the repeated appeals of our comrades warning him that such a step [the effort to depose Taraki] might have dire consequences both for the party and for the country.

    The repression within Afghanistan by both Taraki and Amin factions was opposed by the USSR, On 20 March 1979, Brezhnev instructed Taraki as follows: “It is very important to widen the base which supports the leadership of the party [the PDPA] and the country. First of all, of great importance here is the unity of the party, mutual trust, and ideo[logical] political solidarity throughout its ranks from top to bottom.”

    Brezhnev also urged Taraki to broaden the government’s overall political base, which had become quite narrow during this period: “It is worth thinking about creating a single national front under the aegis of the [PDPA].…Such a front could include already existing socio-political organizations and be supported by groups of worker, peasants, petty and middle bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and students, youth, and progressive women.”

    The documentary record also reflects a growing Soviet concern about the excessive repression used by the PDPA. A report to the Central Committee from late June 1979 observes that “collegial leadership [in the PDPA] is lacking, all power in fact is concentrated in the hands of N.M. Taraki and H Amin, who none too rarely make mistakes and commit violations of legality.”

    Another distortion from Nick at #15 is his claim that “the insurgency began before the Soviet invasion, w/out US backing.”

    BUt remember that as recently as April 23rd 2009 Hilary Clinton made an admission to a US Congressional sub-committee that the Americans had effectively created the current disastrous situation in Afghanistan.

    She said: “It was President Reagan in partnership with Congress led by Democrats who said you know what it sounds like a pretty good idea… let’s deal with the ISI [Pakistani intelligence agency] and the Pakistan military and let’s go recruit these mujahideen.’here is a very strong argument which is… it wasn’t a bad investment to end the Soviet Union but let’s be careful with what we sow… because we will harvest.’

    In the 1998 interview with Zbigniew Brzezinski in the French Magazine Le Nouvel Observateur. (Brzezinski was the US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter.) Brzezinski was asked: “The former director of the CIA, Robert Gates, stated in his memoirs [’From the Shadows’], that American intelligence services began to aid the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan 6 months before the Soviet intervention. In this period you were the national security adviser to President Carter. You therefore played a role in this affair. Is that correct?”

    This is what Brzezinski replied: “Yes. According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahadeen began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, 24 Dec 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.

  12. graham on said:

    what do people think of the slogan thats coalescing in the uk
    bring our troops home, stop the war.

    im just back from t in the park and that slogan was agreed with by everyone i spoke to. and i spoke to a lot of people lol.

    the left should be shouting it loud.

  13. prianikoff on said:

    What’s incontestable is that the US was quite prepared to fund and arm the very people that they later denounced as terrorists.
    But whether they were invited in by an Afghan government faction, or not, the leaders of the USSR made a fatal mistake sending troops there.
    Brzezinski judged the situation correctly;
    There was sufficient mass support in the countryside to defeat the Russian invasion.
    Not only was the USSR destabilised by the defeat, but the mujaheddin were emboldened into going global.

    The British and US forces are repreating the same mistakes.
    Even if the current insurgency doesn’t have a powerful international backer, the conflict could fester for years.
    An Afghan government with popular support won’t emerge from the intervention of foreign troops.

  14. Faust on said:

    The PDPA was in two ofyten bitterly opposed factions in the 1970s, the Parcham and Khalq, at least according to “Western” sources probably close to the intelligence services but probably not misrepresenting the situation. Parcham was more cautious and closer to the USSR. Khalq was more radical and may have been seen as a loose cannon by the Soviets. Amin was Khalq.
    TV footage of PDPA supporters is interesting, in view of later developments – they tended to wear “Western” clothes, and young PDPA women can be seen wearing jeans.

  15. John Wight: “the Soviet Union intervened at the request of the Afghan government”.

    Oh come on.

    It is true that the Soviet Union tried to legitimise the invasion by citing Afghan President Hafizullah Amin’s earlier request for additional military assistance.

    But this argument was rather undermined by the fact that, as soon as the Soviet troops arrived, they shot Hafizullah Amin!

  16. #23

    How do you account for the Politburo records that are now in the public domain which prove that the USSR did not want to intervene, but felt forced to by the deteriorating securty situation?

  17. johng on said:

    The point though Andy is whether or not there was covert backing from the US its clearly false to claim that the social and political tensions, whether between different factions in the urban context, or between all the urban factions and the rural areas, where simply the creation of the US. And the more one hears about the repressive behaviour of all the urban factions amongst themselves, and the circumstances in which Moscow was ‘invited’ in, the more the situation looks just like a continuation, rather then a break from, Afghanistan’s tragic history. A history which continues today. Was the Soviet Unions intervention largely conditioned by geo-political considerations? I think the answer to that is broadly ‘yes’.

    Would Afghanistan have been better off without that intervention (not withstanding US meddling)? I think the answer is ‘without doubt’.

  18. #24 “How do you account for the Politburo records that are now in the public domain which prove that the USSR did not want to intervene, but felt forced to by the deteriorating securty situation?”

    I would account for them on the basis that this was indeed the case.

    What’s that got to do with my rejection of the silly claim that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan “at the request of the Afghan government”?

    The first step in the Soviet government’s plan to address the deteriorating security situation was to kill the head of the Afghan government, whom they (correctly) held responsible for creating that situation.

  19. Just to add, I think that the Soviet Politburo’s general assessment of the situation – their criticisms of the ultra-left course of the Taraki/Amin PDPA leadership, their recognition that Amin had to be removed, their proposal that Babrak Karmal and the Parcham faction of the PDPA should be brought back into the government, their argument that the PDPA should build a broad alliance around a more gradualist programme, etc – was spot on.

    The problem was that invading Afghanistan in order to impose those policies proved counterproductive.

  20. Anon on said:

    I’m also unclear what Andy means when he writes: “There were of course two coups, one by the air force, that handed power to Taraki, and a later one by the Amin faction of the PDPA.”

    What exactly was this “coup” by Amin? Do you mean the ousting, and subsequent murder, of Taraki?

    What in fact happened (I’m writing this from memory, but I did once do a lot of reading on this subject) was that Taraki was persuaded by the Soviet leadership to remove Amin, whose ultra-left policies were creating the deteriorating security situation that so worried the Politburo.

    The obstacles Taraki faced, however, were:

    (1) Democratic structures within the PDPA had been destroyed (the Parcham faction had been purged and even dissident Khalqis thrown into prison) so there was no means of appealing to the PDPA membership to remove Amin.

    (2) Although Taraki was still president and publicly hailed as the founder/leader of the PDPA, he had been reduced to a figurehead, and state power was already in the hands of Amin, who controlled the army and the security services.

    Taraki therefore invited Amin to visit the presidential palace and intructed the guard to kill him when he arrived. But Amin escaped with a minor wound, placed Taraki under house arrest (while stating publicly that the president had been taken ill), then had Taraki smothered to death in the middle of the night and announced that he had died of natural causes.

    Amin then took over as president.

    So I’m not sure how this can be acurately described as a “second coup” by Amin. It was just one further stage in the internal fighting and bloodletting that had been a feature of the PDPA leadership ever since the April 1978 coup.

    The result was that the Soviet Politburo concluded that there were no forces within the PDPA capable of removing Amin and that the only solution was to invade Afghanistan and depose him.

  21. Ok Anon

    I see what you are saying. Notwitshstanding your nuancing of the event, i still would characterise the Amin take over from Taraki as a palace coup, in the sense that it was an extra-legal change of givernment by armed force. the fact that the PDPA government had by that time reduced itself to a handful of warring crazies meant that a coup could be carried out with very little force.

    the Events in Grenada realy were remarkable similar, execot there it was US and not Siviet troops that intervened.

    And JOhn Wight’s abbreviation is effectively true, the PDPA governemt had invited the USSR to intervene to cope with the rural insurgency, they decided it was not in their interests to do so; but once Amin took pwer they felt they had no choice but to intervene. So they didn’t use Amin taking power as a pretext to invade, they saw Amin taking power as something that changed the circumstances so that they had little choice but to agree to the PDPA’s request for intervention.

  22. #25

    “Would Afghanistan have been better off without that intervention (not withstanding US meddling)? I think the answer is ‘without doubt’.”

    Why so JOhn, you have lost me there, why is it self evident?

  23. #11

    “This produced on the one hand a uniquely backward social order (there was simply no incentive to develop the country) and on the other hand a tradition where the revolt of the countryside against the towns took on the charecter of a revolt against foreigners.

    The ideology best suited to bringing togeather otherwise disparate tribes and peoples was Islam. Hence the revolt against the towns whose inhabitants got their wealth from administrating and plundering the countryside periodically took the form of Jihad against the foreigner.

    The natural suspician of the peasent against the city folk was thus buttressed by a long history of revolt under the banner of Islam. In the meanwhile ‘official politics’ was dominated by traditions associated with intrigue and faction as might be expected in an urban enviroment where most peoples livlihoods were dependent on stipends often paid out by foreigners.”

    Apart from your specific point about Islam, (for which various forms of Christianity could be substituted) this is not an unusual situation at all in a pre-industrial society; and is remakable similar to the situation in Bohemia or Moravia, or Galicia or Estonia as recently as about a hundred years ago

  24. John

    You also say that there was a long tradiation of islamist revolt, but as recently as 1975 an attempted islamist rising against Daud was a damp squib – I think that you have to look much more specifically at the flawed nature of the rural reforms that the PDPA tried to carry out.

  25. Anon on said:

    “So they didn’t use Amin taking power as a pretext to invade, they saw Amin taking power as something that changed the circumstances so that they had little choice but to agree to the PDPA’s request for intervention.”

    But my recollection is that it was Amin himself, following the ousting of Taraki, who asked the Soviet Union for increased military asistance. The Soviet government then used this request to claim that their troops had entered Afghanistan in response to an invitation by the head of the Afghan government. However, we know now that the objective of the invasion was in fact to kill the head of the Afghan government. So repeating the Soviet government’s excuse today is just ridiculous.

  26. Armchair on said:

    Communist- The term tankie I deliberately put in italics. It was a term that CP and sympathisers and members I knew at the time who supported the soviet intervention used to describe themselves.

    My view at the time was that the interventon was a mistake, but that ultimately it was a struggle between progress (the government) and reaction (the mujahadin).

    I can now see just how disastrous a mistake the intervention was.

    Reactionary? Pseudo-leftist?

  27. John Wight on said:

    Andy #32 – You’re absolutely right. The fact that the PDPA attempted to introduce reforms in the countryside is not the point at which they should be criticised. It’s the crude methodology they used that proved their undoing. They tried to move way too fast and much too forcefully. But they did so in a noble attempt to drag the country out of its pre industrial mire with a progressive agenda of wealth redistribution and human liberation.

  28. johng on said:

    The situation in Afghanistan is unusual because of its persistance. It was reproduced by the continuing absolute dependence of the regime on external finance from the early part of the 19th century up to the present, and the extreme backwardness buttressed by geo-political importance that this produced. This remains the case today.

    But Andy you are absolutely right that the problem was the way in which the government attacked ‘feudalism’ (this was actually my point, and it would be nice to have some further illucidation of what this meant in practice). But that mistake flowed out of the structural situation I tried to outline, which included the nature of urban politics whose factionalism and isolation was ITSELF a mark of ‘feudalism’ (I put this in inverted commas only because its important to register how the reproduction of these relations was increasinhgly conditioned by the integration of Afghan politics if not the economy with a decidedly non-feudal global order).

    The reason why I think it would have been self-evidently better if the Russians had not intervened is that a million dead people is a lot of dead people. And millions living in refugee camps in Pakistan is a lot of people living in refugee camps. Of course the US exploited the contradictions of Afghan society in its geo-political games with the Soviet Union by supplying arms to the countryside. But any modernising regime basing itself on the towns forcing through reforms against a recalcitrant peasentry (as opposed to the peasentry themselves raising demands and finding these demands echoed and perhaps given greater content by other progressive forces) would effectively involve a campaign of pacification of the countryside rather then a project of liberation.

    I don’t doubt that the motivations of the revolutionaries in the late ’60s and 70’s were noble (although I’m less convinced about the Soviet Union and the period subsequently). I just think they were constrained by their situation and a lousy ideology the two going togeather given the temptations to substitutionalism anyone would feel in that situation.

    The only result of the geo-political rivalry around Afghanistan was the Taliban. I think today we have a duty to argue against a repeat. Which is why I think its an important argument.

  29. communist on said:

    Armchair,
    It’s clear the Soviet Union was extremely reluctant to intervene, but, ultimately, they had little choice.
    The intervention meant that a progressive Afghanistan was able to survive – it survived as long as the Soviet Union itself survived – and this would not otherwise have been the case.

    On the term “tankie,” I’ve only heard it used by SP members or ex-mils. It’s a nonsense phrase and means nothing.

    However, my use of the terms “reactionary” and “pseudo-left” was equally unhelpful – point taken with regards to that.

  30. “the complete annihilation of a 16,000-strong British army in 1842″

    Be fair – only about 4-5,000 of these were fighting soldiers from Britain and India. The rest were civilians and camp-followers – not to mention the sick and wounded left in Kabul, who had been promised their safety “but when the last British soldier had left Kabul, their tents were set on fire and all were massacred.”. Killing women and children isn’t that heroic.

    But the Brits were back in Kabul within 6 months, setting fire to the Bazaar and slaughtering every male over 14 with their ‘Army of Retribution’. They were rough days.

  31. johng on said:

    In what sense did the soviets have “no choice”? I don’t understand this at all. And I also don’t understand how you can imagine that a million dead, millions growing up in refugee camps in Pakistan (yes think about it), was a “price worth paying” for a “progressive Afghanistan” people liked so much that they ended up supporting the Taliban. The urban population is TINY in proportion to the population. TINY. How can slaughtering large sections of the population be justified. Are peasents lives worth less then that of city folk? The question really does have to be asked. Particularly given that those sponsering the occupation in Afghanistan seem to have precisely the same attitude. What exactly is the difference? Aside from the fact that so far the US and Britain have killed considerably less people (and personally I’d like to keep it that way).