By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In April 1978 in Afghanistan, a pro-Soviet Communist Party effected a revolutionary seizure of power for the first time since world communism suffered the Sino-Soviet split. Taking place on the doorstep of the staunch US ally Pakistan, it was a strategic setback for the West. Together with the Iranian revolution which followed it, it disintegrated the old CENTO defence arrangement.
In a pre-capitalist , tribal society, the fundamental problems faced by the Communists were
( a ) the narrowness of their power base ( their support was mainly urban) and
( b) the paucity of cadre.
These structural problems were never overcome and indeed were exponentially enhanced by the dynamics within Afghan Communism. The Party had been split from the 1970’s into two factions: the hard-line ‘ Khalq’ (‘Masses’) and the relatively more moderate ‘Parcham’ (‘Flag’), which was closer to the Soviet line. This policy split also corresponded to a bitter, long running personality clash as well as a social differentiation. The Khalq was led by Noor Mohammed Taraki and was of a lower middle class and provincial character, while the Parcham was headed by Babrak Karmal and was upper middle class and urban in nature. However , the revolution was made in the main by the hard-line Khalqis, led by Noor Mohammed Taraki and Hafizullah Amin – with the latter playing a greater role in actual practice. Soon the power struggle erupted, replete with bloody purges. Amin was responsible for the murder of Parcham leaders ( one was frozen to death). His ferocity made Taraki and Karmal, the two old foes whose rivalry had enabled the rapid rise of Amin, seek a rapprochement through the intercession of Moscow. Fearing a coup Amin turned his guns on his old leader and mentor Taraki.
This debilitating fratricidal strife took place while the US and its ally Pakistan were arming the tribal counterrevolutionary insurgents. The hard-line Khalqis whose ideological intransigence had been a positive factor in respect of the revolutionary seizure of power, were prompted by that same intransigence to engage in social reforms that moved too far, too fast. Given the nature of Afghan society this caused a traditionalist backlash – which was militarily effective, since the actors involved were tribes with martial characteristics .
The USSR for its part had two intersecting fears:
(a) A successful US-Pakistani inspired counterrevolution on its Southern flank and
(b) A spill over of Islamic influence (the Afghan counterrevolutionaries fought under the banner of Islam) across the border into the Southern underbelly of the Soviet Union.
Propelled by these apprehensions the USSR made a pre-emptive intervention – or, more accurately, an intervention within an intervention. The Red Army went in to shore up the besieged revolutionary regime, while that regime was simultaneously and coercively recomposed by executing Hafizullah Amin whose bloodily sectarian political behaviour was seen to be narrowing revolutionary power, rendering it more vulnerable to counterrevolutionary overthrow. In his stead was substituted Babrak Karmal whose ‘Parcham’ tendency was seen as more capable of stabilising the situation by moderating the pace of reform and broad basing the regime.
This calculation went wrong for three reasons:
( a) The Soviet intervention provided the justification for greater US, Pakistani and Iranian support for the insurgents
( b ) It won little international endorsement and earned widespread condemnation as an act of superpower intervention against national sovereignty.
( c) The bloody upheavals within the revolutionary ranks emboldened the Afghan insurgents to greater efforts
(d ) The factional Parcham / Khalq split only took more subdued and subterranean forms – despite a superficial reconciliation, there was never an authentic, organic unification of the party.
Years later, the Soviets substituted Najibullah for Karmal, in the hope that the former’s religious credentials would stem the tide. But the ‘infection’ of sectarianism had travelled too far for too long, and proved fatal.
How the Vietnamese succeeded in stabilising the situation in Kampuchea with their ally the Heng Samrin-Hun Sen regime taking root, and Cuba was able to defend the MPLA regime in Angola while the USSR was unsuccessful in a similar endeavour in Afghanistan, is a subject worthy of serious comparative study. Vietnam, a much poorer state, had to face a no less ferocious enemy than the Afghan mujaheddin, namely Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. They had to manage traditional Kampuchean resentments and deal with a powerful Sino-US-Thai alliance .
Cuba, an economically blockaded island, helped maintain the MPLA government in the face of the murderous UNITA and FNLA insurgencies, and more importantly, two conventional campaigns by regular South African forces, with armour and air support (1975-6 and 1989). In the second campaign, the crushing defeat imposed by the Cubans on the South Africans opened the way for negotiations on Namibian independence. By Nelson Mandela’s own testimony, the Cuban victory at Cuito Cuenevale ( January-March 1988) weakened the morale of the South African state, thereby opening the space for his release and contributing to the downfall of apartheid.
By stark contrast, the world’s second superpower failed to stabilize its ally in Afghanistan. Perhaps part of the secret resides in the fact that the anti-Pol Pot Kampuchean communists were not plagued by factionalism, while the other part of the secret lies in the nature , by that period , of Soviet Communism in contrast to the tenacious combativeness of the Vietnamese and the Cubans. The Soviet leaders had never made a revolution or fought in wars; the Vietnamese and Cuban leaders had.
 Malcom Yapp ‘Colossus or Humbug ?The Soviet Union and its Southern Neighbours’, in the Soviet Union & the Third World (eds) EJ Feuchtwanger & Peter Nailor, New York St Martin’s Press1981 pp.137-163, Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan ,Verso London, 1989
 Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan, London Verso 1988
 Fidel Castro & Nelson Mandela, How Far We Slaves Have Come! Pathfinder New York 1991