10 August, 2022


Afghanistan: How The Tragedy Began

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. 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[1]. 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[2].

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[3].

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.

[1] 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

[2] Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan, London Verso 1988
[3] Fidel Castro & Nelson Mandela, How Far We Slaves Have Come! Pathfinder New York 1991

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Latest comments

  • 4

    Afghanistan has always been subjected to undue attention and interference by world powers because of its strategically critical location. At least now, why not let these unfortunate people, who had to endure more than their share of human suffering, sort out their own problems. Taliban is only the latest chapter in their long history of suffering due to the vortex of an oppressive religion and hostile geography in which they find themselves. It too will peter out like past tyrannies have done unless propped up by external interests. Current narratives of the turmoil in the country can help the process of liberation by telling the story from Afghan people’s point of view for a change, rather than repeating the discourses that have kept them under oppression for so long.

  • 0

    About 20-30 thousand people will flee Afghanistan, out of 38 million Afghans (about 0.001% of the population). . . Most can’t see a way of going back to rural livelihoods after the change of perspective introduced by Western nations. Many will get forced to accept the old ways, or get killed for it. Western powers are realizing only now, that there are other ways to control their monetary situation without forcing ancient ways out of people for them to purchase Western products. Now is the time of the Climate Change industry, so ancient culture is of greater reverence (pity about the women’s issues though). Hence Biden is doing the right thing. Change is never easy, but as he said in his message today, the useless war had to end at one time or other.

  • 0

    I will be brief.

    The US had achieved all results for which it invaded Afgan.

    The White-Green war has now been transformed into Green-Green war is the current thinking in all strategic communities in all over world, including Muslims’ and Arabs’ world.

  • 1

    “Staunch US ally Pakistan”

    Pakistan, Iran, UK, Iraq and Turkey were members of the Central Treaty Organization CENTO – a military alliance like NATO, led by USA!

    . What did the USA do to go to the defense of their allies in need?

    Did USA raise their fingers to help their staunch ally Pakistan when confronted by India in 1965 and 1971 or did USA go to help another ally Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi when confronted during Iranian revolution in 1979 which led to the tragic end of CENTO in 1979.

    Even after the collapse of CENTO the betrayal of USA continued under and different Presidents both Democrats and Republicans!

    South Vietnam in 1976 !

    Afghanistan in 2024?.

    It is always America first?- The military and Economic interests of USA was always decisive leaving their staunch allies in wilderness. .

    It is not Donald Trump who first proclaimed America First policy?

    America First is the traditional US policy before and after Donald Trump.

    USA will not last long as a superpower!

  • 1

    Afghanistan for Afghans they have every right to determine their own future. Others not provide them with the will to fight for that future this is the idea of present american the strategy changes when president chages end of the day death has happned. Sometimes you can accomplish most by doing nothing.Afganistan did not meddle too much with the american force this is there strategy at last what happened is they did nothing but the afganistanis picked up there technichnics

  • 0

    Like to know Dayan’s analysis of the current situation. i.e. Thaliban 2.0.
    Why is the US withdrawing? Are Thaliban a freedom movement or a collection of tribal groupos? What was the US and Allied project? nation-Building in the way the West wanted or an imperial project to keep it under control? What are the key national and international forces at play? What lessons are there for other countries of the global south? Wesgern media are focusing on the rights of women,Human rights violations etc. by Thaliban. How much destruction was caused by W Powers not discussed.?

    • 0

      Why is the US withdrawing? What else could they do?
      The Cold War was over and the US needed a new enemy to justify its imperial military expansion.
      Its own creation ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’ came in handy.
      There were no other players, and the US has nobody but itself to blame.
      That is the key difference between Vietnam (& Korea) and Afghanistan,.

  • 0

    I think that DJ can do with reading the Issue of Frontline darted 10th September.
    The struggle between modernism and conservatism is a century long.
    Modern socio-political thinking had penetrated Afghanistan early in the 20th Century.
    The British played a key role in the reversal of that process as did the US half a century later.
    The USSR erred in not letting the Afghan left government sort out its own problems.
    The messed things up for their Afghan allies and later themselves.
    The CIA tricked the USSR into overplaying its hand.

  • 0

    Even after leaving Afghan, the US is must for Afghan.

    It is in the aftermath of US invasion, conducive political and economic atmosphere was created by US (and the West) in Afghan so that central bank was able to build the assets worth around $9.5 Billion, which is now frozen.

    All those who salivated at the US withdrawal so that they can poke their hands into Afghan pie of $9.5 Billion, like Russia, China (with some people here touting as though they are coming to salvage Afghan) are now disappointed and not ready to put their money where their mouth is in Afghanistan.

    More or lessb even the Taliban first looked for the $9.5 Billion in Afghan central bank office in Kabul, only to find 18 million dollars.

    The Taliban now realises that it has been dragged into some thing from which it cannot withdraw nor can it provide even a resemblance of happening ( be it development, normalcy etc.) without US and the West.

    For against the charge that US is intervening in Afghan even after withdrawal, first let others help Afghan to arrive at normalcy and start developing. In addition, make Taliban behave civilised towards all Afghans than resorting to its Islam’s stone age beliefs.

    Then we are all talking, however differences we have among ourselves about Afghan.

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