Revolution and counter-revolution in Afghanistan

November 28, 2001

On July 3, 1979, US President Jimmy Carter signed a secret document that began a terrible train of events which may have culminated in the September 11 mass murders in New York and Washington.

As a direct consequence of the US government's spiteful decision to crush Afghanistan's 1978 democratic revolution, the country has had to endure more than 22 years of continuous war, costing the lives of millions of Afghans.

On October 7, Washington unleashed its military might on the poverty-stricken people of Afghanistan. The sickening roll call of victims rose by the day as US warplanes pummelled Afghanistan.

Washington's decision to nurture, fund and train a brutal gang of anti-democratic, woman-hating religious zealots as its counter-revolutionary storm troopers — the mujaheddin — in time spawned the ultra-reactionary Taliban regime, as well as Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network and a plethora of other right-wing Muslim terrorist groups.

From the very beginning, the US government justified its interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan with the claim that it was fighting "Soviet expansionism". When the 1978 Afghanistan revolution erupted, Washington claimed it was merely the result of a "Soviet-engineered coup".

When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in December 1979 in response to the danger that the Afghan government might fall to US-backed, anti-Soviet contra bandits, Washington declared the intervention part of a Soviet strategy to incorporate the country into the "Soviet empire", supposedly as a step towards achieving Moscow's long-term goal of a "warm water port" and control of strategic Middle Eastern oil reserves.

The opening of the archives of the former Soviet Union and the published reminiscences of former US policy makers have proven these claims to be lies.

What has been revealed is that, at every turn, the Afghan imbroglio deepened as Washington set about achieving its goals of destroying the gains — and the example — of the 1978 revolution, overthrowing the secular, left-wing party that had attempted to modernise Afghan society, and ensnaring the Soviet Union in a Vietnam War-like military quagmire for as long as possible so as to enfeeble it.

The Soviet Union was, to use the words of former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, drawn into the "Afghan trap" by Washington's actions.

The 1978 events in Afghanistan were not a "Soviet-engineered" coup, as Washington and the capitalist media charge, but the culmination of almost 15 years of rising political protest and organisation.

In fact, it is now widely accepted by establishment historians that the Soviet Union was caught by surprise by the uprising by members of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) on April 27, 1978, which overthrew the undemocratic regime of President Mohammad Daud.

What was the PDPA?

The PDPA's first congress was held in January 1965 during an upsurge of the urban democratic movement in Kabul, in opposition to the autocratic rule of King Zahir Shah. It was led by young activists in that upsurge, as well as students and academics who had participated in the 1947-52 democratic movement led by the Wikh-i-Zalmaiyan (Awakened Youth Movement), such as writer Nur Mohammad Taraki (who was founding PDPA secretary general) and former student leader Babrak Karmal.

The PDPA was an orthodox pro-Moscow Stalinist party. Its program called for a popular front of workers, peasants, progressive intellectuals, artisans, urban and rural smallholders and the "national bourgeoisie" to lead a national-democratic revolution to modernise Afghan society.

While the party's early membership consisted mostly of a few hundred students, intellectuals, soldiers, teachers and government workers, mainly in Kabul, its influence was not small. Four PDPA members, including Karmal, were elected to the short-lived and powerless parliament, the Wolesi Jirgah, in 1965.

Hundreds of students invaded the parliament's first session on October 24, in support of the PDPA MPs and to oppose the king's prime minister. The following day, troops fired on anti-government demonstrators, killing three (The deaths were subsequently marked every year on the same day. The "three scorpions demonstrations", as they became known, grew in size each year. They were often violently repressed).

Six issues of the PDPA's weekly newspaper, Khalq (People), were produced in 1966 before the government closed it down, accusing it of being "un-Islamic". The first issue sold 20,000 copies; later 10,000.

The legacy of the suppression of 1964-66 democracy movement was a radicalised urban-based mass movement, strongly influenced by the PDPA. This radicalisation spread from Kabul University and the high schools to civil servants and the small urban working class.

In 1967, anti-US feeling — already running high over the Vietnam War — increased after it was revealed that the CIA was interfering in Afghan student affairs. In 1968, there was a wave of workers' strikes; students demonstrated in support. In May-June 1969, 15,000 students clashed with riot police. In 1970, women took to the streets to protest Islamic restrictions on their rights.

Kabul University became a hotbed of Marxist and radical ideas.

The PDPA grew substantially from this politicised urban population. A majority of the Khalq faction's members, for example, were teachers. By the late 1960s, PDPA membership was several thousand.

Khalq and Parcham

In June 1967, the PDPA split into two factions, the Khalq and the Parcham (Flag). The initial dispute was over how to respond to the banning of the party newspaper, Khalq. Taraki was opposed to continuing to publish the paper underground; Karmal supported it. Karmal's faction began producing the weekly Parcham. The central committee was evenly split between the two.

However, according to Fred Halliday, writing in the November-December 1978 New Left Review, the division also involved deeper differences over ideology and political strategy:

"Whereas Khalq insisted on building a working-class party with strict 'Leninist' discipline, Parcham wanted a broad national-democratic front to carry through the first phase of the revolution."

Parcham, which had established cells inside the 85,000-strong Afghan armed forces, linked up with overseas-educated officers who opposed the monarchy and favoured a modernised, secular Afghanistan.

The army ranks were composed mainly of Afghan peasants, whose unhappiness at the appalling conditions of life in the countryside also made them receptive to radical ideas. Many officers had been trained in the Soviet Union and were impressed with the social progress that had been made in the neighbouring Soviet republics of Central Asia.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s the mass movement continued to develop, as did discontent in the army and rural areas fuelled by a serious famine and the monarchical regime's corruption.

In 1972, the US ambassador to Kabul, Robert Neumann, warned Washington that "barring progressive decisions or very good luck, the survival of the present government for more than another year is problematical".

A section of the ruling class moved to head off a social explosion. On July 17, 1973, military officers (including Parcham members) overthrew Zahir Shah, ending his 40-year rule, and placed Daud, the king's cousin and a former prime minister, in power.

It now known that Washington had prior knowledge of the coup and signalled that it would accept the overthrow of the king. This makes a mockery of US outrage at the PDPA taking power in 1978 in circumstances in which that party had little choice but to act or be massacred. The PDPA also pledged to address the same social ills that Daud promised, but had failed, to remedy. Clearly for Washington there are "good" coups and "bad" coups, depending on whose interests are served by them.

Daud promised radical land reform, the legalisation of political parties and other reforms in the hope that more radical change, outside the control of the landlords and capitalists, could be avoided.

Parcham was offered four ministers in Daud's government. A Parcham member, Major Abdul Qadir, was nominated vice-commander of the air force, while another Parcham supporter, Major Zia Mohammadzi Zia, was appointed head of the Republican Guard.

However, Daud's promises were not implemented. His regime rapidly shifted to the right. While a republic was proclaimed, the royal family remained prominent in Afghanistan's affairs.

In 1974, Daud posted the Parcham ministers and Major Zia to overseas diplomatic postings (as well, Qadir was demoted to head of Kabul's military abattoir!).

Afghanistan's traditional position as a "buffer state" between the Soviet Union and Washington's Cold War allies, Pakistan and Iran, began to alter. With the encouragement of Washington, the reactionary pro-US Shah of Iran offered a US$2 billion economic aid package in the hope of replacing Moscow as Kabul's biggest donor.

Military cooperation was also offered. The number of Soviet military advisers in the Afghan armed forces dropped from 1000 in 1972 to 200 in 1976, being replaced by agents of the dreaded Iranian secret police agency, SAVAK.

At the same time, Daud pursued closer relations with the Pakistan dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq, agreeing in 1977 to drop Afghanistan's longstanding support for the right to national self-determination for the Pashtun and Baluch peoples, who inhabit parts of both countries. Pashtun and Baluch political exiles in Afghanistan were expelled.

Parcham's illusions that Daud could be part of a popular front committed to a national-democratic revolution were soon shattered and, by 1975, it had moved politically closer to the Khalqi faction. Many Parcham supporters, including Major Qadir, shifted allegiance to Khalq.

In the meantime, supervised by Hafizullah Amin, Khalq had greatly strengthened its support among rank and file soldiers and even officers. By 1976, Khalq had prepared plans for its military cadre to launch an insurrection should the need arise.

The Khalq and Parcham factions reunited as the PDPA in 1977, however sectarianism and factionalism — often violent and unprincipled — continuously resurfaced and would seriously weaken and undermine the party.

Suddenly in April 1978, Daud and his hardline interior minister, General Abdul Nuristani, launched a sharp government crackdown on the PDPA. It proved to be a miscalculation.

Crack-down triggers insurrection

On April 17, PDPA leader Mir Akbar Khyber, a former editor of the Parcham newspaper, was murdered in Kabul on the orders of Nuristani (who had stated it was time to "finish off" the "communists" before they became too strong).

A huge crowd by Afghanistan's standards, 15,000 people, gathered for his funeral. They carried red flags and shouted anti-government slogans. Taraki led the march to the US embassy, where the demonstrators denounced the role of the CIA and SAVAK. Other demonstrations followed.

On April 26, Daud had Taraki, Babrak Karmal, Amin and other top PDPA leaders arrested. However, Amin was able to smuggle out the order for the insurrection to begin.

Major Qadir and Colonel Aslam Watanjar, another leading PDPA member in the military, narrowly escaped arrest and early on April 27, Watanjar took command of tank regiments and Qadir the air force. In Kabul's central park, large crowds organised by the PDPA had gathered to protest against the arrests.

At 5pm, insurgent tanks knocked down the walls of the central prison and released the detained PDPA leaders. As armoured cars transported the leaders to the headquarters of the insurrection, thousands of people lined the streets to cheer them on. In cities, towns and army garrisons around the country, PDPA members and supporters arrested their generals and took control.

By 7.30pm, Radio Afghanistan proclaimed the overthrow of the Daud regime. "For the first time in the history of Afghanistan", the radio declared, "the last remnants of monarchy, tyranny, despotism ... has ended, and all powers of the state are in the hands of the people of Afghanistan".

The government of the new Democratic Republic of Afghanistan headed by Taraki, as president and prime minister, took power the next day. Karmal and Amin were named deputy prime ministers. All members of the 21-member cabinet and the 35-member Revolutionary Council were PDPA leaders. The Khalq faction was in the majority.

At the presidential palace, fighting raged most of the night. During the final assault by tanks and jet fighters, Daud and some of his ministers, including the hated Nuristani, were killed. Daud reportedly shot himself. The only concerted resistance was in Jalalabad, where government forces held out for two days.

Revolution unfolds

The overthrow of Daud was tremendously popular, something even the capitalist press was forced to admit. The New York Times' Kabul correspondent William Borders reported on May 6, 1978: "Soldiers who distributed the government newspaper from army buses were besieged at every corner by crowds of eager buyers. Even people who are illiterate — as nine out of 10 Afghans are — seemed eager to study the photographs..."

According to Borders, most foreign journalists found that "nearly every Afghan they interviewed said [they were] delighted at the coup".

Rallies, marches and meetings were held in many towns and villages to celebrate the overthrow of Daud. On May 1, 1978, May Day was celebrated for the first time as a legal holiday.

The January 16, 1979, Wall Street Journal reported that in Kabul alone "more than 150,000 persons ... marched to honor the new flag on the day it was unfurled [October 23]. Similar demonstrations of support occurred in other cities. The marches were organized, but witnesses say the participants appeared genuinely enthusiastic."

The June 1, 1979, Washington Post reported that, "From the looks of banners and slogans all over [Kabul], Afghan loyalty to the government can scarcely be questioned".

Taraki delivered the government's first major policy speech on May 9. He said that the April 27 insurrection was the beginning of a "democratic and national revolution". He outlined a 39-point program which included radical land reform, the abolition of feudalistic property relations in the countryside, freedom of religion, the granting of rights to Afghanistan's various national minorities, universal primary education and equality between men and women.

Taraki announced that the government would take a 51% stake in all major enterprises not already in government hands; state control over foreign trade would be established.

Taraki declared repeatedly in speeches and statements: "The goal of our revolution is a total break with our feudal past. We aim for the elimination of poverty, adversity and class exploitation, and the uplifting of the Afghan people."

In an interview with Cuban television, deputy prime minister Amin, who was also foreign minister, went further and stated that it was "a revolution that heralds a socialist revolution" (Granma, June 4, 1978).

Swift implementation

One of the first acts of the new regime was to wipe out the last vestiges of royal power. The overthrow of Daud broke the royal family's monopoly on political power. A few days after the insurrection, all land and property of the royal family was confiscated. Within months, about 300 to 400 big landowners, many of them part of the old aristocracy, had been stripped of their lands.

Daud's elite Republican Guard was dissolved. All but one of Afghanistan's 50 generals were dismissed from the armed forces. Around 13,000 prisoners were freed and police files were publicly burned.

Thousands of royalists were removed from the state apparatus, the ranks of senior civil service and the diplomatic corps and replaced by young supporters of the revolution.

Price controls were imposed on basic necessities in the market of Kabul. The cost of bread was cut in half. Free emergency medical care was introduced in some areas. At the time of the revolution, infant mortality was 269 per thousand and average life expectancy was just 35 years.

Working hours were reduced and low-paid workers were given higher wages. Within days of taking power, the PDPA legalised trade unions for the first time in Afghanistan's history. Unions were subsequently set up in Kabul and elsewhere, but they remained relatively weak, in part because of the small size of the working class (about 330,000 workers were employed in manufacturing, construction, mining, transport, communications and other sectors, out of a total estimated labour force of 5.6 million).

A mass literacy campaign was begun. At the time of the revolution, about 90% of the population could not read or write. The literacy drive was organised by the National Agency for the Campaign Against Illiteracy. More than 5000 unemployed university graduates were recruited as teachers.

A little more than a year after the revolution, 600 new schools had been built, many of them in rural areas, and in smaller towns and villages. By the end of 1979, up to 500,000 adult Afghans were attending basic literacy classes (another 500,000 had enrolled but dropped out).

Higher education was expanded. By November 1979, there were 22,000 students in universities and other higher education institutions, compared to just 8000 in 1975-76.

Gains for minorities and women

Historically, Afghanistan had been dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, which accounted for nearly half the population. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Turkomans, Baluchs and other minorities were discriminated against under previous regimes.

Primary education, which was previously conducted in Pashtu or Dari (the Afghan dialect of Persian), now included instruction in local languages. Within weeks of the insurrection, radio and television programs were being broadcast in minority languages. The PDPA's weekly, Khalq, was published in five languages.

Because the leadership of the PDPA was drawn from most of the nationalities, the ethnic composition of the government was also radically altered.

Women, too, made important gains. Under the tribal and nomadic social relations that predominated in much of the country, young women were still being sold into marriage, barred from education and from most employment outside of the home and field.

The PDPA proclaimed the legal equality of the sexes, abolished arranged (usually child) marriages, and drastically reduced the traditional bride price to a token amount.

Dr Anahita Ratebzad, the only woman member of the PDPA central committee, was named a minister and prominently encouraged women to become politically active and fight for their rights.

To organise and mobilise women, the Khalqi Organisation for Afghan Women (KOAW) was formed and it played a visible role in the marches, demonstrations and rallies in support of the revolution.

The gains won by the revolution for women remained fresh in the minds of Afghan women 33 years later. Those memories highlight the hypocrisy of US and British governments' manipulation of the world's disgust at the Taliban's oppression of women to win support for their latest war on Afghanistan.

Saira Noorani, a woman surgeon who finally escaped the Taliban in mid-September 2001, told the September 30 British Observer: "Life was good under the Soviets. Every girl could go to high school and university. We could go wherever we wanted and wear what we liked... We used to go to cafes and the cinema to see the latest Indian films on a Friday and listen to the latest Hindi music... It all started to go wrong when the mujaheddin started winning... They used to kill teachers and burn schools... We were terrified... It was funny and sad to think these were the people the West had supported."

[This is the first of a three-part series.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 28, 2001.
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