SPECIAL FEATURE: Revolution and counter-revolution in Afghanistan



Until 1988, the United States at every turn blocked attempts to secure a negotiated settlement between the left-wing Peoples Democratic Party government in Afghanistan and sections of the right-wing mujaheddin opposition. This delayed the withdrawal of Soviet troops for years and prolonged the misery of the Afghan people.

Had Washington permitted an early settlement, the dreadful 1992-96 intra-mujaheddin civil war and its devastating consequences — including the rise of the Taliban and possibly the appalling mass murders in New York and Washington on September 11 — might have been avoided.

As early as May 1980, the PDPA government proposed that discussions on ending the war be held with Pakistan and Iran, followed by an international conference that would agree to end Western interference in Afghanistan and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

In 1982, UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cueller appointed Diego Cordovez to mediate a settlement in Afghanistan. For the next six years, the progress of indirect talks in Geneva between representatives of Pakistan and Afghanistan was repeatedly blocked by Washington.

According to the May 4, 1983 New York Times, Soviet President Yuri Andropov told Pakistani military dictator General Zia ul-Haq in December 1982 that Soviet troops would leave Afghanistan "quickly" if Pakistan ended its backing for the mujaheddin.

These offers simply required the US and its allies to recognise the PDPA government as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and as a negotiating partner — a fact accepted by the United Nations and scores of other governments.

However, under pressure from Washington, Pakistan and the mujaheddin leaders rejected any "peace process" that recognised the PDPA government. Washington, Pakistan and the mujaheddin insisted that the PDPA must step down and be replaced by an interim "broad-based" government before any settlement.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was determined to reach a settlement that would allow Soviet troops to leave Afghanistan. This would end a military commitment that was damaging the Soviet Union economically, socially and politically.

However, negotiations continued to be stalled by Washington's insistence that Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan before a negotiated settlement was reached on a new "interim government".

On February 8, 1988, Gorbachev surprised the UN and Washington when he announced that Soviet troops would begin their withdrawal on May 15, to be completed by February 1989. However, even this was not enough to secure Washington's agreement to end its funding of the mujaheddin.

Months before, according to the Digital National Security Archive, right-wing US legislators had secured a promise from President Ronald Reagan that the US would continue to fund the mujaheddin even after Soviet troops had withdrawn. Pakistan too was insisting that it would not sign a final agreement that did not provide for a mujaheddin-dominated interim government.

On April 14, 1988, the "Geneva Accords" were formally signed by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, committing each of them to "prevent within its territory the training, equipping, financing and recruitment of mercenaries from whatever origin for the purpose of hostile activities against the other" country. The governments of the USSR and the USA agreed to act as guarantors of the deal.

Yet, according to the April 15, 1988, New York Times, Us secretary of state George Shultz said straight after the signing of the accords that there was "nothing in the agreement that restricts" continued US aid to the mujaheddin. Incredibly, Pakistan's foreign minister also claimed the accords did not prevent Pakistan from aiding the mujaheddin.

Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze protested that he had "honestly and openly said to ... Shultz that the US had no legal right to deliver arms to forces engaged in the struggle against the legitimate government" of Afghanistan.

PDPA defies Western predictions

The last Soviet soldier departed Afghanistan on schedule on May 15, 1989. Gorbachev had kept his side of the bargain, even though Washington had refused to stop funding the mujaheddin.

The consensus held by the US and its allies and the capitalist media commentators was that the PDPA government, then led by President Mohammed Najibullah, would fall to the mujaheddin within months, if not weeks, of the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Washington and its loyal scribes had come to believe their own propaganda — that the PDPA government was a "Soviet puppet" that had come to power in a "Soviet-engineered coup" in April 1978. In reality, the PDPA had taken power on its own initiative and had far greater support and deeper social roots in Afghan society than it was given credit for, especially in the cities.

At the time of the signing of the Geneva accords, the PDPA claimed a membership of 250,000. During the civil war between the pro-worker/peasant PDPA government and the landlord-merchant-led mujaheddin counter-revolutionaries, more than three million Afghan peasants voted with their feet and decided to take their chances in government-controlled cities rather than in the mujaheddin-dominated refugee camps in Pakistan, or in Iran.

As well, tens of thousands of people were committed to the PDPA because of government employment and/or sympathy with its objectives. They considered their fates to be bound with that of the government. Faced with a counter-revolution that had shown it would give no quarter should it seize power, the populations of the cities — especially women — fought with determination to prevent a mujaheddin victory.

Najibullah had become Afghan president in 1986. His government stepped up efforts to achieve a political settlement to the Afghan civil war. The Najibullah government proposed a unilateral cease-fire with the mujaheddin and offered posts to rebel leaders in a coalition government.

In March 1986, Afghan foreign minister Abdul Wakil invited mujaheddin leaders, former king Zahir Shah and ex-ministers from previous governments to join a government of national unity "to rebuild the war-torn country". Parliamentary elections in April 1988 resulted in a non-PDPA member, Mohammad Hassan Sharq, becoming prime minister; 62 parliamentary seats were left vacant for the "opposition".

Najibullah addressed the UN General Assembly and stated that the "flexibility of the present leadership of Afghanistan also includes its decision to give up monopoly on power, the introduction of parliament on the basis of party competition and granting of all political, social and economic rights and privileges to those who are returning".

The PDPA government had also achieved considerable success in reaching peace agreements with individual mujaheddin commanders. In 1988, 160 guerilla commanders (there were an estimated 2000 such commanders inside Afghanistan in 1988) had reached agreements and more than 750 were negotiating. The most important of these was an agreement with General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controlled a powerful rebel army in northern Afghanistan around Mazar-e-Sharif.

On February 1, 1989, as the last of the Soviet troops was crossing the Amudarya River back into the USSR, Washington began what it believed would be the final offensive against the PDPA. In what the Afghan government called "psychological war", the US withdrew its embassy from Kabul. Other Western countries followed suit.

The following day, Washington's favoured mujaheddin leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, declared that "Kabul will fall in weeks, not months, without any major onslaught on the city". The mujaheddin and Washington expected wholesale defections of the Afghan armed forces. It was not to be. As with Jalalabad and Kandahar, two cities which had been successfully defended solely by Afghan troops for several months without Soviet troops, Kabul too would hold out.

Battle of Jalalabad

According to the February 11, 1989, New York Times, the US National Security Council held a secret meeting on February 9 at which, predicting the fall of the Najibullah government within three to six months, it recommended to President George Bush senior that the US arm the mujaheddin for "one more fighting season".

In Islamabad, US and Pakistani officials drew up a plan in which the various mujaheddin factions would form an "Afghan Interim Government". The AIG would set itself up in the first Afghan city the mujaheddin was able to capture. Washington would then recognise the AIG as the legitimate government of Afghanistan and begin to massively funnel arms and funds to it.

The CIA and Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI) chose Jalalabad as the AIG's new capital. Jalalabad was strategically located between the mujaheddin's base in Peshawar and Kabul.

The April 23, 1989 New York Times revealed that the attack on Jalalabad had been planned by the Pakistan military at a meeting attended by US ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley — with no mujaheddin representatives present!

The two-month siege of Jalalabad — in which more than 1000 mujaheddin were killed, the largest number killed in any single battle in the Afghan civil war — resulted in a decisive mujaheddin failure.

This was despite the fact that the battle, which began on March 5, involved thousands of heavily armed mujaheddin guerillas, backed by hundreds of armed religious fanatics from Arab countries. An estimated 3000 Pakistani troops also participated.

Mujaheddin rockets, which were indiscriminately fired into the city, killed hundreds of civilians.

Displaying great confidence in its support, the PDPA government distributed weapons to teachers, students and workers.

In July, an Afghan army counteroffensive drove the mujaheddin from villages surrounding Jalalabad and recaptured the military garrison town of Samarkhel, the fall of which was the only significant mujaheddin gain since the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

Najibullah's peace offers

The mujaheddin's failure at Jalalabad strengthened the position of the Najibullah government. The realisation that the PDPA government was not about to fall, despite the billions of dollars that had been poured into the mujaheddin's coffers by the US, increased pressure on the more realistic elements within the mujaheddin to seek a political settlement with the PDPA government.

Najibullah repeated an invitation to rebel commanders based inside the country to attend talks to end the war and participate in the government. He also proposed that all arms shipments to both sides be halted. "If it is said that we get help from the Soviet Union, then let the arms supplies from both superpowers be cut to put an end to the war", Najibullah told the March 2, 1989 Far Eastern Economic Review.

The secretary of the government's defence council, Abdul Haq Olumi, reported in July 1989 that peace agreements with 54,000 mujaheddin guerillas had been concluded, while negotiations with 50,000 more continued. The government offered local mujaheddin leaders autonomy and government funding.

In mid-June, Najibullah appeared live on Kabul television for three nights running before a large audience which fired critical questions at him.

Najibullah's government also reinstituted the Loya Jirga, the great tribal council that has traditionally been the governing body in Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga appointed a new National Reconciliation Committee to oversee hoped-for negotiations. Its seven members included a former minister under Zahir Shah's pre-1973 rule, a royal family member, a former police commandant, a law professor and a former attorney general.

Kabul again proposed a cease-fire, to be followed by a national peace conference, the formation of either a neutral or a coalition interim government, the drafting of a constitution for submission to the Loya Jirga and elections. Najibullah even offered to step down if this would bring peace.

Speaking of the elections, an Afghan government spokesperson was quoted in the July 10, 1989, issue of Time magazine, saying: "I think we would win. We are the lesser of two evils. We have an established record of running the government, and we have plans for the future."

Without a foreign enemy, the mujaheddin appeared increasingly to be stooges of Pakistan and the CIA. The prominence of the extreme Islamic party, Hizb-i-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also helped to discredit the rebels. The PDPA government relentlessly exposed his subservience to the Pakistani secret service, dating back to an unsuccessful uprising in Kabul he led in 1975, as well as his involvement in acid attacks on unveiled women in Kabul at the same time.

"Between the two of them, Najibullah is more acceptable, for people in the cities and those who are used to any kind of civilised life. If Hekmatyar comes to power, I will leave Afghanistan", a city dweller not friendly to the PDPA was quoted as saying in the July 13, 1989, Far Eastern Economic Review.

The failure of the mujaheddin's drive to take Jalalabad and the growing frictions among the various guerilla factions forced the new civilian government of Pakistan, led by Benazir Bhutto, to begin to consider a political settlement. In May, Bhutto sacked the head of Pakistani military intelligence, Lieutenant-General Hamid Gul. He had been the key official involved in channelling of the massive US military aid to the most extreme of the Afghan counter-revolutionaries.

US backs Massoud faction

In June 1989, Edmund McWilliams, the special US envoy to the mujaheddin, estimated that a political settlement favourable to the mujaheddin was impossible if its Pakistan-based leaders continued to call the shots.

The ISI-engineered meeting that selected the AIG was far from representative of the PDPA's opponents. It excluded representatives of the traditional tribal Pashtun leaderships, supporters of the former king and Afghanistan's northern ethnic and religious minorities. The eight or so Iran-based Shiite parties did not take part.

The ISI's favourites, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were imposed as prime minister and foreign minister respectively. The least important AIG ministries went to Jamiat-i-Islami, the party of Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was arguably the mujaheddin's most formidable military leader. This marginalisation was due to Rabbani and Massoud's base being among the Tajik and Uzbek populations of northern Afghanistan.

Massoud refused to allow the ISI to dictate to him and subsequently received very little aid. "This year, we have not received even a single map", he told the October 6, 1989 Paris L'Express.

It was also common knowledge in Washington that Hekmatyar hoarded much of the US weaponry he received via the ISI or sold it on black market.

McWilliams recommended that the US put less emphasis on a military solution and pressure Pakistan to stop favouring Hekmatyar. US ambassador Robert Oakley had McWilliams "reassigned".

Washington was not yet willing to allow peace to come to Afghanistan. A "senior US official" told Ahmed Rashid of the Far Eastern Economic Review: "We are determined to stay the course with the mujaheddin and hang tough with the Soviets. The mujaheddin deserve one more fighting season which will decide the outcome of the war in their favour."

In July 1989, Hekmatyar's forces ambushed and slaughtered 30 commanders of Massoud's army as they were returning from a strategy meeting. Hekmatyar left the AIG in August after AIG president Sibghatullah Mojadedi denounced the massacre and accused Hekmatyar of killing hundreds of his political opponents. Yet, even after this, Hekmatyar's faction continued to get most of the available arms and funds.

Throughout the rest of 1989 and early 1990, the Afghan policies of the US and Pakistan were at an impasse. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars being injected into the Afghan contras' war chests annually, fighting within Afghanistan was at an all-time low, and many internal mujaheddin commanders had agreed to cease-fires and non-aggression pacts in exchange for autonomy.

The Najibullah government's growing domestic and international acceptance led to an important breakthrough. In February 1990, US secretary of state James Baker told his Soviet counterpart, Eduard Shevardnadze, that the US no longer demanded that Najibullah resign before a settlement.

The US also began to pressure the discredited AIG to hold a shura or assembly to dissolve itself and elect a more representative group in preparation for the negotiations with Najibullah that now seemed inevitable — even to Washington. In the AIG's place was proposed a body consisting of 10 representatives from each of Afghanistan's 217 districts, as well as a small number from the Pakistan and Iran-based parties.

This plan failed miserably when the Pakistan-based parties refused to agree. A press conference scheduled for February 9 to announce the shura was cancelled, and the AIG announced that the meeting had been postponed indefinitely. The US special envoy to the mujaheddin, Peter Tomsen, also cancelled a press briefing.

Tomsen had spent almost a month at the Peshawar mujaheddin headquarters trying to convince the AIG to accept the US plan. His failure left the US without a credible alternative to the PDPA government.

Why the PDPA fell

The Najibullah government survived two more "fighting seasons". In 1991, George Bush senior's administration again signalled that it was prepared to consider a role for the PDPA in an interim arrangement to end the war (without however ending military support for the mujaheddin). Several mujaheddin representatives negotiated with Najibullah's government in talks in Geneva.

Peace prevailed in several parts of Afghanistan after agreements had been entered into. The military situation was a stalemate.

What led to defeat of the PDPA government was outside its control — the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Contrary to the US mantra that the PDPA government was puppet of the Soviet Union, the PDPA government outlived its supposed "puppeteer", the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, by seven months.

Following the failed Stalinist coup of August 1991, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was outlawed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who staged a coup of his own, dissolving the Soviet Union in December 1991.

The Yeltsin government cut-off military supplies to the Afghan government on January 1, 1992. Meanwhile, US arms and funds continued to flow to the mujaheddin.

It is the supreme irony that when the Najibullah government finally fell on April 16, 1992, it was not to the main recipients of the billions funnelled through the ISI by the CIA.

The decisive event that sealed the PDPA's fate was the breech by General Dostum's army of its peace agreement with Kabul. Dostum's forces joined forces with Massoud in early 1992. The Hazara faction, Hizb-i-Wahdat, also joined the coalition that they named the Northern Alliance.

On April 15, non-Pashtun forces that had been allied to the government mutinied and took control of Kabul airport. Najibullah took refuge in the UN compound in Kabul, where he remained until he was murdered by the Taliban in 1996.

Massoud forces entered Kabul on April 25, 1992. The Northern Alliance reached an agreement that excluded Hekmatyar. In June, Rabbani became the president of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan.

Hekmatyar's forces began to bombard Kabul with rockets. The rest of the country was carved up between various mujaheddin factions and warlords.

Washington had finally achieved its goal of destroying the Afghan revolution. But the stage was set for the beginning of a new and terrible civil war that was to see more Afghans killed in the following five years than were killed in the entire 1978-1992 period. It would culminate in the rise to power of a new Pakistan-backed, US-approved reactionary force — the Taliban.

[This is the third and final in a three-part series.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 12, 2001.
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