WeeklyWorker

15.07.2021
The urban revolution did not coincide with a rural revolution. April 1978 had a mass base in the cities - above all the capital, Kabul - but failed to ignite the countryside

Looking back over the ruins

The final withdrawal of American troops must be put in the context of the April 1978 revolution and the subsequent reaction. The USA and Saudi Arabia armed, financed and promoted a counterrevolution, which included Osama bin Laden and al Qa’eda and ended in the triumph of the Taliban. This is an edited version of an article written by Jack Conrad and first published in June 2003. Its main target is Sean Matgamna, patriarch of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Nowadays, the AWL describes the Taliban as “Islamo-fascist”; back then, though, they were “our kind of people”

Let us revisit the arguments over Afghanistan. Sean Matgamna characterises the overthrow of Mohammed Daoud’s - republican-royal - regime by the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan in April 1978 as a “Stalinist military coup”, which brought upon the heads of the masses nothing but decades of terrible suffering.

Exactly the same message pushed by the White House, CIA, BBC, Hollywood action films, The Sun and the whole well-oiled imperialist propaganda machine. Certainly, after the full-scale Soviet intervention in December 1979, Socialist Organiser - precursor of the AWL’s Solidarity - proudly sided with the mujaheddin against Soviet “expansionism” and its “puppet” government in Kabul. A sad parody of the paid persuaders of the bourgeoisie. Another prominent AWL leader even referred to the mujaheddin as being “our kind of people” during a debate with me.

The AWL claims an almost unique commitment to ‘third camp’ Marxism - increasingly the rest of the left is pooh-poohed as ‘fake’. However, the fact of the matter is that Sovietphobia drove many of the AWL comrades into a worrying softness towards the ‘first camp’ - note the AWL’s dreadful stance on the rightwing witch-hunt against George Galloway, the IRA’s guerrilla war, involuntary Bosnian unity, the claim to be “a little bit Zionist”, etc. As with Matgamna’s historic mentor, there is a real and present danger of a complete flip to the other side. His Max Shachtman (1904-72) went from being a dedicated communist revolutionary to backing the CIA directed Bay of Pigs landing by Miami-based Cuban contras in 1961 and opposing anti-war demands for US forces to get out of Vietnam.

Matgamna’s contempt for the April 1978 revolution and support for the US-Saudi-funded mujaheddin stems from a combination of Eurocentrism and Sovietphobia. Nevertheless the AWL sided with the Afghan PDPA government after Mikhail Gorbachev ordered the humiliating withdrawal of Soviet armed forces in 1988 (completed in the spring of 1989). A bizarre circle of Matgamna’s own making, which he still has to square. After all, he says that you cannot at the same time be a democrat and “support the Afghan Stalinist coup of 1978”, let alone “describe it as a real revolution!”1

Every phenomenon develops from itself and according to its own logic - ABC dialectical materialism. So was the final PDPA government headed by Mohammed Najibullah (1947-96) a direct, albeit degenerate, continuation of the April 1978 revolution? The only honest answer must be ‘yes’. Communists - authentic communists, that is - supported the PDPA under Najibullah on the basis that in some way, no matter how hamfistedly and contradictorily, it defended certain key social gains and progressive principles.

By that very same logic we supported the original PDPA regime of Noor Mohammed Taraki ushered in by the April 1978 revolution. Leonid Brezhnev’s panic-stricken decision, in December 1979, to order a massive airlift of Soviet troops into Afghanistan and the subsequent decision by first the Jimmy Carter and then the Ronald Reagan administrations in the US to turn the country into a sacrificial pawn in their second cold war against the Soviet Union did not dictate or cloud our judgement.

What about April?

Fantastically, the AWL says that, by designating the April (Saur) 1978 Revolution a revolution, and not a mere coup, we equate it with the October (November) Revolution of 1917. Martin Thomas - junior half of the AWL duumvirate - claims that on such a basis the CPGB believes that the 20th century witnessed only two revolutions.

Pathetic, nonetheless, AWL hacks have proceeded to stone their own self-serving creation. A small problem. Our actual position is far removed from the AWL’s caricature.

The CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee - and before that The Leninist faction of the CPGB - has always taken it as axiomatic that, when it comes to backward countries in the Muslim world, we oppose reactionary pan-Islamism. Lenin was certainly emphatic on this score. His 1920 draft thesis on the colonial question insists that communists must “combat pan-Islamism” and fake anti-imperialist movements, which actually “strengthen the position of the khans, landowners, mullahs, etc”.2

The mujaheddin groups in the 1980s fit this category as fingers into a glove, as does the Taliban in the 1990s. Nowadays, Matgamna has no love for the Taliban and was right, like us, to lambaste the Socialist Worker Party’s miserable pro-Taliban apologetics, when they first defied and then fought the full might of the invading US armed forces in 2001.

But, he maintains, a parallel can be drawn between his “support” for the “peoples of Afghanistan, led by various mujaheddin groups”, against Russian “colonial conquest” and the Communist International’s support of Afghanistan against “British invasion in 1919” (he also cites the so-called Fourth International’s support for “very backward feudal Ethiopia against Italian invasion in 1935” - we shall, though, leave aside that old chestnut).

According to Matgamna, the difference between the USSR and the USA was that the former wanted to conquer Afghanistan, while the latter did not. But what of his supposed parallel between the Soviet Union’s attempted “colonial conquest” in 1979 and British imperialism in 1919? Frankly, the parallel completely misses the mark.

In 1919 the Soviet government expressed its solidarity with, what the respected historian, EH Carr, calls the “young and would-be progressive amir”, Amanullah Khan. He came to the throne as a “result of a palace revolution” and had then “denounced” the onerous treaty obligations imposed upon him by the British empire. What followed was known as the ‘third Afghan war’. This, the Afghan “national movement” headed by Amanullah, was “comparable” to, though more primitive than, the Persian revolution of 1906 and the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1908, and owed its “inspiration” to the Bolshevik revolution, in the same “indirect way” in which those movements had to the 1905 Russian revolution.3

In 1919 the Communist International supported a crowned revolutionary who advocated and put into practice a raft of progressive measures - in 1925 Amanullah “first began to introduce a civil legal code”, which partially eclipsed the “deeply rooted” Sharia law in terms of legal process.4 In the 1980s Matgamna supported forces which he readily admits “were on almost all issues ultra-reactionary”. No prizes for spotting the difference.

Matgamna’s willingness to back mujaheddin forces that “were on almost all issues ultra-reactionary” stems entirely from his inability and unwillingness to admit that in April 1978 the PDPA carried out a revolution and that what Soviet forces did in December 1979 was not so much an invasion designed to colonise the country and grab its raw materials: rather a blundering, conservative intervention in what was an ongoing civil war.

In the aftermath of Vietnam, Matgamna reckons that the Soviet Union embarked on a strategy of imperial expansion - besides Afghanistan other colonial gains are supposed to include Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Angola, South Yemen, Ethiopia and Nicaragua. Again and again we find him repeating almost unquestioningly the propaganda line pushed by the CIA. He darkly suggests that “maybe” the KGB triggered the April revolution.5 This despite all the generally accepted evidence that the uprising took the Soviet Union by surprise and did not accord to its likings.

Yet in none of the cases cited above did the Soviet Union initiate what was, in my opinion, the progressive and supportable overthrow of the old regime: ie, Portuguese and British empire colonialism, the Somoza and Haile Selassie dictatorships. True, left-nationalist organisations such as the Socialist Party of Yemen, the Sandinistas, Frelimo, the MPLA and the Derg were ideologically strongly inclined towards the Soviet camp. However, they were the product of internal struggles and developments and exercised varying degrees of independence.

Brezhnev did not send the Soviet army into Afghanistan in order to extend the imperium, as claimed by the CIA and other cold war warriors. The move was defensive. In his report to the 26th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1981, Brezhnev complains that western imperialism had launched an “undeclared war” against the Afghan revolution. He adds that this “also created a direct threat to the security of our southern frontier”, which “compelled” the Soviet Union to “render the military aid asked for by that friendly country”.6

Of course, the Soviet Union was inherently an unstable social formation, riven with many social - and national - antagonisms. Doubtless that is why Hillel Ticktin offered the opinion that the Soviet Union acted in Afghanistan to stave off the “danger of breaking up”.7 With the ousting of the shah in Iran in 1979 and the imam’s counterrevolution, the dissatisfied southern republics could go the same way if things went badly in Afghanistan.

How did we assess Brezhnev’s move? In 1988 I wrote of the Soviet Union behaving as a “great power bully”. Its action “hardly strengthened the confidence of, and support for, the revolution”. Soviet aid was vital, if the revolution “was to survive”, yet in saving the revolution it extinguished the revolution. We were against any offloading or trading of revolutions, such as in Afghanistan and Nicaragua, in order to appease imperialism. In Afghanistan that could “only” mean the “collapse of the government in Kabul, the reverse of the gains of the April 1978 revolution (not least the ending of the enslavement of women) and the wholesale massacre of the PDPA’s membership”.8 Admittedly a common premonition - what Matgamna calls the majority of “orthodox” Trotskyite groups shared the same sort of anxieties.9

Over a decade later we again wrote that Soviet aid “saved the revolution in Afghanistan for a time - but in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way”. Hafizullah Amin - the effective organiser of the April 1978 revolution - and 97 other leaders of Khalq wing of the PDPA were summarily butchered. Outrageously, after their deaths they were charged with being CIA agents - a slander mindlessly repeated by the ‘official communist’ press in Britain, including the Morning Star. Already surrounded by a reactionary Vendée in the countryside, from then on the revolution “endlessly retreated” until its final demise in 1992.10

Revolution produced and met its counterrevolutionary nemesis. Only by grasping that elementary proposition can one get correct programmatic bearings and understand why the Najibullah regime could survive the withdrawal of Soviet forces for three years and was then replaced by a chilling barbarism, which culminated in the 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban. Counterrevolution is always and can only but be the product of revolution that either has failed or that for one reason or another stops short. Afghanistan’s April 27 1978 revolution is no exception.

In many respects, yes, this Afghan revolution indirectly echoed the Persian revolution of 1906 and the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1908. However, it owed its direct “inspiration” not to the 1917 October Revolution, but the post-1928 Soviet Union. The PDPA sought therefore to follow a path already trodden by Yugoslavia, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, etc - in other words, an Afghan version of Soviet bureaucratic socialism. Under different, more benign, historical circumstances Afghanistan might have settled into becoming another Mongolia. But the Soviet Union was already living on borrowed time. As a freak society, an ectopic social formation, it was nearing the end.

The April 1978 revolution was carried out from above. Of that there can be no doubt. But that can also be said of many revolutions in the 20th century. Eg, Egypt and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s free officers movement of July 1952, which forced king Farouk to abdicate, and Abdul Qasim’s overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in July 1958. Even Matgamna occasionally admits that the Afghan revolution was “a political revolution”.11

Yet the April 1978 revolution was not led by a small military group or clique. Nor was it the final, decisive blow delivered by a party-army along the lines of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China-Peoples Liberation Army or Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party of Indochina-Vietminh. The PDPA was a predominately civilian party that illegally organised secret cells inside the armed forces of the existing state machine, which it then managed to decisively split. So was Afghanistan’s revolution a mere coup - a conspiracy which lacked popular support or sympathy, and only altered things at the top of society?

Irish lessons

Lenin’s discussion of the Irish rebellion - under the military command of James Connolly, but politically dominated by nationalists - in Easter 1916 is instructive. This was in opposition to the Sean Matgmanas and Martin Thomases of his day - the leftist pedants and doctrinaires, who dismissed the 1916 rising as the last song of Irish nationalism and nothing more than a “putsch” (ie, the German word for a coup), which “had not much social backing”, Lenin warned against “treating the national movements of small nations with disdain”.12 It was not only representatives of the imperialist bourgeoisie who looked down their noses at the Dublin uprising, but Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky. Lenin urged these comrades to open their eyes to shocking “accidental” coincidence of opinion - Matgamna and Thomas ought to take note.

What of the term “putsch” - or “coup”, to use French-English? For Lenin the term “may be employed only when the attempt at insurrection has revealed nothing but a circle of conspirators or stupid maniacs, and has aroused no sympathy among the masses”.

The Irish national liberation movement did not come out of thin air. It had manifested itself in street fighting conducted by the petty bourgeoisie and a section of the working class after “a long period” of mass agitation, demonstrations, suppression of newspapers, etc. Hence for Lenin anyone who calls the Dublin uprising a “putsch” is either a “hardened reactionary” or a “doctrinaire hopelessly incapable of envisaging a social revolution as a living phenomenon”.13

Lenin famously rounded upon his leftist doctrinaires as follows:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outburst by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletariat and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by landowners, the church and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc - to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution .... Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.14

The task of the advanced section of the working class - the Marxists, the communists - is not to belittle the efforts of the petty bourgeoisie in the backward countries, but to critically defend them, to side with them and to extend efforts to lead them.

Poor Afghanistan

The conditions which eventually produced the April 1978 revolution in Afghanistan date back to at least the mid-1960s and the failures of the Zahir Shah monarchy to carry through the modernisation of the country. Neither healthcare nor education existed for the mass of the population. Over 90% were illiterate. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan was among the poorest 20 countries in the world.

Afghanistan was an example of Asiatic feudalism with the tincture of industrial capitalism, sponsored by a weak state. Actually capitalist - or any kind of industrial - development barely existed. Before the revolution there were only some 100,000 workers in what could be called modern industry. Another 300,000 laboured in small-scale workshops and artisanal enterprises. However, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside. Agriculture remained woefully primitive and rural society was viciously unequal. Forty percent of the irrigated land was in the hands of four percent of the population. Employing 85% of the workforce, it accounted for just 5.9% of total output.

Nevertheless the economic and educational development that took place - in particular since World War II - created an alienated urban intelligentsia and a small, but militant, working class, around which much wider forces could be rallied. Factories were established and schools promoted, including a much expanded Kabul university.

Between 1953 and 1963 Afghanistan suffered a whole period of oppression. Yet discontent could not be bottled up indefinitely and in the mid-1960s the monarchy was forced to grant one concession after another. In 1964 some limited democratic rights were officially recognised and an electoral system was introduced. In the countryside the traditional rulers could often fix the ballot and force opposition candidates to stand down. That was even true for the smaller towns and some of the cities. The exception was Kabul, the capital. Here alone there was something approaching political liberty.

Under these promising conditions the PDPA was founded - in 1965 - under the overall leadership of Nur Muhammad Taraki (1917-79). The party gained four MPs in the elections of that year. A mass rally was called by the PDPA to mark its triumphant entry into parliament - government forces killed three of the demonstrators. In the annals of the PDPA this was a highly symbolic event that was marked every year thereafter by demonstrations and meetings.

The SWP’s Jonathan Neale describes the PDPA communists as “brave men and women”, who were the “flower of their generation”.15 He was a visiting research student in 1971. Neale recalls standing on a street in Lashkargah, in the south of the country, and how he watched a demonstration of pro-communist school students. They called for the death of the hated landlords, a modern developed economy and an end to corruption.

Yet, while the PDPA could build support in village schools, the khans, the landlords, would frighten the poor peasants, the sharecroppers, who might be tempted to join the communists. They were godless and anti-Muslim. Anyone who dared promote the politics of the PDPA in the countryside “could easily die for speaking out of turn”.16 It is therefore quite remarkable that one of the PDPA’s leaders, Barbrak Karmal, managed to get himself elected as the MP for a rural constituency.

The PDPA was deeply divided factionally between the right around the said Barbrak Karmal and the left around Taraki and Amin. In 1966 it published the first edition of its paper Khalq (masses), which the government banned after six issues. In contrast, when Karmal published his paper, Parcham (flag), it was allowed to continue without let or hindrance. Whereas Khalq opposed and criticised the monarchy, Parcham was supportive. The monarchy pursued a policy of close friendship with the Soviet Union and willingly accepted aid and grants from Moscow … just as it accepted aid and grants from Washington.

Between 1964 and 1973 the growing mood of anger gave birth to organised movements amongst the workers, students and peasants. In 1965 there were student boycotts of classes and strikes in the mining and electrical industries. Even Matgamna concedes that in 1971-72 “the PDPA led a wave of strikes”.17 In Paghman a peasant movement began to demand land redistribution. All in all, many thousands were arrested and scores killed. Unrest began to manifest itself in the army too.

Things came to a head in 1973. There were, admits Matgamna, “conditions for revolution” in “urban Afghanistan” (my emphasis).18 He is correct. The rulers could not rule in the old way and those in the cities, especially Kabul, refused to be ruled in the old way. The result was a pre-emptive army coup led by Daoud - former prime minister and a member of the royal family. Daoud came to power with the active help of the Parcham wing of the PDPA. It was rewarded with a range of ministerial positions. Nevertheless, though Daoud came out with a stream of worthy promises, his government failed to resolve the underlying discontent and the social malaise affecting Afghan society.

He pledged to reform agriculture and redistribute land, but nothing practical happened. Indeed Daoud quickly turned to the oppressive measures witnessed under the monarchy. Strikes were banned and progressives and revolutionaries gunned down. Parcham was eased aside and - much to the chagrin of not only the PDPA, but wide layers within the intelligentsia and lower elements of the state bureaucracy - he began to distance himself and his regime from the Soviet Union. Conditions for a revolution began to mature once again.

Khalq significantly outgrew Parcham in terms of membership. The ratio was in all probability five to one in favour of the former. Nevertheless, when the party was formally reunited in July 1977, there was a 50:50 division of the central committee. Hard membership figures are impossible to come by. True to form, Matgamna writes of an 8,000 total for both factions as the “highest PDPA claim”, but guesses that “the real figure” before the revolution “may have been half of that”.19

I make no such pretence to know what exactly the membership of the semi-legal PDPA was. Nonetheless, if we are talking about PDPA claims, we have in the World Marxist Review - a thoroughly turgid journal of what was then the ‘official’ world communist movement - and a January 1979 article by a certain Afghan comrade named Zeray. Here we find the PDPA boasting:

... we have worked actively amongst the people for 13-14 years; we have led the popular movement. Before the revolution our party was a significant force, with 50,000 members and close sympathisers, and this frightened the regime.20

Maybe that figure was made up of 8,000 members and 42,000 close sympathisers. What is beyond doubt though was that the PDPA did indeed constitute a “significant force” historically.

Coups

The spark for the April 1978 revolution came with the state-organised assassination of Mir Akbar Khyber, a university professor and former editor of Parcham. Matgamna - taking his cue from the CIA - blames the killing upon the Khalq wing. Others claim he was popular with both factions.

Either way, Khyber’s death did not lead to factional war, but “massive demonstrations” against the government.21 Perhaps the masses knew more about the Afghan government than Matgamna. In terms of Kabul’s existing political life the demonstration was huge. Some sources write of 50,000, others of 15,000. True to dismal form, Matgamna comes up with a mere 10,000. The size and militancy of Khyber’s funeral certainly “frightened” the - royal republican - Daoud government and triggered the high-risk decision to arrest leading members of the PDPA.

At midnight on April 25 1978, Taraki and Karmal were both lifted by the police. However, before he was seized, Amin - who was responsible for the party’s illegal work in the army - managed to issue instructions for an uprising. “As crowds gathered” in Kabul’s central park “in protest against the imprisonment of PDPA leaders”, Soviet-made Mig 21 fighter aircraft struck the presidential palace and tanks moved into the city.22 After some hard-fought engagements, especially in Jalalabad, the Daoud regime was swept away amid widespread rejoicing. Matgamna writes improbably of 10,000 deaths. Film footage shown on the BBC tells of a less bloody scenario - the common people of Kabul, on foot and horseback, taking to the streets and a sea of red flags.

Undoubtedly the PDPA’s overthrow of the Daoud regime was carried out using alternative hierarchical lines of command in the army and airforce. PDPA officers were given orders by PDPA cadres and then themselves gave orders to the conscripts under them. The revolution was therefore an uprising organised by a mainly civilian, ‘official communist’ party, which had aligned to itself a section of the officer corps and enjoyed the sympathy of the politically advanced masses in the cities, above all Kabul.

Does that mean we should dismissively classify the April 1978 revolution as a ‘coup’? That is what the imperialist bourgeoisie say - a line repeated by many on the left in Britain and elsewhere. A coup d’état by definition involves a plot against the existing state from within the existing state: eg, a military or palace coup. Examples from European history would include Louis Bonaparte and Otto von Bismarck. They elevated themselves into dictators by relying upon “organised state power”, not the “unorganised, elemental, power of the popular masses”.23

In 1978 there existed a revolutionary situation in the urban centres of Afghanistan. The old regime was turning to bannings, arrests and assassinations. The masses for their part were mobilised and demanding radical change. Under such circumstances revolution is a matter of art and, while the form of an uprising can be that of a coup - like the October Revolution of 1917 and the storming of the Winter Palace by red guards and sympathetic army units - the key question is social content.

The newly installed PDPA government - overwhelmingly civilian - enacted far-going reforms. Usury was abolished in the villages - debt had crippled the peasantry. Rigorous ceilings on private land ownership, along with the encouragement of cooperatives and offers of cheap credits, fertilisers, seeds and agricultural implements, were intended to free “millions of toiling peasants from the yoke of exploitation”.24 The government envisaged land confiscation and redistribution, not collectivisation.

Equal rights between men and women were announced with much fanfare. Another decree banned forced marriages and set limits on dowry and marriage expenses. An adult literacy campaign was put in place - directed especially at women in the countryside. Higher education was encouraged - women came to occupy over 50% of places in Kabul university.

The country’s numerous nationalities were from now on to be treated with strict equality, declared the PDPA government. Oppressed language groups heard their mother tongue on Kabul Radio for the first time. Pashtun domination officially ended. Constitutionally the country became a multinational state - and a secular one too. Sunni Islam was not subjected to any attack, but the state promised neither to promote nor interfere with any religion.

Never before in Afghan history “had there been such a ruthless attempt to push through so many basic reforms”, says Indian academic Bhabani Sen Gupta.25 In other words, it is vital not to confuse the form first taken by the April 1978 revolution with its content. What began as an action by a section of the armed forces had, as shown by subsequent events, a radical social content.

But the PDPA lacked roots in the countryside, where the majority of the population lived. The cadre were urban in social background and its cutting edge were Soviet-trained army officers, the radicalised lower elements of the state bureaucracy and the semi-proletarianised poor of the cities. Nor did the revolution in Kabul coincide with an agrarian revolution amongst the peasantry. Land reforms - the key to the revolution - were therefore to all intents and purposes bureaucratic and like the decrees of the 1871 Paris Commune largely remained on paper. Despite that, the revolution and its reforms managed to enrage all elements within the old ruling bloc, but failed to launch a counterbalancing peasant movement below. A fatal flaw.

Many peasants felt themselves compelled to return “their new land” because the village headmen, or khans, still controlled the “irrigation systems”.26 Passages in the Koran forbidding the theft of another’s property might have proved to be a material factor in its own right too. Indeed the fact that the country’s 300,000-strong clergy, the harkim, held largish estates ensured that, once attempts to implement land reforms began in October 1978, they took a leading role in organising armed risings alongside the village headmen and elders. Counterrevolution - royalist, merchant, tribal and rural - became, through that vital ideological mediation, a jihad.

The PDPA responded by turning to bloody oppression. That only multiplied their enemies and supplied recruits to the mujaheddin groups. When the PDPA was physically driven out of villages, it fell back on the methods employed by the old royalist governments - artillery and airstrikes. As Jonathan Neale points out, it is “not possible to wage class war by bombing a village”. Bombs hit rich and poor alike … and united them. Hence in one area after another the PDPA “found themselves fighting the people they had meant to free”.27

In turn the fragile unity of the PDPA began to unravel. The Parcham wing urged a policy of compromise and bringing back people from the defeated Daoud regime. The Khalq wing responded by turning on the Parchamis and imprisoning or exiling its leaders. In the end even the Khalq wing suffered ruinous internal divisions. Taraki - having been convinced by Soviet advisors to dump Amin and turn to compromise - was killed in a murderous shootout. Amin - the Robespierre of the Afghan revolution - briefly took command.

As already said, the Soviet intervention of December 1979 saved the revolution, but in a thoroughly counterrevolutionary way. The results were disastrous. Not only did the policy of bombing and terrorising the villages continue, but it was massively increased. Though Amin had repeatedly requested increased Soviet aid, he would not have expected to be its first victim when it came - Soviet special forces executed him and most of his fellow central committee members. Karmal was installed as a pliant satrap. In disgust, it is widely reported, not a few Khalkis deserted and joined the mujaheddin groups or simply went into an obscure exile.

What was a civil war now became intertwined with a war against foreign domination. Opposition grew and Afghanistan spiralled into a horror which saw perhaps a million deaths. The countryside bled and huge numbers sought refuge in Kabul or in the mammoth refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan.

The US saw its chance to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. Weapons and money poured into the country. In 1986 the shoulder-launched Stinger missiles wrought havoc with Soviet planes and helicopters. Hundreds were shot out of the skies. The decrepit Soviet Union could not afford the political or economic costs of staying in Afghanistan. In 1988 Gorbachev decided upon a withdrawal.

The overthrow of the PDPA government - now led by Mohammad Najibullah - marked the triumph of the countryside over the city. Ideas of 20th century progress were buried. The values of obscurantist mullahs, traditional village headmen and gun-toting banditry replaced those of national equality, women’s liberation and secularism.

That the PDPA government survived till April 1992 - after the Soviet Union collapsed - testifies to a residual, but nonetheless real, base of popular support. The Workers Power group, which - true to form - characterised the 1978 revolution as a “coup”, owns up that “the PDPA demonstrated that it did have a serious base in Afghanistan”.28 Ditto, contradicting everything it had said before, Socialist Organiser - yes, the forerunner of the AWL’s Solidarity states: “... the fact that the Afghan regime the Russians left behind them did not collapse for over three years indicates that it was not only a creature of the Russians”.29

Having fed the mujaheddin counterrevolution, the US inadvertently promoted heroin, fragmentation, al Qa’eda and the Taliban. The US had little interest in the post-PDPA Afghanistan. It was content to leave the ruined country to its awful fate. The descent into barbarism continued unchallenged and unchecked.

Ethnic divisions between Pashtun, Uzbeks, Tajiks, etc within the counterrevolution were overlaid by religion, the rival interests of outside powers and the various ideologies of pan-Islam and fake anti-imperialism. The Taliban were not only mainly Pashtun, but militantly Sunni. Where Pakistan guided, supplied and jealously protected the Taliban, in their turn Iran and India backed the Northern Alliance.

The US only woke again to the situation in Afghanistan after Osama bin Laden and his al Qa’eda terrorist network murderously struck at its Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies. Tomahawk missiles rained down on Afghanistan in punishment. September 11 2001 and the spectacular attacks on New York and Washington were the final straw. After that the days of the Taliban were numbered and a new American century was about to begin.


  1. All Matgamna quotes, unless otherwise stated, are from ‘Critical notes on the CPGB/WW’: www.workersliberty.org/files/tour.pdf.↩︎

  2. VI Lenin CW Vol 31, Moscow 1977, p149.↩︎

  3. EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 3, Harmondsworth 1977, p239.↩︎

  4. A Rashid Taliban London 2001, p83.↩︎

  5. Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p45.↩︎

  6. LI Brezhnev Report of the central committee Moscow 1981, p22.↩︎

  7. Critique No12 autumn-winter 1979-80, p25.↩︎

  8. J Conrad From October to August London 1992, pp123-24.↩︎

  9. Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p86.↩︎

  10. See ‘Should we defend the Taliban?’ Weekly Worker November 15 2001: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/408/should-we-defend-the-taliban.↩︎

  11. Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p47.↩︎

  12. VI Lenin CW Vol 22, Moscow 1977, p355.↩︎

  13. Ibid.↩︎

  14. Ibid pp355-56.↩︎

  15. International Socialism No93, December 2001, p34.↩︎

  16. Ibid.↩︎

  17. Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No2, nd, p42.↩︎

  18. Ibid p42.↩︎

  19. Ibid p49.↩︎

  20. World Marxist Review January 1979, p76.↩︎

  21. B Szajkowski The establishment of Marxist regimes London 1982, p125.↩︎

  22. Ibid.↩︎

  23. F Engels CW Vol 26, Moscow 1990, p479.↩︎

  24. Quoted in B Sen Gupta Afghanistan London 1986, p50.↩︎

  25. Ibid p55.↩︎

  26. G Chaliand Report from Afghanistan Harmondsworth 1982, p37.↩︎

  27. International Socialism No93, December 2001, p34.↩︎

  28. Workers Power September 30 1992.↩︎

  29. Socialist Organiser April 23 1992.↩︎