The following article, by John Blake, was originally published in the British Socialist Worker, 19 January 1980. In the original most sentences were separate paragraphs.
The Russians are literally digging in for a long stay in Afghanistan. Their helicopter gunships patrol the country side. They have taken the major cities in heavy fighting with tanks and air support. They face an armed and outraged people who are united in a fight for Islam and against the foreign invader.
How did this happen? Let’s go back nearly ten years, to 1971.
A small town in southern Afghanistan, on the edge of famine. The school students are on strike. A brave schoolboy stands on an upturned box shouting ‘Death to the Landlords’. A knot of cheering boys surrounds him. The peasants watch, attracted but wary of police spies. The boy is a supporter of the communists. The air is electric with fear, but nothing happens.
The boy was typical of Afghan communists. They were the products of an educational explosion funded by foreign aid. They were the children of middle peasants and small shopkeepers. They hated the big landlords, the real power in the country. They lived in a poor land of deserts and bare mountains where the landlord usually took two thirds or more of the crop. And they hated the King’s despotic rule, like everybody else.
Like Bulbula, a middle aged nomad woman. They took her husband away for questioning. He was brought back dying, black all over, his stomach split open. They dropped him at her feet and told her he died of eating bad watermelon in custody.
Like the elderly peasant in the north of the country, dying in the famine. There was a mountain of foreign aid grain in the centre of the town. The merchants were selling it off, at ten times the normal price and nobody had any money. The local governor had put a ring of soldiers around the grain. A young American journalist asked why the peasants didn’t just take the grain. The peasant explained simply: ‘The king has airplanes. They would come and kill us.’
The planes were donated by the Soviet Union, flown by pilots trained in Texas. Afghanistan was non-aligned. As a teacher put it: ‘Sometimes we have democracy. Then they don’t kill us … they only put out our eyes.’ Or, as a district officer put it: ‘We have given these people democracy but they do not understand it, so we have to shoot them.’
The communists sent people out to the small towns and villages. Then the Right organised. The mullahs told the villagers that the communists were godless free-lovers. Left and right wing students fought long battles in Kabul with guns and axes.
The Right won in the villages. Near Kabul, the villagers had elected Babrak Karmal—now President—to Parliament. They told me it was because he had been against the landlords, but when they realised he was anti-Islam they turned away from him.
This was not surprising, for Islam has deep roots in Afghan history and society. Islam means many things in many places. But Afghan Islam above all stands for the subjection of women and resistance to imperialism.
Women are badly oppressed. It is effectively legal to kill a wife or daughter for infidelity. Women are sold to a husband for several years’ wages. They work hard in the fields and at home and are much beaten, for that is every man’s right. Each man covets his neighbour’s wife, and each poor man lucky enough to have a wife hangs onto her desperately in the hope of children and security. Any hint of women’s rights threatens what little each man has. The mullahs denounce every unveilling, all female education, all adultery as the work of the devil. What does Islam mean, I asked. The peasants told me: ‘That is my dog and that is my woman.’
Islam also means resistance. Twice in the nineteenth century the British invaded. Twice the ruling class disappeared. Twice the common people turned to Islam, the only ideology which could unite them, and drove the imperialists out in a holy war.
Then, in the 1920s, King Amanullah tried to ‘modernise’ the country, attacking the big landlords, unveiling women, doing nothing for the common people but taxing them. They rose again in holy war and defeated him. A conservative, British-backed king replaced him. These wars and risings are remembered. So the communists, linked to infidel Russia and her planes and tarred with the rights of women … these known unbelievers, were driven out of the villages. Soon after, in 1973, there was a military coup led by the King’s cousin. Little changed. Power still lay with the landlords.
But the communists had seen the power of the army. The officers were young men, newly educated, the product of the petty bourgeoisie, like the communists. From underground they worked on the officers. Facing government massacre in 1978, the communists struck back with a coup. The ‘April Revolution’ was born. The surprised Russians had to support it.
Taraki’s new government moved against the landlords. They decreed that they would give their land to small farmers. They decreed that bride-price was abolished, that rural debt was cancelled. The stuff of a real revolution. But this revolution was won by mobilising the petty bourgeoisie, not the peasants, or the minuscule working class. And the people began to move against the government.
The lords wanted to hold their land and power. The mullahs fought against the infidel. The people fought for Islam, against imperialism, for their control over their women.
The revolt was fragmented, spontaneous, tribe by tribe, valley by valley. It was a guerrilla war—shoot a soldier here, a Russian there. But it made it impossible for the government to carry out the land reform which was its only hope of winning over the peasants.
The government had to fall back on Russia, on Russian money and advisors. And Russian-flown planes strafing the people just like the King’s planes. Repression intensified as the government swung ‘left’. That produced more dissidence. Some soldiers mutinied, some deserted.
The rebels held 20 of the 26 provinces. The Russians panicked.The invasion was not for ‘strategic’ reasons, but because of the Central Asian Muslims who form a third of the Soviet populations. They share their languages with the Northern Afghans and if they saw a communist regime fall to popular insurgency in muslim Afghanistan, they would know the days of Soviet tyranny were numbered.
So the Russians moved in, shot the ‘left’ communist President Amin, and replaced him with the ‘right’ communist Babrak Karmal. They hope Karmal will placate the Afghans with gestures to Islam and a halt to reforms, while they break the back of the resistance.
Their ‘strategy’ has the same chance as a snowball in hell. Afghanistan is ideal guerrilla terrain. The US and China will pour in aid to the guerrillas through Pakistan. The rebels are dirt-poor, bitter proud, the lucky among them now underfed refugees in Pakistan. They are ready for a long war, and they will bleed the Russians of men and money. This is Russia’s Vietnam.
So where do we, as socialists, stand? Clearly, against the Russian invasion. They have set the cause of socialism in Afghanistan back generations. It is the tragedy of the Afghan communists that they tried to build socialism behind the backs of the people when it was too difficult to build it among them. They are reaping the consequences, prisoners of helicopter gunship socialism. It is the tragedy of that schoolboy orator.
Do we back the rebels? No. They are a mass popular movement, but they were not created by the Russian invasion. They are a movement against communism, against unbelievers, against land reform, against the emancipation of women.
It is the tragedy of the Afghan people that poverty, oppression and imperialism have produced a form of right wing ‘Islamic’ politics. For socialists it is an awful lesson against making a revolution over the heads of the people. It is a time for mourning for lost hopes and the horrors to come: the refugee camps, the napalm, the famines, the dead children.
No good will come of the Russian invasion, but many tears will flow.