Monthly Archives: November 2015

Fatal Mistake of the Afghan Communists, 1978

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 680-715:

On 9 May the new government issued a radical programme of social, political, and economic reform. ‘The Main Outlines of the Revolutionary Tasks’ proclaimed the eradication of illiteracy; equality for women; an end to ethnic discrimination; a larger role for the state in the national economy; and the abolition of ‘feudal and pre-feudal relationships’ – code for the power of landowners, traditional leaders, and mullahs, especially in the countryside. As for Islam, when Kryuchkov visited Kabul on a fact-finding mission in July 1978, the new President, Taraki, told him to come back in a year, by which time the mosques would be empty. It was all a measure of how far out of touch the new regime was with the realities of their own country.

A woman was appointed to a top political position for the first time in modern Afghan history. Anakhita Ratebzad (1930–), a doctor by training, was one of four women members of the Afghan parliament in 1965, a founding member of the PDPA, and a member of Parcham. Her first husband had been Zahir Shah’s personal physician. Now she was the partner of Babrak Karmal. In the Kabul Times on 28 May, immediately after the coup, she stated firmly, ‘Privileges which women, by right, must have are equal education, job security, health services, and free time to rear a healthy generation for building the future of the country … Educating and enlightening women are now the subject of close government attention.’ A striking person in her own right, she succeeded in charming some of the most senior Soviet officials in Kabul, and they took care to remain on good terms with her as long as Karmal was in power.

The Soviet authorities were distinctly uneasy about what had happened. The Soviet Ambassador, Alexander Puzanov, attempted at the end of May to draw the threads together in a letter to Moscow. He argued that the failed politics of the Daud regime had led to ‘an abrupt sharpening of the contradictions between the Daud regime and its class supporters and the fundamental interests of the working masses, the voice of which is the PDPA’. The actions of the PDPA had been ‘met with approval by the popular masses’. This crude piece of Marxist analysis was characteristic of much of Moscow’s thinking about a country where it was almost totally inapplicable, a cast of thought which underlay some of the Russians’ later policy mistakes.

Puzanov nevertheless conceded that the continuing friction between Khalq and Parcham was already undermining the effectiveness of the new regime. This was a crucial weakness, and he and his specialist party advisers had told the new leadership that they must eliminate their differences. This, he admitted, had not yet happened. Nevertheless, he optimistically concluded that the overall situation was stabilising as the government took measures against the domestic reaction.

His optimism was misplaced. The new government’s programme was a mixture of typical Communist nostrums and some admirable aspirations. The new men had little or no practical experience in government. Whatever attractions the programme might have had in theory, it was not thought through and the people, especially in the villages, where most Afghans lived, were almost entirely unprepared for it. The promotion of women’s liberation and education for girls, laudable as it was in principle, came up against the same fiercely conservative prejudices which had plagued Afghanistan’s reforming kings. Revolts against the new regime began straight away, in both the towns and the villages. The countryside began to slip out of control.

The new government was nothing if not determined, however, and when persuasion failed it used ruthless measures of repression. It targeted not only known members of the opposition but also local leaders and mullahs who had committed no crime. Several generals, two former prime ministers, and others who had been close to Daud – up to forty in all – were executed immediately. Nine months after the coup, ninety-seven men from the influential Mojadedi clan were executed. The Islamists who had been imprisoned by Daud in the Pul-i Charkhi prison in Kabul were executed in June 1979.

In their fanaticism, and in their belief that a deeply conservative and proudly independent country could be forced into modernity at the point of a gun, the Afghan Communists resembled the Pol Pot regime. Unlike in Cambodia, however, in Afghanistan the people were not prepared to be treated in this way by their government. Previous rulers, such as Abdur Rahman, had imposed their authority throughout the country – more or less – by the most brutal methods. But they could make a plausible claim to be good Muslims, after a fashion. The Afghan Communists made the fatal mistake of underestimating the power of Islam and its hold on the people.

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Afghanistan in the 1970s

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 535-559:

By the 1970s Afghanistan had many of the rudiments of a modern state. It was reasonably secure, and you could travel and picnic and see the sights with comparatively little risk. Foreigners who lived in Kabul in the last days before the Communists took over – diplomats, scholars, businessmen, engineers, teachers, aid workers, hippies – later looked back on that time as a golden age. So did many of the very thin crust of the Afghan middle class who lived in Kabul and some of the big cities.

In the 1970s much of old Kabul still stood, a rabbit warren of streets, bazaars, and mosques, still dominated by the great fortress of Bala Hissar, a place, the Emperor Babur said more than four hundred years earlier, with ‘the most pleasing climate in the world … within a day’s ride it is possible to reach a place where the snow never falls. But within two hours one can go where the snows never melt.’

In the centre of the city was the imposing Arg, the fortified palace build by Abdur Rahman, the scene of one violent turn in Afghan politics after another. Amanullah, Abdur Rahman’s grandson, commissioned European architects to build him a monumental new capital, a vast palace, the Dar-ul Aman, on the south-western edge of the city; and a summer resort in Paghman, a village in the nearby hills, complete with Swiss chalets, a theatre, an Arc de Triomphe, a golf course, and a racecourse for elephants. Across the road from the Dar-ul Aman palace stood the Kabul museum, which was opened in 1924 and contained one of the richest collections of Central Asia art and artefacts in the world: flint tools forty thousand years old from Badakhshan, a massive gold hoard from Bagram, glass from Alexandria, Graeco-Roman statuary, ivory panels from India, Islamic and pre-Islamic artefacts from Afghanistan itself, one of the largest coin collections in the world, and more than two thousand rare books. A grandiose British Embassy, built in the 1920s as a symbol of British power, lay on the northern edge of the city. An equally large Soviet Embassy lay in the south-west on the road to the Dar-ul Aman.

‘Kabul’, said a guidebook sponsored by the Afghan Tourist Bureau, ‘is a fast-growing city where tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues filled with brilliant flowing turbans, gayly [sic] striped chapans, mini-skirted school girls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.’

Those were the days when Kabul was on the Hippie Trail and thousands of romantic, adventurous, and often improvident young people poured along the road from Iran through Herat and Kabul to India, driving battered vehicles which regularly broke down and had to be repaired by ingenious local mechanics, seeking enlightenment, drugs, and sex, living on nothing and sometimes dying on the way.

But behind that fragile façade lay the real Afghanistan, a land of devout and simple Muslims, where disputes between individuals, or families, or clans and tribes, were still settled in the old violent way, where women were still subject to the absolute authority of their menfolk, where the writ of the government in Kabul barely ran, and where the idea of national rather than family or local loyalty was barely formed.

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Afghanistan’s Early Attempts to Modernize

From Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89, by Rodric Braithwaite (Oxford U. Press, 2011), Kindle Loc. 220-258:

Abdur Rahman’s successors attempted to push Afghanistan further along the path of modernisation. His son Habibullah (1872–1919) was assassinated in 1919 and succeeded by Amanullah (1892–1960), who took advantage of British weakness at the end of the Great War to invade India. The British bombed Kabul and Jalalabad and drove the invaders back. Neither side had much stomach for the war, and it fizzled out after a month. The British ceased both their subsidies and their control of Afghan foreign policy. Amanullah promptly opened a fruitful relationship with the new Bolshevik government in Moscow – the first foreign government to do so.

He then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform in imitation of the secularising reforms of Atatürk in Turkey. He established a Council of Ministers, promulgated a constitution, decreed a series of administrative, economic and social reforms, and unveiled his queen. His plans for the emancipation of women, a minimum age for marriage, and compulsory education for all angered religious conservatives and provoked a brief rebellion. Tribesmen burned down the royal palace in Jalalabad and marched on Kabul. In 1929 Amanullah fled into exile in Italy.

Nadir Shah (1883–1933), a distant cousin of Amanullah, seized the throne, reimposed order, but allowed his troops to sack Kabul because he had no money to pay them. He built the first road from Kabul over the Salang Pass to the north and continued a cautious programme of reform until he was assassinated in 1933.

His son Zahir Shah (1914–2007) reigned from 1933 to 1973. This was the longest period of stability in Afghanistan’s recent history, and people now look back on it as a golden age. Reform continued. A parliament was elected in 1949, and a more independent press began to attack the ruling oligarchy and the conservative religious leaders.

In 1953 Zahir Shah appointed his cousin Daud (1909–78) as prime minister. Daud was a political conservative but an economic and social reformer. For the next ten years he exercised a commanding influence on the King. He built factories, irrigation systems, aerodromes and roads with assistance from the USSR, the USA, and the German Federal Republic. He modernised the Afghan army with Soviet weapons, equipment, and training.

In 1963 Zahir Shah got rid of Daud to appease conservatives infuriated by his flirtations with the left and the Soviets. But the King continued with the policy of reform. He introduced a form of constitutional monarchy with freedom of speech, allowed political parties, gave women the vote, and guaranteed primary education for girls and boys. Women were allowed to attend the university and foreign women taught there. Ariana Airlines employed unveiled women as hostesses and receptionists, there were women announcers on Kabul Radio, and a woman was sent as a delegate to the United Nations.

During all these years, the educational system was systematically developed, at least in the capital city. Habibia College, a high school modelled on an elite Muslim school in British India, was set up in Kabul in 1904. Amanullah sent many of its students to study in France and elsewhere in Europe. A School of Medicine was inaugurated in 1932, followed by faculties of Law, Science, Agriculture, Education, and Engineering, which were combined into a university in 1947. Most of the textbooks and much of the teaching were in English, French, or German. A faculty of Theology was founded in 1951 linked to the Islamic University of Al-Azhar in Cairo. In 1967 the Soviet Union helped establish a Polytechnic Institute staffed largely by Russians. Under Zahir Shah’s tolerant regime student organisations were set up in Kabul and Kandahar.

Daud rapidly expanded the state school system. Between 1950 and 1978 numbers increased by ten times at primary schools, twenty-one times at secondary schools, and forty-five times at universities. But the economy was not developing fast enough to provide employment for the growing numbers of graduates. Many could find jobs only in the rapidly expanding government bureaucracy. Salaries, already miserable, lost half their real value in the 1960s and 1970s. The good news – though not for conservatives – was that about 10 per cent of this expanded bureaucracy were women.

The American scholar Louis Dupree called Kabul University ‘a perfect breeding ground for political discontent’. It was in the universities that Afghanistan’s first political movements were created. A Communist Party, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, was set up in 1965 by Nur Mohamed Taraki, Babrak Karmal (1929–96), and Hafizullah Amin, all of whom were to play a major role in the run-up to the Soviet invasion. A number of students who were later to become prominent in the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet struggle also fledged their political wings there: Rabbani (1940–), Hekmatyar (1947–), Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (1946–), and Ahmad Shah Masud (1953–2001) all studied together in Kabul University. Students rioted in 1968 against conservative attempts to limit the education of women. In 1969 there were further riots, and some deaths, when high school students protested against the school management. The university was briefly closed.

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The Richest People in Arctic Potalovo

From In Siberia, by Colin Thubron (HarperCollins, 2009), Kindle Loc. 2385-2397:

The richest people in Potalovo are the children. They drive tractors and bulldozers, own houses, sail ships. The fact that all these possessions are wrecked makes no difference. They are a simulacrum of the adult world. So the children keep house in burnt-out cottages, or climb into the cabins of tractors and roam the tundra on vanished wheels. Sometimes they man the bridge of the beached and derelict cargo ship, and steer for the Arctic Sea. Only when they stop being children do they realise that they are inhabiting a world in ruins.

At the age of twelve or thirteen, said Nikolai, they start to drink.

He hated the arrival of the boat-shop which plied the river. That afternoon it had opened its hold on a thin range of expensive goods–vodka, above all–and the villagers had sped out in their motor-boats to meet it. In his dim-lit clinic Nikolai looked through the window at the night and circled his arm. ‘Probably this whole settlement is drunk around us at this moment. Almost everyone.’

He dreaded the monthly arrival of pensions. ‘Single parents get an allowance for each child, so a man with five children and no wife can feel a millionaire! He’ll drink himself sick while the children starve. The women do it too. Everybody. And when the vodka gives out they’ll search for anything. There’s an American machine oil which is bought galore here. Our machines are all broken, of course, but people drink this fluid by the bottle. Within two to three hours they’re asphyxiated. If they get to the hospital I can save them, but they die in their homes or in the streets.’

Thubron’s descriptions of the drunken town-dwellers in “Potalovo” (or Potapovo) seem very different from what Werner Herzog narrates about the hardy trappers of Bakhtia depicted in The Happy People: A Year in the Taiga. Both communities are tiny outposts on the mighty Yenisei River isolated for much of each year.

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