Category Archives: democracy

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’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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Kyrgyz–Uzbek Tensions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 4129-4150:

After much huffing and puffing about his popularity, Bakiyev flew into exile, vacating his ceremonial tent on the edge of Jalalabad. He and his associates and relatives now face criminal prosecution in Kyrgyzstan on charges that include murder and corruption. Hours after Bakiyev escaped, a crowd of protesters set his sprawling family home on fire. Though Batyrov says the place was already burning by the time his men arrived, the prevalent view in Kyrgyzstan is that it was Batyrov’s Uzbeks who did it. “I told them, ‘Don’t touch the house, it belonged to Bakiyev’s grandfather, and he’s a veteran of World War II,’” Ashukan Saparova, an elderly Kyrgyz woman who lives across the street, told me when I visited.

As word of the bonfire spread, the Kyrgyz grew infuriated. How dared the Uzbeks burn a Kyrgyz home? “They shouldn’t have done it. I’m a woman, but if someone burned my father’s house, I would also want revenge,” Mavlyanova, the Kyrgyz NGO activist who had a son in Batyrov’s kindergarten, told me. Though ethnic clashes had taken place even before the arson, they intensified in the following weeks. A Kyrgyz crowd rampaged through Batyrov’s Peoples’ Friendship University, burning classrooms, breaking windows, and decapitating the statue of the Uzbek leader’s father. It was late May, right around finals.

“Students started running away,” recalled Anara Samatova, a professor of literature, who is Kyrgyz. Samatova collected exam papers and followed her students out through the back door. In the next few days, Jalalabad descended into hell. Hiding in her apartment, Samatova peeked out the window and saw a group of armed Kyrgyz men interrogating an Uzbek teenager dressed in a black T-shirt. She knew the kid was Uzbek because his captors called him sart, a derogatory term the Kyrgyz use for Uzbeks, the local n-word. Samatova couldn’t hear what the gunmen were grilling him about, but she overheard the kid protesting: “But my house was burned too.” With that, the men shot him, put his body in a car, and drove off.

Next up in the war’s path was Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city and a bustling hub of the south. Tensions had been brewing there for years, as the Uzbek commercial class dominating the city rubbed up against the influx of poorer rural migrants, most of them Kyrgyz. In fact, an element of class had seeped into the conflict. Many rural Kyrgyz resented the Uzbeks for their perceived wealth. It’s a deeply flawed stereotype, but one that proved very resilient.

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Kyrgyzstan’s Heckling Women Special Forces

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2888-2901:

Walking around Jalalabad, where mayors rose and fell based on the whims of the crowds, I thought of Kyrgyzstan as a bizarre case of direct democracy taken to its most absurd extreme in a society where institutions and laws are weak or nonexistent, where clans are strong, and where poverty makes people edgy, easily manipulated, and ready to attempt risky things.

The presence of loudly disposed women at rallies became a fixture of political life in Kyrgyzstan. Describing a recent rally where a heckling argument occurred between two rival camps, a local journalist mentioned something called OBON. The word sounded like the ubiquitous Russian acronym for Police Special Forces, and I assumed he was talking about riot police. It turned out the acronym stood for Heckling Women Special Forces. These histrionic commandos have been effective in Kyrgyzstan’s modern political history. They scream and drown out their opponents; they can land a punch if need be, or fall on the ground in a theatrical show of sorrow; security forces don’t quite know how to deal with them, they are just a bunch of middle-aged and elderly women. Waiting in a Defense Ministry reception area a few days later, I overheard two senior security operatives, both tough-looking men, discussing the challenges of OBON. “You know, in Jalalabad fifty women were able to seize the governor’s office—what the hell do you do in a situation like that?”

With the mayor’s job in play, a similar round of musical chairs occurred in the provincial governor’s office. After the music stopped, the man who ended up sitting down was Bakiyev’s former ambassador to Pakistan. A few days later, in a flurry of new decrees, the interim government announced the appointment of a new Jalalabad mayor. His name was not Asylbek Tashtanbekov, the OBON-backed running champion.

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From Political Prisoner to Police Chief in a Day

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 698-721:

The revolution here was so fast and surreal that a man who woke up on a prison bunk became the nation’s security czar by the time he went to bed. Shortly after protesters took over the presidential palace, Felix Kulov, a former police chief and mayor of Bishkek, was sprung from jail and found himself cruising the city’s mad streets in a white sport-utility vehicle, appealing to crazed crowds to stop the looting. “This turn of events was of course unusual,” Kulov, clad in blue jeans and sporting a buzz cut, said the next morning in front of his new digs at the Interior Ministry.

A career police officer who rose to the rank of general, Kulov served as vice president, interior minister, and head of the National Security Service. Just as his personal popularity began to threaten President Akayev, Kulov was convicted of corruption in a dubious trial that Western observers considered politically motivated. It is not that he was necessarily blameless. It is just that he was no worse than the average, so picking on him smacked of selective justice.

For the next five years, Kulov languished in jail with six hundred other inmates. Comrades from his political party, Ar-Namys, supplied the whole prison with food, books, exercise equipment, woodworking lathes, soccer balls, and even special trucks to pump out the sewage. Kulov’s party once gave the cash-strapped prison twenty tons of potatoes. The party wanted to keep its leader fit and healthy, and the easiest way to do it was to support the whole prison. Behind bars, Kulov kept himself busy. He once gave his party comrades a wooden scale model of a ship carved by him and his jail buddies.

The day of the revolution, his supporters drove forty miles to the prison, where the superintendent promptly released him. “This man will be promoted,” Kulov joked shortly afterward. The liberated general sprang into action that very evening, as looters rampaged through the capital, ransacking stores. The police had retreated into their precincts after the storming of the palace and were in no mood to venture out again. Bloodstains were still drying on the spots where the cops had come under a shower of rocks from the protesters. “They were so demoralized,” Kulov recalled. “I could do little more than appeal to the conscience of every officer.”

One evening after the uprising, Kulov addressed the crowds massing in front of the city’s landmark Central Department Store, begging them not to loot. Several other popular shops, like Beta Stores, were overrun, vandalized, and emptied of merchandise.

The hordes of looters and thugs roaming the streets the first two postrevolutionary nights scared most peaceful residents into their homes, where some dusted off old shotguns and vowed to shoot if the marauding crowds approached. But the main department store survived with just a couple of cracked windows, an important moral victory of law and order in the capital.

The police, having absorbed the emotional shocks of being attacked by the protesters, came back to the streets, at one point shooting rounds into the air to keep looters at bay. Thousands of Bishkek residents responded to televised calls by Kulov and others to form militias and patrol their neighborhoods and the city’s landmarks.

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Presidential Transitions in Kyrgyzstan

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2635-44:

The reign of President Bakiyev ended the same way it began, with a revolution and an exile. He fled, first to a large ceremonial tent in his home village in southern Kyrgyzstan, and then out of the country. Facing an irate populace, his brothers, sons, and cronies ran for the exits too, not all of them successfully. Bakiyev eventually settled in Belarus, at the personal invitation of the local dictator. The only two presidents Kyrgyzstan had known in its twenty years of independence ended up as outcasts and fugitives: one in Moscow teaching physics, the other in Minsk living in a forced retirement. Bakiyev, the hopeful product of the optimistically named Tulip Revolution, mutated into a villain so quickly that his allies didn’t know what hit them. “We got tricked like little kids,” Roza Otunbayeva, the perennial opposition leader who helped bring Bakiyev to power, told me shortly after she helped overthrow him. “He made all the right speeches back then.” During his five-year reign, nepotism and graft surpassed the excesses of the previous regime, while government opponents began to suffer suspicious deaths. In the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the master of the one-liner, Bakiyev “stepped on the same rake” that had whacked his predecessor on the head.

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Burma’s Own Trouser People

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 78-79:

At the far end of the carriage sat the soldiers: armed, sleek, hostile. I guessed that some were recent graduates of Maymyo’s military academy. Earlier I had watched them on the platform. Some had stood alone, while others had grouped into silent conspiracies of khaki; none of them had mixed with the civilians. I wondered what the academy had taught them. ‘They spend four years getting brainwashed, and when they come out they expect all civilians to behave like soldiers,’ a Burmese dissident told me later. ‘But of course we don’t want to behave like soldiers. That’s why we chose to remain civilians. But they think they are the greatest people in Burma. They think they know what’s best for the rest of us. They don’t.’ Casual visitors to Burma are unaware of the visceral hatred most people have for the military, particularly among ethnic minorities. The same dissident told me how a group of Kachin farmers stood by and watched as six young Burmese soldiers writhed in agony in the wreckage of a crashed army truck. When the dissident’s sister, who had witnessed the crash, pleaded with the farmers to do something, one of them chillingly replied, ‘Why should we? They will only live to make our lives worse. It is better to let them die.’

As far as I could work out, the military seemed utterly unaware of its unpopularity, although its guardians were alert to any potential blots on its escutcheon. I had heard, for example, that Burmese cartoonists working for newspapers or magazines were forbidden to draw men in trousers. This was because the only Burmese men who worse trousers were soldiers, and soldiers could not possibly be allowed to appear in such an undignified and dangerously satirical art form.

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