A Short Summary of the Afghanistan Tragedy

“You want to fight? Be on the side of the resistance, you always win. You won’t lose there”
Milton Bearden, former CIA officer

Nihat Halepli

After 20 years of military occupation, the United States and its allies were defeated and withdrew from Afghanistan, just like the USSR had done more than 40 years earlier. Thus, a new chapter opened in the history of the country, a history marked by civil wars, coups, imperialist occupations, poverty and oppression.

Social Basis

Before becoming independent in 1919, Afghanistan always played the role of a buffer zone in a region where the interests of British and Russian imperialisms clashed. After independence, the country was a constitutional monarchy and a feudal society dominated by large landowners. Although the first factory was founded in 1887, the industrialization process effectively began in the early 1930s.

In the absence of a strong bourgeoisie, the state took up the task of carrying out the industrialization process. “Banke Millie” (the National Bank), founded in 1933, was initially semi-public. It marked the beginning of an industrialization effort and was granted monopoly over some sectors of production. Most factories were related to the processing of agricultural products. The industrialization process continued after the Second World War and was organised in five-year development plans from 1956.

Despite all these efforts, the country was lagging behind in industrialization and depended on aid from the USSR and the USA. Most of the aid flowed to the military, while small amounts were directed to education and infrastructure.

In the early 1960s, there were only 4 factories with more than 500 workers and only 14 that employed between 100 and 500 workers. It is estimated that the country, with a total population of around 9 million at the time, had a total of 15,000 industrial workers, half of which were in the textile industry.

The standards of living of the population were extremely low, with the vast majority living in poverty. Annual per capita income was $60 in 1960 (by comparison, it was $509 in Turkey, $1,380 in the United Kingdom, $1,338 in France, $41 in Rwanda in the same year).

In the past some attempts at reform were conducted by King Amannullah in the 1920s and by Ahmet Zahir Shah in the following years – attempts similar to those of Atatürk in Turkey and Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran. They actually tried to introduce a western lifestyle in their countries. Despite these efforts, tradition and religious rules determined the lives of the majority of Afghan people. 90% of the population lived in the countryside and were working in agriculture. Even more were illiterate. 

In addition, Afghanistan is a country with many different peoples and ethnicities, each of which has a different cultural, national and religious identity. The Pashtuns make up the majority, almost 40%. They are located on both sides of the Durant line, an artificial dividing line created by the British in 1893, which is now the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tajiks are the second largest ethnic group and there are also Hazara, Uzbek and other peoples. The biggest part of the population is Muslim, of which 20 percent is Shia and the rest is Sunni.

Republic of Afghanistan

In light of the rise of the national liberation movements worldwide in the 1960s, a left-wing party named People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was founded in 1965. It was considered Marxist-Leninist, but they described themselves as “nationalist democratic”. Very soon, two factions emerged within this party, the Khalq (People) and the Parcham (Flag), and a split occurred soon after.

The faction Khalq consisted mostly of non-elite Pashtuns, adopting a more-or-less, hard-line Stalinist or Maoist approach. Parcham, on the other hand, was supported by the urban population who considered Afghanistan as not sufficiently developed for a socialist revolution, and believed that the solution would be a national democratic front with patriotic and anti-imperialist forces, in order to develop the conditions for a socialist revolution. Both factions were popular among the military, who were trained in the Soviet Union.

In 1973, Mohammed Daoud Khan overthrew the king in a bloodless coup with the help of army officers, especially those who supported the Parcham faction. The drought of the previous year, which led to famine especially in the north of the country, also favoured this coup: no one was willing to die for the king.

Daoud was a cousin of King Mohammed Zahir Shah and was famous for having been a brutal prime minister from 1953 to 1963. After seizing power, he put an end to the monarchy, declared a Republic and appointed himself president. Daoud’s cabinet initially consisted mostly of people from the PDPA party and those close to it.

Despite the leftist rhetoric of the Daoud government and the nationalization of all banks, no fundamental changes were brought into the economy of the country. The two factions, Parcham and the Khalq, also had a different approach to the Daoud dictatorship, with the Khalq wanting a more “comprehensive” revolution, while the Percham defended cooperation with Daoud.

These political developments co-existed with the rise of Islamist groups inspired by the Muslim Brothers, which had been seriously oppressed by the Daoud’s government. 

Daoud gradually moved away from both the USSR and PDPA; in 1976 he founded his own party, the National Revolutionary Party. One year later he transformed Afghanistan into a one-party state, banning the PDPA.

Saur-Revolution

Mir Akbar Khyber, one of the prominent leaders of the PDPA Parcham faction, was murdered in 1978 and Daud was suspected of having some involvement in the murder, despite him denying it. This incident gave an opportunity to the PDPA to put into action its plans to overthrow the government.

At Khyber’s funeral, an anti-government demonstration of 30,000 people took place and was brutally repressed. The PDPA had a solid organization in the army and therefore managed to mobilize their supporters quickly.

On April 28, 1978, Daoud was overthrown and murdered. The Republic of Afghanistan was renamed the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. This is called the “Saur Revolution” (Saur meaning April in farsi). The new head of state was Nur Muhammad Taraki. A Khalq faction member was appointed as foreign minister. 

This was actually a coup, even if the Khalq called it a “revolution”.  They immediately introduced decrees calling for land redistribution and for the abolition of the bride dowry, a major symbol of women’s oppression.

The big landlords and the mullahs of course resisted these reforms. The government had no support in the rural areas and they sent the army against the rebels, but even so they lost control over these areas. The government had to increase oppression and this vicious circle caused new divisions within the PDPA. The Parcham and Khalq factions were not in agreement either concerning their attitude towards the government or towards the USSR. These divisions made the circle of violence grow even bigger and this was used as an excuse for the USSR to invade Afghanistan, and put an end to the Saur Revolution.

The invasion took place on December 24, 1979. The Soviets killed Taraki and replaced him with Babrak Kamal, the leader of Parcham. More violence and aggressions against the Khalq members followed.

Soviet Invasion

The Soviet occupation strengthened the position of the Islamist guerrilla groups, the famous Mujahideen, who were fighting against the government. The Mujahideen developed into a united movement, widely supported by people who opposed foreign occupation and the “unrecognized” collaborative government.

The CIA had already started to support Islamist groups even before the “Saur Revolution” in order to prevent the influence of the USSR. We were at a point in the cold war, when US imperialism had been defeated in Vietnam and leftist ideas and movements were growing more and more popular worldwide. Middle East countries were turning to the Soviet Union and against western imperialism. This is why this invasion represented an opportunity for the US against the Soviet Union.

In a letter sent to the US President on the day of the invasion, Zbigniew Brezezinski, US Security Advisor in Afghanistan, wrote: “We now have an historical chance to give the Soviets their Vietnam”.

Brezezinski himself was sent to Pakistan to help the Mujahideen, who had declared Pakistan’s Peshawar province their capital in exile and turned it into the centre of their struggle. With the support of the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI, they used it as a base for their operations.

Brezezinski’s agitational speech to a group of mujahideen in Peshawar, really shows US engagement; pointing his finger towards Afghanistan, he said: “The opposite country belongs to you. You will return there one day. Because you will win the war and return to your homes and mosques. Because your cause is right. God is on your side!”

According to former CIA officer Milton Bearden, Brezezinski and the CIA were also involved in the operation and there were no limitations to the money that would be spent on the Mujahideen’s military equipment. 

By 1986, there was a bloody dead-end on both sides and the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Gorbachev, in his speech at the party congress, announced that Soviet troops would retreat from Afghanistan.

The US President Reagan and Gorbachev agreed on the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1988. The withdrawal was completed in February 1989 following the Geneva Agreement, signed between the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and Pakistan under the US and USSR guarantee. The Mujahideen were not invited to these negotiations and were of course not very happy with the outcome. 

After 8 years of occupation, the toll was heavy: 1 million Afghans and 15 thousand Soviet soldiers had been killed. About 1 million people injured. 7 million people had migrated to Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, leaving a ruined country behind.

Civil war

In the following years, the country was falling apart. The PDPA government, now under a new name, was ravaged by internal conflicts. The government was dissolved in 1992, while the various Mujahedin groups were in turmoil. The fall of the USSR supported regime did not bring a glorious victory to the Mujahideen but a nasty civil war.

Afghanistan was becoming a headache for both Russia and the US. These two countries, as well as Pakistan, India, Iran and Uzbekistan, kept on meddling while a proxy war was developing. 

The Mujahedin invaded Kabul without opposition and the city was divided into zones controlled by the different groups. A civil war was practically unfolding. An interim government was agreed, but it was not even active at the beginning. 

A savage fight over Kabul followed, resulting in the almost complete destruction of the city. 25,000 people were killed. This was also a big disappointment for that part of the population who had placed their hopes in the Mujahedin groups. 

Taliban

At about the same time, a new group called the Taliban took the city of Kandahar in 1994. This movement was founded by Mullah Mohammed Omar; it was based on religious education students in Pakistan, most of whom were Afghan refugee orphans. The Taliban movement grew really fast and played an important role in the country’s tragedy.

By March 1995, many provinces were under Taliban control, who were actually about to reach Kabul. The interim government withdrew their troops to the North and abandoned Kabul. Two years after they established a movement, the Taliban declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in Kabul in September 1996.

Those of the PDPA who had participated in the interim government and had now lost power, formed the “National Islamic United Front to Save Afghanistan”, known as the “Northern Alliance”, against the Taliban. They ruled in the north until the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001. 

NATO Invasion

During the Soviet occupation, young people from many Arab countries came to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the Mujahedin. One of them, Osama Bin Laden, founded Al Qaida shortly before the Soviet withdrawal, with the idea of ​​continuing the “holy” struggle elsewhere. After the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden permanently moved there from Sudan and was supported by the Taliban, in order to establish training camps.

The US was already putting pressure on the Taliban about Osama Bin Laden due to various terrorist attacks. The neo-cons (the extreme conservative section of the Republican party) had already a vision of the “New American Century, with plans for global domination based on military aggressiveness. They used the 9/11 horrific terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers to organize an invasion on both Afghanistan and Iraq. Under US leadership, the “International Coalition” launched the attack known as “Operation Enduring Freedom” in October 2001. At the beginning, the Mujahedin “Northern Alliance” was used as a ground force. Supported by the International Coalition air force, they took Kabul, which was abandoned by the Taliban very quickly, and toppled the government of 1996 under Rabbani’s leadership.

The first “Afghanistan Conference” was convened in Germany and a transitional government was established. In 2004, a Constitution was adopted, according to which Afghanistan was declared an Islamic Republic, and in the elections that followed Hamid Karzai, who was leading the interim government, was elected president.

This new state looked like any other, it had a constitution, elections were held and the usual institutions were created. Yet, it was nothing but a very fragile, indeed a failed state, where warlords and other corrupted groups protected by the NATO forces, came together in the hope of becoming rich.

As of 2004, the Taliban started growing stronger again and started launching effective attacks. They regained support among the people, mainly because people were fed up with the civilians’ killings by the US troops, and with the never-ending war in their country. And after 20 years of occupation and conflict, the NATO forces were forced to hand back Afghanistan to the Taliban. 

About 3,596 soldiers from Western countries have been killed in Afghanistan over the past two decades. The death toll for the Afghan side has been much greater: 67,176 people serving the military and police forces died in conflicts and terrorist attacks, thousands of civilians also died, were wounded or were forced to migrate.

Today

Afghanistan is a very rich country, especially in natural resources and minerals. The value of this wealth is estimated between $900 billion and $3 trillion.

But 20 years of western occupation has not really contributed to improving the economy or the living conditions of the population. The Western armies behaved like an occupation force and left without satisfying any of the promises they had made. 

The country’s population has grown from 7,7 million in 1950, to 38,9 million in 2020, despite the wars, and is expected to be 64,7 million by 2050. The birth rate is one of the highest in the world. Children make up 60% of the total population. 80% of Afghanistan’s population lives in rural areas and 20% in cities.

The GDP is about 20 billion US dollars and the per capita annual income is 500 US dollars. Forty-five percent of the population still works in agriculture, which in 2017 accounted for 23% of the country’s economy, while industry was at 21% and the services sector at 52%. The total number of employees is estimated at 8.5 million, with only 17.3% being women.

Most Afghans are extremely poor, it is estimated that 9.7 million people are malnourished. More than half of Afghan children and youth cannot attend school: 45.9% of the boys go to school, but only 21.7% of the girls. 80% of women are illiterate.

Conclusion

There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from the last 50 years of Afghan history – important lessons for the class struggle in societies with low developed industry and a relatively weak working class. The disappointment created by Stalinism led the working class and the oppressed to seek other “alternatives”, not only in Afghanistan but also in most countries. 

Especially in countries with Muslim populations, political Islam was widely perceived as an alternative for the poor and the oppressed. But after decades of experiences with the likes of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban, the working class masses and the oppressed should draw the conclusion that political Islam is no real alternative. Experiences in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan show that the great imperialist powers are also not an alternative for modernization, democracy and freedom, on the contrary, they are sources of poverty, exploitation and wars.

In countries with a Muslim majority, there is today an ideological and organizational vacuum. This is even more evident in countries where the working class is relatively strong, such as Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. It is proven time and again that unless the working masses come to the fore with an independent class policy to fight against all oppression, the gap will be filled by reactionary or imperialist forces. If the working class is able to come to the fore with an independent class policy, it will be a determining factor in shaping a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan, a chapter that should start putting an end to the Afghanistan tragedy.


Sources

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