A Failed Revolution from Above

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

R.F. Kampfer

“Davison recalled how some of his colleagues had gone to visit a village near the Kabul river (during World War II). ‘Have you seen any foreigners lately?’ they asked the local inhabitants. They were rather taken aback when the reply came: ‘Yes, two Italians.’ Further investigation revealed that they were referring to two Jesuit priests on their way to Peking in the seventeenth century.” –Victoria Schofield, Every Rock, Every Hill

ONE THING OF which we can be absolutely certain is that the future of Afghanistan will not be decided by the Geneva Treaty of April 1988. It was never intended to do so. The sole purpose of the treaty was to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a face-saving means of withdrawing from a bloody and expensive military stalemate and to provide a” decent interval” between e departure of the Russian troops and the fall of the Najibullah regime in Kabul.

This point was underscored by the exclusion of the Afghan resistance, generically, known as the Mujahadeen, from the treaty negotiations. It 1s true that there is nobody empowered to speak for the Majahadeen, who are divided into dozens of factions and hundreds of guerrilla bands. But a place at the bargaining table would have given them a powerful incentive to forge a common program. A united Mujahadeen, however, is the last thing that most of the negotiators want

To predict Afghanistan’s future we must understand its past, including its recent past It should be noted that when most people speak of Afghans they mean Pashtuns, who make up two-thirds of the population and maintain a limited hegemony over the Durranis, Ghilzais, Baluchis, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, Hazaras, Kafirs, Mushuds, Afridis, Wazirs and other peoples with their own languages and customs. Generalizations made about the Pashtuns may not apply to other tribes.

What makes Afghanistan unique is that it is a nation created by process of elimination. For thousands of years, empires from the Persian to the British flowed and ebbed across that part of the world, but Afghanistan was always the place that none of them could hang on to for long. Repeated invasions and occupations produced an understandable heritage of hatred toward foreigners, while the multiplicity of tribes and the fantastically rugged terrain discouraged national unity.

While Iran, for example, has usually been run by a centralized bureaucracy since the time of Cyrus, Afghan life was centered around the village. Some of the villages were feudal; some exercised a large measure of democracy through the tribal jurgah or council. In any case, they supplied most of life’s necessities and were practically autonomous. They were also usually at odds with their neighbors when scarce resources caused agriculture and herding to be supplemented with banditry.

The capital in Kabul was usually the headquarters for some occupying power and its Afghan clients. Its main function in relation to the countryside was to extort taxes and infringe upon tribal authority. Nominally independent regimes, with a few exceptions, took the same predatory attitude. Hostility toward the central government developed concurrently with hostility toward foreign invaders, except among the Mohammadzai Pashtun who have traditionally commanded the army and the bureaucracy.

There is a third factor, besides distaste for foreigners and Kabul, that unites rural Afghans; that is Islam. In the absence of any national authority, or even the concept of national unity, Islam is the one thing that the divergent tribes and villages have in common. The mullahs are the only authority figures that can, sometimes, mediate disputes between hostile clans or promote cooperation between tribes. For all its reactionary ideology, Islam has filled a real need in fragmented Afghan society. Of course, this has also motivated the ullahs to resist any attempt by the government to displace them from this role.

Given this background, the attempts of the Afghan People’s Democracy Party (PDPA) to rapidly and totally overturn all the traditional patterns of Afghan village life met with a predictable response. Whatever hostility the masses felt toward tribal chiefs, landlords and mullahs, they were obviously not prepared to accept outside interference. A less arrogant government might have been able to overcome people s suspicion with a great deal of tact and patience. Instead the faction-riddled PDPA attempted to impose reform as one would administer a dose of castor oil to a recalcitrant child.

Of course the PDPA’s supreme blunder was accepting, or inviting if one believes that, the Russian invasion. As foreigners and non-Moslems, the Russians not only alienated the vast majority of the population, but have fatally discredited the PDPA. There have always been Afghans who were willing to collaborate with the different empires that have invaded their country. They have never survived the withdrawal of the occupying armies.

At present the Najibullah government is desperately trying to broaden its base: setting up the “National Fatherland Front,” making concessions to the mullahs, cutting back on land reform and hedging on women’s liberation. It seems doubtful that this retreat will save it. Even if one discounts the worst atrocities charged against the Russians and government troops, there have still been far too many people killed or driven into exile. The badal, or blood-feud, is still very much a part of the Afghan heritage.

Yet, even if the POPA falls, the future of Afghanistan is uncertain. Much depends on how much the population has changed during the long and bitter war. Based on previous history, one could predict that the Mujahadeen, less interested in ruling in Kabul than in returning to their farms and villages, would be content to ignore whatever government occupies the capital so long as it leaves them alone.

The ultra-decentralization of the resistance movement is a source of weakness as well as strength. While it has frustrated the Russians by denying them a decisive target to strike, it has also prevented the formation of a real national army, much less a government in exile. Of course if the Mujahadeen don’t want a strong national government, then their inability to form one is not a problem for them.

All the same, over the past eight years, millions of Afghans have been forced out of their isolated mountain villages and their tradition-bound lives. They have been compelled to deal with new problems and unfamiliar people. When they return home they will need to find new solutions to deal with the massive devastation left by the war. Perhaps they will not be willing or able to return to their narrow tribal horizons. Perhaps, unintentionally and at hideous cost, the war will create an Afghan national consciousness. Only time will tell.

Woman and Equality

It should be noted that the institutions of purdah and the wearing of the burqah were traditionally limited to wealthy Afghans. Poor farmers could not afford to keep their wives in seclusion; they worked in the fields with the men. Among some tribes the women had a remarkable degree of freedom, some even having the right to bear arms. Needless to say, we support every struggle on the part of the women of Afghanistan for full equality. It should be obvious, however, that this struggle must be supported by the women themselves. Equality has meaning for the minority of Afghan women who live in cities, who have access to education and jobs.

For tribal women, it has less relevance. In a primitive society, where the family is the primary unit of production, a single woman, or man, cannot survive. For­ mal equality, for a woman totally dependent upon a husband, is a facade. It is even seen by many women as a threat, depriving them of their traditional place in society without offering any security in return. Poor and ignorant people hang on to their traditions, since it is all they have.

Individual women have fought for freedom throughout history, but there was never a mass movement until industry gave women the opportunity for in­ dependent lives.

Of course women’s rights are under attack across the Moslem world due to the rise of fundamentalism, but it is possible that Islamic reaction may have passed its peak. Certainly the defeat of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the Persian Gulf cannot do it any good. It is significant that a woman is a contender for power in Pakistan.

Regional Prospects

Having washed its hands of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union will probably concentrate on quarantining the Central Asian republics. While Islamic calls for a jihad among the Moslem population are a pipe dream, there is sufficient unrest along the fringes of the Soviet Union for Gorbachev to take precautions.

Iran has too many problems of its own to meddle in Afghanistan. It is certainly not ready for another war, and is too broke to buy influence with foreign aid.

Pakistan is facing an uncertain future, an instability compounded by the suspicious death of its military dictator Zia. The end of the Afghan war could dry up Washington’s subsidy to the Pakistani army, as well as what they skimmed off aid sent to the Mujahadeen. Furthermore, Afghanistan has never renounced its claims to Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier province, which the British gave to Pakistan even though its population is largely Pashtun.

There is a lot of sentiment in this province for either independence or unity with Afghanistan. Disputes over this territory led Pakistan to dose the border with Afghanistan in 1%2. At present, the province is full of Afghan refugees. There is also unrest among the Baluchis, whose homeland was divided between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the nineteenth century. They may take advantage of the region’s troubles to seek their independence.


We would all like to see a secular, democratic, socialist Afghanistan. Unfortunately, those goals are a lot further away than they were ten years ago. For the next generation or two, land reform, literacy and women’s rights will be associated with napalm, plastic mines and Hind gunships.

Stalinism has adopted one of the worst features of capitalism: the belief that superior knowledge and technology confer the divine right of hegemony over weaker countries. The British in Kenya, the Italians in Ethiopia, the French in Algeria, the Japanese in Manchuria, the United States in Vietnam: all had superior civilizations and lofty ideals that they followed into the nadir of beastly degradation. Give Gorbachev credit for having the sense to cut his losses. Let’s hope the lesson spreads.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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