Afghanistan at the Crossroads

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Val Moghadam

ON APRIL 14, 1988, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the United States signed agreements providing for the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan and the restoration of a nonaligned Afghan state. The agreements include documents pertaining to the return of Afghan refugees from Pakistan and the cessation of external interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.

These accords were the culmination of several years of testy discussion in Geneva, made possible by the mediating efforts of the personal representation of the U.N. secretary-general. The process was accelerated in January 1987 following new and constructive initiatives promulgated by Moscow and Kabul which called for national reconciliation and an all-Afghan political dialogue.

The agreements, signed one month later than initially expected due to last minute obstruction by Pakistan and the United States, provided for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan beginning May 15, and ending February 15, 1989.(1) It is hoped that a coalition government will be permanently established by the time the withdrawal is effected. This should bring to an end one of the bloodier regional conflicts that have been devastating people and resources in the Third World.

And yet the Mujahedeen immediately rejected the accords. This group of seven loosely allied Islamic parties, formed on the basis of family, tribe or religious ties, have been battling the “godless” government since the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power in April 1978 (that is, prior to the Soviet occupation of December 1979). They have now vowed to continue their “holy war.” –The United States and Pakistan will no doubt continue to arm and assist the guerrillas.(2)

What has not been widely known is that arming the Afghan opposition has been one of the biggest ever CIA operations, dwarfing American aid to the Nicaraguan contras and altogether costing about $2billion thus far.(3) This raises the prospect of sustained civil war, referred to by some as the Lebanon scenario.(4)

Another scenario is that the government will collapse, and an Islamic Afghanistan will be established as a federation of autonomous regions organized along traditional ethnic and tribal lines-a Balkanization of sorts.(5)

A third scenario is that the government of President Najibullah, strengthened by a policy to bring about national reconciliation since January 1987, will prevail and create a non-aligned, pluralist society. India’s friendly relations with the government and Najibullah’s official three-day visit to New Delhi in May confer some legitimacy on the Afghan government and suggest Indian confidence in Najibullah’s survival.

At this writing (May1988) it is too soon to tell which of the three scenarios will be realized. I am inclined toward the third one. I believe that the Afghan government’s efforts to establish peace, stability and security are sincere and worthy of support.

I would hope that the coalition government that emerges from this process of national reconciliation is one in which the POPA and other left-wing and liberal parties are strong enough to craft a progressive agenda that includes rural development, workers’ rights, and women’s rights. I do not think that any of the Islamic parties is amenable to such a program. And yet, surprisingly, many on the international left continue to support the Mujahedeen.

Left-wing support for the Mujahedeen has been especially strong in Europe, where activists from London to Stockholm have defended the putative national liberation struggle. One of the surprising features of this support has been the total neglect of the meaning of national liberation under an Islamic rubric for Afghan women. Since the Saur revolution (April 1978), and to some degree even prior to it, women have made incremental but important gains in education, employment and political participation. Indeed, it was precisely the reform programs launched by the POPA government that provoked reaction.

While there are a number of dimensions to the Afghan crisis, including East-West contention, “geopolitics,” and intervention by neighboring states before and since 1978,(6) this essay will focus on the government’s reforms, reaction to them, the neglected question of women, and the PDPA’s prospects. Much of the literature on the Afghan crisis fails to consider the arguments and intentions of the POPA. The present article is in part an attempt to rectify this omission.

The essay is also motivated by an alarm over increasing Islamization in the Middle East and South Asia, and the role of U.S. imperialism and of anti- communism in encouraging it. In offering an alternative perspective on Afghanistan, I will respond to the accusation that the POPA constituted a minority government by demonstrating that any government in the specific context of the Afghan social formation would be a minority government, and that (socialist) support for a government or movement must be based not on its numbers but on its program.

Reform and Reaction

When the POPA assumed power in 1978 the government of Nur Mohammad Taraki announced that its priorities would be land reform, literacy and women’s rights. Feudalistic and patriarchal arrangements existed in the countryside, where local tribal chiefs, big landlords and nomadic chieftains held economic and political power. Sixty-one percent of small landholders were in possession of less than two hectares of land, a further indication of the skewed pattern of land tenure.

Wheat shortages were the result of the largely undeveloped agricultural sector, which consisted of subsistence farms and export-oriented cash-crop production. A famine in the early 1970s may have taken up to 500,000 lives. In the 1970s, therefore, the “real problem” of the Afghan economy was diagnosed as how to encourage farmers to produce a marketable surplus to feed that part of the population that lives in towns and does not own land.(7)

In the urban areas modem industry was almost non-existent, with only fifteen small industrial firms operating in the country. Some 90 percent of the industrial work force was employed in 80,000 handicraft and cottage-industry establishments, most of them run by family or other primary (kin or ethnic) groups. Power consumption per capita was only sixty kilowatts in the country.

The Afghan economy has been described as fragmented and stagnant. The roots of this situation have been traced back to the country’s involvement in the early international trade in which it participated not as a producer of commodities but as a facilitator of transit trade.

As one analyst has explained,(8) the early trading routes between China, Central Asia, the Arab states and Turkey as well as those between Europe, Russia and India, cut across Afghan territory, giving rise to what are today the major Afghan cities-Kabul, Khat, Kandahar and Jalalabad-and to the emergence of an urban commercial sector geared to servicing caravans and organizing onward transportation of transit goods. Unlike European cities, Afghan towns did not assume the role of integrating markets and organizing the exchange of indigenously produced commodities among producers as well as between producers and consumers.

Nor did they establish contacts among themselves that would have led to the development of a national economy. In Afghanistan, economic links between the towns were initially as undeveloped as their links with the surrounding rural areas. The reorientation of trade toward export production of agricultural raw materials and carpets at the end of the nineteenth century reinforced the stagnation of the national industrial sector.(9)

The development planning that began in the 1950s did not reduce the by then deeply entrenched dichotomies between rural and urban areas and between foreign trade and domestic production. A public sector had been created but investment remained low. Still, on the eve of the Saur Revolution, the bazaar economy con­ trolled roughly 50 percent of the country’s financial transactions (including money lending and foreign exchange dealings), as well as retail and foreign trade.

Only 14 percent of children of school age attended school, while 90 percent of the population was illiterate. There was only one doctor for every 3,000 people, with medical facilities available only in the capital and a number of other cities. Against this bleak background, 50 percent of children died before the age of five.

Politically, there was no law protecting political parties or organizations other than those organized by the government itself. Absent also were social organizations, trade unions and other associations.

Against this backdrop the PDPA initiated a program for national development and societal transformation. Among the first steps of the new revolutionary government were to free peasants from the burden of accumulated debt, the implementation of a democratic land and water reform, the emancipation of women and a campaign against illiteracy. Special attention was directed toward the education of girls.

The land reform sought to create agricultural cooperatives that would receive government-provided agricultural inputs and peasants’ consumer cooperatives that would offer essential consumer goods at subsidized prices to their members. State farms were also set up, although on a far smaller scale.

The reforms were almost immediately opposed by vast sections of the population, and a counter-revolution was organized in Peshawar under the auspices of the Pakistani regime of strongman Zia ul-Haq. Why?

State formation and the organization of a central authority have always been problematic in Afghanistan where what anthropologists call primordial communities, consisting of an array of heterogeneous ethnic groups, tribes and clans, have played an important role in the economy and the polity. Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain has provided a further, geographic, obstacle to centralization.

In the absence of a centralized state-indigenous or colonial-these communities were major actors in the regulation of production and political conflict They have always sought to escape state control and taxation; thus local revolts were frequently initiated by groups that perceived themselves as united by primordial ties. It should be stressed that these communities are patriarchal and not egalitarian, and especially divided along gender lines.(10)

Many of the reforms undertaken by the Taraki government had first been attempted by President Daoud, who overthrew the monarchy in 1973. His subsequent efforts at taxation and road construction were thwarted by tribal opposition. Many of the opposition leaders who turned up in Peshawar in 1978 had led the opposition to Daoud in 1973. Faced with the opposition of the big landowners and mullahs, Daoud gave up.

In contrast, the PDPA “were determined to go through with the reforms, judging as they did that the central government in Kabul had been intimidated and frustrated long enough by vested rural interests. What they proposed amounted to the destruction of the tradition, feudal-tribal village power structure, a prerequisite for any meaningful economic or social advancement in the Afghan countryside, where, to mention but a few points, ninety-eight percent of women are illiterate and are frequently not treated as well as the cattle; one in four babies dies before its first birthday; and where the local village chief has near absolute power over his people.”(11)

Another explanation has been the absence of consultation with the rural population (that is, the men) as to their desires and needs. According to one analyst, “A group of men, determined to preserve Afghanistan’s traditional way of life and their position of privilege within it, fled to Peshawar in Pakistan and began organizing a rebellion — in the name of Islam.”(12)

In time the rebellion spread, uniting villagers in opposing the PDPA government and rejecting not only land redistribution but the decree on the elimination of usurious credit, the literacy program and the abolishment of the custom of bride price. In this opposition, peasants, landlords, mullahs and urban Maoists were united. Opposition took the form of killing teachers and anyone associated with the PDPA and the government We may take issue with the hasty and heavy-handed manner in which these reforms were carried out Criticism is especially warranted in the instance of Hafizullah Amin’s repressive and adventurist ways. The growing crisis in 1979 forced the Soviet Union to accede to the PDPA request for military assistance.

Contrary to conventional wisdom and U.S., Chinese and Pakistani propaganda, the Soviet intervention was not part of a “grand strategy” to reach warm-water ports, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The decision in Moscow was reached reluctantly, prompted by the deteriorating situation in Kabul, inflammatory speeches by Islamicists about retrieving Soviet Central Asia, denunciations emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran, and training camps set up in Pakistan for Afghan guerrillas.(13)

In retrospect, many (although by no means all) of the tensions were exacerbated by the PDPA’s chronic infighting and the government’s voluntarist and self-defeating approach to development and change. Some of these problems are discussed by Dr. Nodari Simonya, an eminent Soviet scholar of the Orient.(14) The new leadership sought to transform its country from a feudal and tribal society into a “socialist” society too quickly, by-passing crucial stages of development Simonya calls this both foolish and impossible. Nonetheless, he expresses sympathy for the revolutionary elite, comparing them to the early nineteenth-century Russian “Decembrists” and other educated, forward-looking nationals who contrast their countries with more developed ones and wish to change the conditions of their societies.

Notwithstanding all the strife, the Afghan Government has managed to broaden its social base and emerge as a serious political force.(15) Under Babrak Karmal, the government sought to mend fences with religious leaders and rural elders. Since then, further concessions have been made by the Najibullah government, including a reversal of its initial statist centralism.

A major accomplishment has been the government’s nationalities policy, which contains an unprecedented appeal for political participation of all ethnic and tribal formations. Even a critic of the POPA notes that the commitment to ending special privileges for the Pashtuns in general and the Mohammadzai royal clan in particular, and the policy of ethnic non-discrimination “promises significant long-term benefits.”(16)

As Simonya points out, only the POPA has a positive program of national development In contrast, the Mujahedeen have no program apart from the (re)establishment of Islamic rule and feudal-tribal arrangements; moreover, in the absence of unity they can only offer” a terroristic form of power.”(17)

Selig Harrison, who alone among the mainstream analysts provides a thorough and balanced perspective, notes that “far from offering an alternative focus of legitimacy to the Kabul regime, the resistance groups are themselves divided on ethnic, tribal and sectarian lines.”(18) The persistent tensions between the “traditionalists” and the “fundamentalists” are but one manifestation of this problem.

Much of the discussion about and literature on Afghanistan in the past eight years has been extraordinarily tendentious and one-sided, ranging from cold-war rhetoric to romanticization of the Mujahedeen.(19) A recent example of this persistent bias is the Amnesty International report released on May 4,1988. It cites major human rights violations by Soviet and Afghan troops, including the killing of civilians and torture of rebel prisoners. No mention is made of atrocities by the rebels, who have been accused by the Soviet Union and Afghan government of blowing up schools, killing children, burning villages and driving people from their homes to join the opposition.(20) In 1979 I myself heard blood-curdling stories about vengeance from Washington, O.C.-based Afghan Maoists.

The Washington Post reported in early 1985 that the U.S. government “has confirmed reports that the CIA-supported insurgents drugged, tortured and forced from 50 to 200 Soviet prisoners to live like animals in cages.” According to a 1986 account, “There are 70 Russian prisoners living lives of indescribable horror.”(21) Nonetheless, in nearly all of the existing literature, only one side is portrayed in a negative light.(22)

It can only be a misguided Third Worldism and fascination with any and all guerrilla warfare that prevent leftists from discerning reactionary movements. The Afghan opposition was and is right-wing, entirely religious and exceedingly patriarchal. Mujahedeen fundamentalist leaders have demanded not only that Moscow leave Afghanistan, but that it yield the four Central Asian republics, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenia and Uzbekistan, which are largely Moslem.(23) By no stretch of the imagination can the opposition be regarded as progressive — they are not the moral equivalent of Polish Solidarity.

Gerard Chaliand, the chronicler of Third World revolutions and liberal movements, notes with some consternation the backward nature of the Mujahedeen. Although his 1982 study, Report from Afghanistan, is an extended plea for Western military aid for the Mujahedeen, he notes that unlike other guerrilla movements, they lack a modernist vision, social programs, alternative organization or infrastructure. By all accounts and indications a Mujahedeen-ruled Afghanistan would be more intolerant and repressive than the Islamic Republic of Iran and would work fervently to undo the measures taken toward women’s equality.

Women: The Neglected Dimension

For the past eight years there has been a curious double standard on the part of many observers-certainly mainstream commentators but also including socialists and feminists-when approaching Islamicists in Iran and lslamicists in Afghanistan.

For example, in the case of Iran feminists have correctly decried the discriminatory policies toward women enacted after the Islamicists monopolized political power — such policies as ending abortions performed in hospitals, changing divorce laws, closing down workplace nurseries, banning contraceptives, attempts to reduce female employment, enforcement of Islamic dress and morality codes. Numerous essays and books have been written by Iranian and international feminists criticizing the legal status and social position of women following Islamization in Iran.(24)

But feminist judgment is suspended when approaching Afghanistan. Traditional gender relations among Afghans are either willfully ignored, regarded as harmless folklore or justified in vague cultural relativist terms — as Swedish social democrats did in a panel on Afghanistan at the 1986 Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, where they also expressed support for military aid to the rebels.(25)

In the anthology edited by Robin Morgan, Feminism is Global (1984), the entry for Afghanistan (in stark contrast to the one for Iran) is not about gender divisions, veiling, seclusion, massive female illiteracy, etc., but a short story, poignant to be sure, but unanalytical and unenlightening as to the status of women under Marxist rule and the status of women among the Islamic opposition.(26) Indeed, the informational page that precedes the story offers no data whatsoever on the post-1978 reforms for women, the extension of literacy and education for girls, the women in government.

Not only has a double standard operated vis-a-vis Iran and Afghanistan, but the assumption is made that as long as a group is fighting a foreign presence or for national liberation, raising “the women’s question” is inappropriate and divisive. In the Afghan context, “self-determination,” “national liberation” and “autonomy” are masculinist projects. Women are excluded — as is the secular middle class.

In the existing mainstream scholarship, a conspiracy of silence surrounds the extremely low status of women among the fundamentalists and traditionalists.(27) Maxine Molyneux, a British Marxist-feminist who has done comparative studies of women’s status, refers in passing to the reforms improving women’s status instituted after the Saur revolution. She also notes that the government has had to retreat on women’s rights to appease Islamicists.(28)

This was confirmed in a discussion I had with a visiting Afghan official in autumn 1986; he said that the government has not been able to ban polygamy, Islamic precepts on court testimony (two female witnesses equivalent to one male witness) or unequal inheritance laws. But “party members cannot practice polygamy.”(29) A1982 International Labour Organization study of Afghan refugees in Peshawar dryly states that “the influence of both Islam and traditional codes is pervasive and has many ramifications and implications for our work. Likewise, the role and position of women and the division of work in the household among the different Afghan tribes, have defined the limits of what is feasible and acceptable for schemes for women refugees.”(30)

In the section on family organization, it notes:

“… the practice of female seclusion, belief in the defence of the honour of women, and a well- developed division of labour within the family on the basis of age and sex. The emphasis on manhood and its association with strength is pervasive and we were told in one camp that even old men were expected to remain out of sight along with the women and children….Men assume responsibility for relationships and tasks outside the family compound including purchase and sale of subsistence items from the market (i.e., monetary transactions), agricultural production, house construction, wage labour and maintaining social and political relationships outside the immediate family (including attendance at educational and religious institutions). Where “contact with outsiders” is concerned, there are universal constraints on participation of women … puberty defines adulthood for women, and early marriage is common.”(31)

Education for girls is contested terrain. Universal literacy was a priority for the PDPA, and it was precisely female literacy that offended the sensibilities of fundamentalists. In the refugee camps in Pakistan, administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), girls and women are denied education and even health care.

Surprisingly, UN officials have conceded to Afghan male resistance to teaching girls. Thus 104,600 boys are enrolled in UN-run camp schools, as against 7,800 girls. The disproportion is greatest in middle schools and high schools, because most Afghan men consider ten or eleven years the threshold that girls should not cross in education.(32) The UN runs 161 middle schools for boys and two for girls. All four high schools are for boys only. At the primary level, there are 486 boys’ schools and 76 for girls. Boys go to school for as long as possible, while girls leave at age ten or eleven to weave carpets. A male Afghan principal is quoted as saying: “I don’t think it’s bad for women to become doctors, but it’s better to weave carpets. They can start earning money from a very young age.”(33)

In health care, too, the UNHCR has encountered continuing resistance to the extension of services to women. Afghan males do not allow male medical workers to attend to women and are reluctant even to allow women to leave their houses or get treatment from female doctors or assistants.

Even Medicins Sans Frontieres, a pro-Mujahedeen French medical group, eventually expressed exasperation at Afghan male authority. A French woman doctor is quoted as saying, “We have to fight with the men to take women to a hospital when necessary.”(34) As a result, Afghan refugee women suffer from ill-health, isolation, boredom and depression.

A researcher who supports the Mujahedeen writes, “Women are regarded as men’s property.”(35) They are normally viewed as

“subordinates dependent on their husbands, as further exemplified by women never asking their men their whereabouts or expecting marital fidelity. The women also are expected to give all the meat, choicest food, and the best clothing to their husbands, as well as their personal wealth if so demanded. Since the woman’s standing is maintained primarily through bearing sons to continue the family, she of course must marry, for only through marriage can one’s basic needs be legitimately fulfilled ….As beings set apart and excluded from the public, women are united in their hostility toward men as ‘bad, ugly, and cruel.’”

Women’s low level of expectation, the writer continues, stands in contrast to the “men’s higher and often unrealistic ones of world conquest.”(36)

In Peshawar, the great majority of the refugees are women, children, and elderly males who cannot participate in guerrilla operations inside Afghanistan. Almost three-quarters of the refugee households are headed by women. The woman’s immobility is exacerbated by the Pakistan authorities’ stipulation that the refugees must remain in the refugee villages to qualify for monthly stipends. So while the men fight their war for Islam and tradition, the women stagnate in the refugee camps.

Surprisingly, the invisibility and isolation of Afghan women is justified as a functional requisite of the “resistance.” One writer avers that “the Mujahedeen (holy warrior) Ieaders recognize women’s importance to the jihad (or holy war) with their exhortations to preserve women’s honor through the continued practice of seclusion. The reinforcement of this tradition, most Westerners have failed to notice, serves to strengthen the men’s will to resist.”(37)

In sharp contrast is the situation for women within Afghanistan, especially the cities, where the government has more control. According to the magazine Afghanistan Today, there are 440,000 female students in the country’s educational institutions. The total number of Afghan female professors and teachers is 190 and 11,000 respectively. About 80,000 women are enrolled in literacy courses in various institutions and residential areas. Since 1978 the total number of Afghan working women has grown fifty times and has reached 245,000.(38)

Photos of unveiled Afghan women in the streets of Kabul, and female students at the University of Kabul in Western dress, offer a dramatic contrast to the sad seclusion and heavy veiling of women in Peshawar: It also stands in sharp contrast to the Iranian women in bejab (Islamic dress). Massume Esmaty Wardak, who has been in charge of the Women’s Council of Afghanistan since June 1987, is quoted as saying, “We hope Iran will never come to Afghanistan.”(39)

The Women’s Democratic Organization of Afghanistan was formed in 1966, the year after the PDPA, and in 1986 changed its name to All-Afghanistan Women’s Council. It has become one of the strongest mass social organizations in the country, with a total membership of over 68,000.

The women’s movement, which began during the enlightened reign of King Amanullah (overthrown in 1929 by the combined forces of the British and lslamicist tribes), was revived in the 1960s.(40) The goals of the women’s organization were and are education, work, and equality for women; the organization has also pushed for reforms in the areas of divorce and child custody.

Likewise, over 6,000 women of Afghanistan have taken up arms to defend the Revolution. Hundreds of women are also serving in the army and the police forces. Women’s clubs, post-revolution phenomena, have become organizing and cultural centers where hundreds of working women and housewives gather and exchange ideas, skills and artistic talents. Some sixty-four such clubs have been established in Kabul and other provinces of the country.(41)

A Yugoslav correspondent in Kabul recently reported on the large number of Afghan women who have taken important positions in government agencies (due in part to the unavailability of male intellectuals, who perform military service). Noting that Afghanistan is “among the least developed countries in the world,” where “the Islamic factor is very strong,” the writer described, with some surprise and admiration, the presence of many unveiled women who work and appear on the streets of Kabul unveiled and in Western dress.

The article notes too that the goal of full equality of women, one of the post-1978 reforms, helped to start the revolt in the interior of the country, where &isquo;religious fanatics were angered by communist efforts to’ shame our women.’(42)

The country’s trade unions constitute another important social organization and here, too, women are active. There have been women trade unionists in the secretariat of the All-Afghan Confederation of Trade Unions. Women are also members and leaders in the trade union of teachers and the trade union of civil servants.(43)

The social organizations, which Ambassador to the U.N. Shah Mohammad Dost proudly described to me as “the manifestations of the work of the PDPA in the country,” all have women members and activists.(44) In one such important organization, the Democratic Youth Organization of Afghanistan, girls as well as boys are members, take part in work brigades and many are receiving further education in the Soviet Union. (It is said that some 10,000 Afghans are receiving education and training in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries.)

During the 1980s, a number of ministries and government agencies instituted offices for women’s affairs, and during the U.N. Decade for Women, a National Commission for the Advancement of Women was formed. Several years ago, the state Committee for Labor and Social Security made women’s employment a priority. These measures and policies were pushed by such leaders and reformers as Anahita Ratebzad (state minister), Soraya (leader of the Red Crescent) and Firouza (former leader of the women’s organization).

Women are among the Government’s strongest supporters, precisely because the Government has gone out of its way to improve their situation. In a1987 interview, Soraya, long-time party worker and director of the Red Crescent, said, “Years ago there were no equal rights between men and women. Women were even sold for marriage. There were no chances for women to work, so they stayed in their houses, maybe only coming out once a year …. Itis one hundred percent correct that women are even stronger supporters of the revolution than men because of what the revolution has done for them.”(45)

According to Soraya, much more needs to be done. “The goals are there in the party program, but we have to put it in action. In my opinion, every woman has the ability to be anything a man can be, if the  ground is prepared We will see in the next generation if we have a woman general secretary of the PDPA or not” This is in stark contrast to the attitude of an Afghan oppositionist in Peshawar, who declared, “We never consult women.”(46)

For these reasons, many Kabul women fear the prospect of a Mujahedeen victory. The leader most feared among them is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the current spokesman for the alliance, a staunch fundamentalist and the favorite of the Pakistani government His supporters are reputed before the 1978 revolution to have thrown acid at young women attending Kabul University who did not wear the chador.(47)

There are indications that Babrak Karmal, replaced as party leader last year, may have been a stronger sup­ porter of equality for women than his successor, Dr. Najibullah. One reason may have been that his long-time companion was the remarkable Anahita Ratebzad. Another is that since January 1987, the priority for the government has become the success of the national reconciliation program and acceptance of its call for a government of national unity.

In November 1987, the Loya Jirgah (Grand Assembly) convened, elected Najibullah president and ratified the new constitution. While formal equality be­ tween men and women is retained (Article 380), the Constitution begins with the ominous statement, “In the Republic of Afghanistan no law shall run counter to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.”(Article 2). However, the Sharia, Islamic law, is not made the law of the land.(48)

If concessions have to be made in order to end the conflict, bring about peace and establish tranquility, will women’s rights be sacrificed? Referring to the vote, Ambassador Dost told me, “We [the PDPA] and the women’s organization will struggle to retain this.”(49)

The PDPA’s Prospects

Ambassador Shah Mohammad Dost, who has previously served as foreign minister and ambassador to the United States, displayed considerable confidence and optimism when we spoke on March 15. According to Dost, the PDPA will definitely remain; the longtime rift between the Khalgh and Parcham wings of the party is now healed and the party is strong and unified. At present it is the ruling party. But whether it remains that way will depend on the outcome of elections that are anticipated in the future and called for in the new constitution.

Further, the PDPA is not the only party in the present political arrangement; it is part of the National Front (sometimes referred to as the National Fatherland Front) which includes four other parties: the Revolutionary Working Party of Afghanistan, the Islamic Party of Afghanistan, the Peasants’ Justice Party of Afghanistan, and the Workers’ Party of Afghanistan.

Through vast organizational campaigns and enrollment drives that began in 1980, the government has managed to broaden its base by establishing the social organizations referred to above. These mass organizations include the Congress of Teachers, Congress of Public Health Workers, Congress of Religious Leaders, Democratic Youth Organization, Union of Art Workers, the Women’s Organization, and the National Fatherland Front.(50) In addition, trade unions and consumer cooperatives have been established.

Selig Harrison, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who visited Kabul in April 1988, maintains that the PDPA has a strong political structure. “I think there are highly motivated Communist cadres in Kabul,” he said. ‘A lot of them are from social groups that were deprived previously. I question the conventional wisdom that the Kabul regime will fall quickly, because the communists are less divided than people think, and the resistance is more divided than people tend to acknowledge.”(51)

According to Ambassador Dost, the PDPA’s membership is around 200,000.(52) In addition to the social organizations mentioned above, there are nearly one million people who may be said to concur with the overall goals of development, women’s rights, and socio-economic reforms.

It may very well be that some of this membership is opportunistic or pragmatic rather than committed. On the other hand, the first generation of Afghans receiving education and training in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries, when they return, will no doubt expand the core of party activists, engaged intellectuals, and committed technocrats.

Does the party face the prospect of being dismantled? In response to my query, Ambassador Dost said, “Who will dismantle it?” adding that the Party now has the support of a cross-section of the Afghan people because of the social organizations and because of the measures taken since January 1987.

Time will tell if this confidence is realistic or inflated. In July a very different assessment was provided by General Kim Tsagolov, Soviet expert and military advisor on Afghanistan, whose views appeared in the Soviet periodical Ogonyok.

In addition to denying that a revolution took place in Afghanistan in 1978 or any time afterwards, Tsagolov criticized the Afghan party for its factionalism, suggested that the coalition government now in place exists in words only, described the military situation as extremely disadvantageous vis-a-vis the government, and asserted that the present government should try to accommodate the internal armed opposition rather than the Peshawar-based seven-party alliance. The solution to the political crisis, he further argued, was a left-democratic front, in which all the parties would maintain their independence.(53)

A left-democratic front is precisely what the POPA would like to see established in Afghanistan. Moreover, they have been trying to appeal to the internal opposition and field commanders (as opposed to inflexible and exceedingly reactionary forces such as Hekmatyar’s group in Peshawar).

The present time is a very sensitive period. Zia ul-Haq’s death was perhaps fortuitous, but the Reagan administration continues to provide the Mujahedeen with sophisticated weaponry that has been used recently to attack Kabul. Peace is put off and suffering is prolonged.

Did the Mujahedeen have the “right” to arm themselves against a foreign presence, as Lawrence Lipshultz recently argued?(54) What about the principle of self-determination? In my view, this question can only be answered honestly by taking into account the political and social nature of the Afghan rebels, which, as I have been arguing, is extremely reactionary, and recognizing that their armed opposition predated the Soviet military intervention.

It is also unfortunate that the POPA did not receive from the international left the sort of support-and, along with it, comradely and constructive criticism and advice-that, for example, the Sandinistas have enjoyed. It is at least conceivable that some of the POPNs mistakes would have been avoided had there been more engagement from other socialist parties, organizationsand individuals.

It must also be understood that the Soviet authorities were reluctant to commit themselves militarily and only intervened when the situation had deteriorated due to American, Pakistani, Chinese and Iranian machinations. Had there been efforts back in 1978-79 to defuse the tensions rather than intensify them (as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Zia ul-Haq were doing), much of the subsequent turmoil, death and destruction would have been avoided.

Finally, it must also be stressed that for all its faults, the POPA was trying to bring about meaningful social change, predicated upon principles and goals of gender and ethnic equality, economic development (including land reform and education) and a non-aligned and noninterventionist foreign policy.

Considering that the Soviet intervention resulted in worldwide hostility toward the “communists” and sympathy for the fundamentalists and traditionalists, one can perhaps only regard the entire affair (and the suffering it has entailed) as a historical tragedy, and not as a morality play in which the U.S./Pakistani/Mujahedeen alliance represents the “forces of good.”

A socialist position at the outset would have been not to support or encourage the Mujahedeen. And at present, to lend moral, not to mention military, support to the Mujahedeen is wildly irresponsible in light of the recent efforts to end the strife and begin reconstruction.

Still, one wonders about a global left movement that in 1978-79 supported Khomeini but not Taraki. Is it not a variant of Orientalism to presume that the fate of Middle Eastern peoples is an Islamic polity?(55)

November-December 1988, ATC 17


  1. Key sections of the accords on Afghanistan assigned in Geneva were published in the New York Times, April 14, 1988: A12.
    back to text
  2. The first version of this paper was written in May 1988, prior to the death of Zia ul-Haq. Also, it has become clear since the accords were signed that the Reagan Administration has continued massive arms flows to the Mujahedeen. Surprisingly, the Soviet Union did not insist upon the cessation of U.S. arms assistance at the Geneva talks. For a discussion and criticism of this, see Alexander Cockburn’s column in The Nation, June18, 1988:852. The section pertaining to the Soviets, the U.S. and Afghanistan is provocatively titled “Munich in Moscow.”
    back to text
  3. Robert Pear, “Arming Afghan Guerrillas: A Huge Effort Led by U.S.,” New York Times, April 18, 1988: Al.
    back to text
  4. This was the conclusion to the long (and very informative) article by Eqbal Ahmad and Richard Barnet, “Bloody Games,” New Yorker, April 11, 1988: 44-86.
    back to text
  5. See the letter by Afghan expert Louis Dupress, New York Times, May 4,1988: A34. (See my own letter, same date, for a contrasting interpretation and assessment.)
    back to text
  6. On this issue see David Gibbs, “Does the USSR Have a ‘Grand Strategy’? Reinterpreting the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Journal of Peace Research, v. 24, no. 4 (1987): 365-79. See also Selig Harrison, “The Shah, Not Kremlin, Touched Off Afghan Coup,” Washington Post, May 24, 1979. In the November 1979 takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, many documents were captured that have been published in a sixty-plus volume set entitled “Documents from the Den of Espionage”; these include classified Department of State Reports on CIA, Pakistani, Saudi Arabian, Chinese, and Iranian efforts to destabilize Afghanistan. See the two essays by Steve Galster in Covert Action Information Bulletin 30 (Summer 1988): 52-54.
    back to text
  7. Sources for the information on pre-1978 social structure include materials provided by the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Afghanistan to the United Nations; two World Bank studies on Afghanistan, published in 1977 and 1978; a confidential UNDP report; David Gibbs, “The Peasant as Counterrevolutionary: The Rural Origins of the Afghan Insurgency,” Studies in Comparative International Development, v.21, no. 1:36-59; Bhabani Sen Gupta, Afghanistan: Politics, Economics, and Society (Boulder, CO: L. Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1986). Interested readers are further referred to Fred Halliday’s two excellent essays in New Left Review, 1978 and 1980.
    back to text
  8. Confidential UNDP document, given to me by the author.
    back to text
  9. Ibid.
    back to text
  10. In the feminist anthropological literature, there is some debate about the nature of pre-state, pre-class, kinship-ordered communities, particularly as regards the status of women. See Eleanor Leacock, “Interpreting the Origins of Gender Inequality: Conceptual and Historical Problems,” in Dialectical Anthropology, v. 7, no. 4 (February 1983): 263-84. See also Christine Ward Gailey, Kinship to Kingship (University of Texas Press, 1987), whose study of the Tongan Islands in the Pacific shows the absence of female subordination in the pre-state islands. The utility of generalizing this for all kinship-based societies, especially Islamic ones, may be questioned. For a brilliant discussion of how endogamy is based on the control of women and perpetuates female subordination in Islamic communities, see Germaine Tillion, The Republic of Cousins (London: al-Saqi, 1983).
    back to text
  11. Beverley M. Male, “Comments on M.A. Chaudhri’s Paper,” The Middle East in World Politics, Mohammad Ayoub, ed. (London: Croom Helm, 1981) 162.
    back to text
  12. Ibid, 163. Afghanistan is not the only country in recent history to have a counter-revolutionary peasantry. Apart from the famous case of the Vendee during the French Revolution, Mexico earlier this century witnessed a peasant uprising against land reform, and in China in 1934, Muslim rebels opposed a reformist warlord, General Sheng Shih-t’sai, who was supported by the Soviet Union. For an elaboration, see David Gibbs (note 7 above). The parallel between the Chinese affair and the Afghan situation is made in Fred Halliday, The Making of the Second Cold War (London: Verso, 1983) 156.
    back to text
  13. See David Gibbs, “Does the USSR Have a ‘Grand Strategy?’ Reinterpreting the Invasion of Afghanistan” (footnote 6 above).
    back to text
  14. “Afghanistan: A Voice from Moscow,” Interview with Dr. Nodari Simonya by Lawrence Lipschultz. Monthly Review, v. 39, no. 4(September 1987) 9-19.
    back to text
  15. This assessment was made by Dr. Nodari Simonya in the interview by Lipschultz; see also Jonathan Steele, “Moscow’s Kabul Campaign,” Middle East Report (August 1986) 4-11.
    back to text
  16. Ralph Magnus, “The PDPA Regime in Afghanistan: A Soviet Model for the Future of the Middle East,” Ideology and Power in the Middle East, eds. Peter Chelkowski and Robert Pranger (London & Durham: Duke University Press, 1988) 274-295.
    back to text
  17. Simonya, op. cit.
    back to text
  18. Selig Harrison, “Afghanistan Stalemate: ‘Self-Determination’ and a Soviet Force Withdrawal,” Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, v. 14, no. 4 (Winter 1984); and, Afghanistan’s Former King Can Lead the Way to Peace,” International Herald Tribune, May 22,1987. Harrison notes that the exile groups are racked by factionalism and are accused of black-marketing in weapons, heroin smuggling and other forms of corruption. For a detailed discussion of the Mujahedeen narcotics activity see Allan Dodds Frank, “Unwelcome Side Effects From Peace in Afghanistan,” Forbes, August 8, 1988: 34-36. (I am indebted to David Gibbs for bringing this to my attention.) Apart from consternation over the production and smuggling of heroin, most writers on Afghanistan agree that the Mujahedeen are hopelessly divided.
    back to text
  19. As examples of this genre, see Anthony Arnold, Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion in Perspective (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1985); J. Bruce Amstutz, Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation (Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1986); Oliver Roy, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press, 1986); Eden Naby, “Islam Within the Afghan Resistance,” Third World Quarterly, v. 10, no. 2 (April 1988): 787-805. Less serious texts that romanticize the Mujahedeen include Jan Goodwin, Caught in the Cross&fire (New York: E.P. Dutton,1987); Doris Lessing, The Wind Blows Away Our Words (New York: Vintage, 1987). (Lessing s text is so ridden with factual errors as to appear deliberately dishonest.) Ken Follett’s best-selling suspense novel, Lie Dawn With Lions (Signet, 1986), set in Afghanistan, includes within its cast of characters Western leftists enamored of the rebels. In depicting also a CIA agent who supports the rebels’ cause, the author perhaps unwittingly captures an ironic convergence.
    back to text
  20. As Amnesty International focuses its attention on human rights violations by states, it is perhaps understandable that it should not include a report on Mujahedeen atrocities. However, Al should consider the fact that where a weak state and strong armed opposition exist (in contradistinction to strong, centralized. states such as Chile, Argentina, Iran, etc., where there is clear asymmetry between the regime and the opposition), Al might be more even-handed.
    back to text
  21. Joe Stork, “The CIA in Afghanistan: ‘The Good War’,” Middle East Report July-August 1986): 12-13.
    back to text
  22. See Fred Halliday’s review (in Middle East Report, same as above) of Crime de Silence et Crime de Tapage: Panomma des lectures sur l’Afghanistan contemporain, a 1985 study by an Italian academic reviewing the reportage and scholarship on Afghanistan. An important point made in the book, according to Halliday’s review, is that Western writers rarely take into account the arguments of the PDPA. Western misreporting, the pervasive bias, and U.S. disinformation are also analyzed by Jonathan Steele, “Bull About Kabul,” in the same issue.
    back to text
  23. AP, “Afghan Asks Soviets to Yield its Central Asian Republics,” New York Times, Jan. 18, 1987.
    back to text
  24. See Guity Nashat, ed., Women and Revolution in Iran (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982); A:zar Tabari and Nahid Yeganeh, eds., In the Shadow of Islam: The Women’s Movement in Iran (London, Zed, 1982); Haleh Afshar, “Women, State and Ideology in Iran,” Third World Quarterly, v. 7, no. 2 (April 1985).
    back to text
  25. On the panel, only Goran Therborn, Swedish Marxist sociologist and Communist Party member, questioned support for the Mujahedeen, pointing out that their armed opposition to the reforms had started prior to the Soviet intervention.
    back to text
  26. Sima Wali, “The Silent Victims,” Sisterhood is Global, Robin Morgan, ed., (New York: Anchor, 1984).
    back to text
  27. The scanty literature on Afghan women is not feminist but largely descriptive and functionalist in analysis, often defensive and uncritical of traditional arrangements. See Kathleen Howard-Merriam, “Afghan Refugee Women and Their Struggle for Survival,” Afghan Resistance: The Politics of Survival, eds. Grant Farr and John Merriam (Boulder, CO and London: Westview Press) 103-25. See also Nancy Hatch Dupree, Beyond the Veil in Afghanistan (1978), and Margaret Mills, “Witnessing: The Power of Oral Testimony in Jihad and post-Jihad Afghanistan (paper presented at the annual meetings of Middle East Studies Association of North America, Los Angeles, CA November 2-6, 1988).
    back to text
  28. Maxine Molyneux, “Socialist Societies: Progress Towards Women’s Emancipation?” Monthly Review 0uly-Aug. 1982): 56-100.
    back to text
  29. Interview with Afghan official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New York, October 28, 1986.
    back to text
  30. International Labour Organization, Tradition and Dynamism Among Afghan Refugees (Geneva: ILO, 1982).
    back to text
  31. I.L.O. 19.
    back to text
  32. Henry Kamm, “Aid to Afghan Refugees: Donors Bend the Rules,” New York Times, April 2, 1988: A2.
    back to text
  33. Henry Kamm, “Afghan Refugee Women Suffering from Isolation Under Islamic Custom,” New York Times, March 27, 1988.
    back to text
  34. Ibid.
    back to text
  35. Kathleen Howard-Merriam, “Afghan Refugee Women and Their Struggle for Survival” (see note Z7 above), 104.
    back to text
  36. Ibid, 106.
    back to text
  37. Ibid, 112.
    back to text
  38. “Leading a New Life,” Afghanistan Today” (Nov.-Dec.1987). Despite the problem of potential unreliability of government sources, the information contained herein accords well with other sources.
    back to text
  39. David Ottaway, “Kabul Women Shun Veils, See Rebel Threat to Status,” Washington Post, May 4, 1988: A25.
    back to text
  40. For a brief look at reform of this period concerning women, see Kumarl Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London: 2.ed, 1986) 71-72.
    back to text
  41. Afghanistan Today, op. cit.
    back to text
  42. Alexander Stank, “Special Report to Tanjug,” Slobodna Dalmacia, July 22, 1988: 2D (in Serbo-Croatian).
    back to text
  43. Interview with Afghan official, Oct. 28, 1986, New York. See also Philip Bonofsky, Washington’s Secret War Against Afghanistan (NY: International Publishers, 1985), especially pages 112-125. On page 123, Bonofsky describes his visit to a silo-bakery, where (unveiled) women workers “earned an independent salary equal to the men’s, had given up the chadri [veil], and were, economically at least, independent of their husbands. Literacy among them was much higher than among women generally, certainly among country women. Political and social awareness was also correspondingly hi her.” He adds: “It was of his women that Anahita Ratebzad was speaking when she said that the future full emancipation of women would start from working women.”
    back to text
  44. Interview with Ambassador Shah Mohammad Dost, New York, March 15, 1988.” href=”#N44. Interview with Ambassador Shah Mohammad Dost, New York, March 15, 1988.”>(44. Interview with Ambassador Shah Mohammad Dost, New York, March 15, 1988.)
    back to text

  45. Richard Weintraub, “Communists Roll Back Tradition in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, June 16, 1987: Dl.
    back to text
  46. Kamm, New York Times, March ZJ,1987.
    back to text
  47. Ottaway, Washington Post, May 4, 1988, op. cit. See also The Economist, June 25, 1988, 14-15.
    back to text
  48. Loya ]irgah 1987 Documents, Kabul, November 1987.
    back to text
  49. Interview, March 15, 1988.
    back to text
  50. Ibid.
    back to text
  51. David Shipler, “Afghan Vacuum: The U.S. is Wary of Rushing In,” New York Times, May 15, 1988: AS.
    back to text
  52. .

  53. According to the State Department, the PDPA membership is about 75,000, which is itself a large number considering Afghanistan’s overall population and its educated population.
    back to text
  54. Slobodna Dalmacija, July 25, 1988, 5 (in Serbo-Croatian) and International Herald Tribune, August 15, 1988, 1.
    back to text
  55. His views were expressed at a panel that David Gibbs and I had organized for the Socialist Scholars Conference, April 1988.
    back to text
  56. Edward Said’s Orientalism (Vintage 1978) presented one side of the picture (the colonialist/imperialist representation of The Self and The Other). The other side, the reactionary Islamicist perception of the West, is eloquently presented by the Syrian philosopher Sadegh Jalal al-Azm in his essay, “Orientalism-in-reverse,” Khamsin 8 (1981): 5-ZJ. Both perspectives, mirror images of each other, approach Islam in essentialist fashion, regard Islamic societies as homogeneous (“the Muslim people”), Islam as monolithic, unchanging and determinate, and the establishment of “Western values” as futile.
    back to text

November-December 1988, ATC 17

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *