A Further Comment on Afghanistan

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

Chris Hobson

IT’S POSSIBLE THAT by the time these comments appear, the Najibullah regime will be history. Or, bloody and discredited, it may still be clinging to power, and David Finkel will be supporting it (see ATC 19). Either way, I shall be very glad to have taken, ever since1979, what I feel is the right stand, one of support for the Afghan resistance and total opposition to the Soviet Union and its agent, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

What I want to do in this comment is to clarify what Finkel’s and my conflicting viewpoints mean in practice, not in words.

The first part of Finkel’s position is that the left should have given critical support to the PDPA up until the Soviet intervention — not only when it first came to power, but in the pre-Soviet phase of the war, when the PDPA was already waging a ruthless war against the overwhelming majority of the population.

What this means in reality is that — however hard it might have been to see things clearly at the time-now, with ten years of hindsight, Finkel is for supporting a regime whose policies were driving the majority of the population to rebellion and civil war.

Strategically, as a serious politician, what does Finkel think this support would have accomplished? Does he think it would have moderated the Afghan regime in some way? Would it have made the regime even marginally less brutal? If so, how? Or does Finkel think critical support would have changed the regime from a ”revolution-from-above” approach to one of “revolution-from-below”? This would be fantasy — the line between the two is fundamental.

I’ve been using terms Finkel would presumably agree with, but I think my own are clearer: the Afghan regime from the start, in its methods and objectives, was state capitalist and not socialist at all.

Behind this “strategic” question is a more fundamental one: by what right does this regime impose its rule on the countryside from above and against the people’s will, pour napalm over those who resist, and claim our support while doing so? And don’t the Afghan people deserve any say whatsoever?

Finkel’s answer, like Val Moghadam’s in her original article, is to paint o the PDPA’s progressive program. On paper, that program is clear enough: “land reform, literacy, and women’s rights,” as Moghadam summarizes. But what has this meant in reality?

To narrow things down, let’s take the point Moghadam and Finkel rightly regard as a crucial one: women’s rights. Finkel and Moghadam both fear a catastrophe for women if the Mujahedeen win. This is a real possibility. Unfortunately, the PDPA has made this more likely by linking reforms for women to a war against the majority of the population, a linkage Finkel accepts by retrospectively supporting the PDPA in the pre-Soviet phase of the war.

If Finkel wants to argue that resistance to the reforms is what touched off the civil war, one might ask if he believes it’s progressive to seize power in a coup d’état and try to modernize a traditional country by state terror.

The Real PDPA Program

In any case, the examples Moghadam presents of the regirne’s accomplishments on women’s rights are hardly impressive: 440,000 female students (in a population of 17 million, including refugees), 68,000 in the women’s organization, 6,000 in the armed forces — all according to official figures, presented absolutely without question.

How does this stack up against the millions of women killed or made homeless by the same regime? (Recent estimates are that 1.5 million people have been killed and more than six million made refugees or exiles by the war.) Moghadam doesn’t say. But this is the real point Moghadam and Finkel are impressed with the paper program and the regime’s modest accomplishments, but they don’t connect this with the murderous war that has driven a third of the population (women too) out of the country.

And so Finkel starts with the program and ends by supporting the PDPA in the war. But the war IS the PDPA program; the real program — in reality, not on paper — is to stay in power by any means necessary. The reality is that since the civil war broke out, the PDPA regime has pursued one aim consistently and unswervingly: not women’s rights, not land reform, but to kill, injure, or maim as many people as necessary to stay in power.

And this is a general problem of the left vis-a-vis the so-called “socialist” countries and movements, a problem Finkel seems to share: the progressive formal program, the presumed good intentions of the regime, are given more weight than the real problem, which is to hold onto power. It’s high time that the section of the left represented by Against the Current and its readers realized that in dealing with Stalinists we’re not dealing with working-class revolutionists who differ with us over methods, but with people whose program is to seize the state and use it to stay in power at all costs.

With the Russian intervention Finkel thinks it became “wrong for the left to support any side.” Although he doesn’t say so, presumably this is because Finkel thinks Russian intervention turned the conflict into an inter-imperialist war.

But the war was fought between 100,000 Russian troops, plus a Russian-armed, ineffectual Afghan army on one side, and on the other, guerrilla bands (eventually guerrilla armies) recruited from the villages and towns — bands which sought arms from the United States (and got damn few for the first several years of the war), were pushed around in various ways by Pakistan where they took refuge, and were and are overwhelmingly supported by the Afghan people. In what way is this an “inter-imperialist war”?

My own view is that the war has been a national liberation struggle against the Soviet Union and its puppets, the PDPA. Revolutionaries ought to support this struggle without supporting the reactionary policies of its leaders. This includes supporting the right of the Mujahedeen to get arms from the United States — without which the war would have lasted far longer ten years — while warning against reliance and dependence on the United States.

Support the Resistance

There are three reasons why revolutionaries should support the resistance despite the ideology of its leaders and many of its activists. First, national independence is a goal we support — I hope I don’t have to elaborate on this.

Second, contrary to what David Finkel and Val Moghadam seem to think, it is impossible to support women’s rights or any other social reform by backing a party that tries to impose them by force and then wages a barbarous war of occupation that has killed and made homeless millions of people. The preeminent issue in people’s minds is that their country is under foreign occupation, that the foreigners and their local henchmen are killing people wholesale. They are not going to accept that in order to get women’s rights.

But it’s not necessary, either, to accept R.F. Kampfer’s pessimistic conclusion (in a generally excellent article) that for the next generation women’s rights and other reforms are poisoned by association with Russian/POPA barbarism and slaughter. After the war women will struggle to hold onto whatever limited gains they have made. They won’t accept Moghadam’s and Finkel’s equation of women’s rights with the PDPA.

And this brings me to the third reason for supporting the resistance: if revolutionaries don’t do so, there will be no one who is raising support for women’s rights, from inside the inevitable, progressive and democratic struggle for national independence.

In fact, with the advantage of hindsight one can draw exactly the opposite conclusion from Finkel’s: what revolutionaries in Afghanistan should have been doing since1979, was building a secular, democratic, socialist force in the national resistance, so that now there would be such a force in the post-Russian, post-PDPA Afghanistan.

Today, with the end of Soviet occupation, Finkel thinks war there will again become “primarily a civil war in which we ought to be for the victory of the PDPA.” Finkel hopes “the PDPA [government] survives without the Soviet tanks,” but he doesn’t tell us how it is to disentangle itself materially from Soviet aid and politically from responsibility for ten years of slaughter.

Tanks or no, can the POPA hold power without Russian arms, “advisers,” planes, military intelligence, etc? Leaving aside formulas (“civil war,” etc.) how IS the PDPA going to regain the slightest degree of popular support? Finkel’s perspective amounts to supporting a regime and party correctly hated by the vast majority as Soviet puppets and brutal murderers.

Far better to begin from scratch the job of building a revolutionary, libertarian socialist movement in Afghanistan that can collaborate with others to fight “for a truly free society — however small, isolated and physically endangered such a movement may be at first.

In conclusion, I want to step back from specifics and raise the question of why revolutionaries take positions on issues like Afghanistan. Partly it is because we owe a duty of international solidarity, even if the solidarity has limited practical impact. But in addition, it is part of the process of building a revolutionary movement. Such positions help revolutionaries clarify their politics to others interested in the same questions.

In other words, the fundamental issue in “taking a position” is to make clear what kind of society you are for and how you would get there. And this is the fundamental reason for not supporting the PDPA. Although Finkel seems confused about this, the PDPA does not at all represent our vision of society — not in its willingness to slaughter hundreds of thousands of people to hang onto power, not even in its abstractly progressive program, which it tried to shove down people’s throats against their will.*

The question of building a revolutionary movement isn’t just one of how to build it in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, that question is somewhat abstract at present. It’s primarily a question of building such a tendency in those parts of the world that we, as members of smallish groups in the United States and Europe, can reach through publications and personal organizing.

How can we ever convince the new generation of revolutionaries internationally that a group that now — after ten years and millions of refugees — offers support to the POPA, has a vision of a new world without classes, without states, without racial, sexual or national oppression? A vision and a strategic/tactical sense of how to get there?

These aren’t abstract questions. The “new generation” I’m speaking of exists — here in the United States, in young anarchists I’ve spoken to who are in the Polish “Freedom and Peace” movement, and in many other places. (Perhaps even in Afghanistan — Finkel will never know if he orients toward supporting their enemies.)

These people are for freedom. They are against class, national and sexual oppression and they hate the United States, the Soviet Union and their puppets, who stand for all those things.

These people are the hope. They won’t be reached by politics that offer a tired compromise between an abstract anti-imperialism and discredited Stalinist claims of progressivism. They will be reached by a clear vision that tells the truth and describes a society worth fighting for.

*This question relates to differences Finkel and I have on what it means to build a revolutionary movement. To me, this means first of all making clear what you mean by socialism, and this is impossible if your organization has no opinion on whether the Soviet Union is imperialist or, on the contrary, a workers’ state and not imperialist. I think Finkel’s equivocal position on the PDFA and its program is a sign of this. But this is not the place to argue those differences.

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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