The Afghans’ Tragic Drama

Against the Current, No. 27, July/August 1990

Val Moghadam

The Tragedy of Afghanistan:
A First-Hand Account
By Raja Anwar, translated by Khalid Hasan
London & New York, Verso, 1989.286 pages with notes and index. $16.95 paper
Distributed by Routledge in the U.S.

ACCORDING TO THE books cover, the author of this unique chronicle was in the government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (late father of the present prime minister) from 1947 to 197. After General Zia’s coup he went underground and finally fled to exile in West Germany, where he now resides.

Though it isn’t spelled out, those underground years were evidently spent in Kabul, Afghanistan, part of them in Prison. As a result of his contacts with PDPA (Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan) [the Afghan CP—ed.] people inside and outside prison, the author has been able to provide a firsthand account of the years 1978 to 1983.

He also provides convincing explanations for several mysteries, among them the kidnapping and death of U.S. Ambassador Adolph Dubbs (Chapter 13), how Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin managed to retain his power despite growing discontent among his comrades (Chapters 14-16), and how Amin finally died (190).

The felicitous translation from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan makes the narrative compelling and often gripping. The analysis, too, is sophisticated though controversial. This is a book bound to be “read” in various ways.

Critics of “state socialism” will find confirmation in Anwar’s charge that Afghan Marxism “was a grotesque Stalin-1st parody” (151). Enemies of the PDPA will insist that it affirms their position that the PDPA is undeserving of support. Those who opposed the Soviet intervention and regard its outcome as an unmitigated disaster for the party and the country will also be satisfied.

However, I think these readings are too facile, for the author is at pains to demonstrate the complexity of the case of Afghanistan, in both its international and internal dimensions.

For example, Chapter 11 on “The Contradictions of Afghan Society” and Chapter 12, “The Reforms and Their Aftermath,” describe the severe problems of underdevelopment (which necessitated the reforms) and critically narrate the resistance to progressive social change. That resistance derived from the weight of patriarchal and primordial (kinship) ties, as well as a peculiar form of Islam that incorporates non-Islamic tribal norms. External interference–the full extent of U.S. and Pakistani intervention–is detailed in Chapter 21.

If the author is critical of the PDPA, he regards the mujahideen as fundamentally reactionary. He also devotes several pages (Chapters 18 and 22) to documenting their brutality and atrocities, something their Western champions have shamelessly sought to suppress. I found these pages difficult to read, even though I was aware of mujahideen cruelty, having first learned about them ten years ago from a Washington D.C.-based Afghan Maoist who gloated over the horrific treatment meted to Soviet advisers and PDPA cadre.

Readers will also find interesting Anwar’s discussion of jail reforms after 1980 (226-228). I encountered convincing evidence of the genuineness and importance of these reforms during my visit to Kabul in February 1989, when I also visited Pul-e Charkhi prison.

Raja Anwar’s account leaves one with a deep sense of dismay over the mistakes and mismanagement by Haflzullah Amin (deputy prime minister from 1978 to 1979), which led to internal dissent, vulnerability to the Islamist opposition (now armed and supported by Pakistan, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States) and finally the Soviet military intervention of December 27, 1979.

A dedicated activist who personally recruited peasants and soldiers, Amin also had serious character flaws (which recall Lenin’s warnings about Stalin). He was heavy-handed not only with recalcitrant landowners who defied land reform, mullahs and opponents of female education, but with his comrades as well; not only with members of the rival Parcham wing of the PDPA but also with dissidents in his own Khalq faction.

Amin was responsible for the execution of Prime Minister Taraki, which was surely the first “tragedy.” After the Soviet intervention and Amin’s own death, described in riveting detail, and the assumption of power by the Parchamites led by Babrak Karmal, Amin was demonized. But at least two Western analysts believe that Amin was a patriot and nationalist whose record has been seriously distorted.(1)

During my visit to Kabul, I asked party members about Amin; no one spoke well of him. Many who had been imprisoned (because, as they readily admitted to me, they had agitated against Amin) had endured peat suffering in Pul-e Charkhi. There is no doubt in my mind, especially after reading Anwar’s account, that had Taraki, Karmal and many others unhappy with Amin’s methods been successful in removing Amin from power, much of the subsequent crisis would have been avoided.

If there is one hero in Anwar’s narrative, it is Noor Mohammed Taraki, who is also the only character whose personal biography merits a chapter (Chapter 15). He was a villager who acquired an education in India, became a communist, wrote short stories extolling the peasantry and denouncing inequality and injustice, helped found the party in 1965, and liked to chat and drink with local shopkeepers.

According to his widow, with whom the author spoke, “all through their married life Taraki never once raised his hand to her, nor did he ever express regret at being childless. No scandals were attached to his name.” (179) This is quite unusual, given the patriarchal nature of Afghan society.

The tragedy of Afghanistan, according to Anwar, lies in the failure of the April 1978 revolution, which died on December 27, 1988 as a direct result of the Soviet intervention. Thus, “Once the Soviet army had moved into Afghanistan, there could be neither peace, nor revolution.” (198) But the revolution’s death remained untold and appearances were kept up, the author says, until Gorbachev announced that Soviet troops were pulling out and that a coalition government, a non-aligned state and national reconciliation would be pursued.

Writing in 1988, Anwar states that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev would like nothing more than to rid itself of its “Afghan problem.” He ends his book on this disconcerting note: “It would, in all likelihood, be glad to fling the PDPA into the Amu river and pull out.” (253)

But such conclusions are hasty and overdrawn. In the first instance, the Soviets have not abandoned the PDPA the way the Americans abandoned their South Vietnamese clients. They seem aware that the PDPA1s the most progressive social force in Afghanistan, even though they continue to push for a broad-based coalition government.

Second, the Afghan Army has shown itself quite capable of defending key cities from mujahideen incursions, with or without direct Soviet involvement. Thirdly, whether or not Afghanistan had a revolution, and whether or not (and when) it failed, are complex questions that require more analysis than has thus far been undertaken.(2)

To be sure, civil war, the presence of foreign troops, and persistent external subterfuge are not conditions propitious for a revolution (although nearly all revolutions have had to face these circumstances). But inasmuch as two important dimensions of revolution are changes in class power and the formation of a new state, there has been substantive transformation in Afghanistan.

For one thing, the Saur revolution (April 1978) resulted in a shift of power from the Mohammadzai royal clan to the modern petty-bourgeoisie organized in the PDPA. Secondly, the traditional rural power structure based on the power of large landlords, tribal chiefs and mullahs was disrupted, which is precisely why the counterrevolution emerged. Third, gender relations were altered (another reason for the reaction), and the “woman question” assumed a paramount place in the discourse and objectives of both the PDPA and the Islamist opposition.

Many observers have been preoccupied with the Soviet intervention and have failed to see that the PDPA and government have been building institutional supports, including the beginnings of a civil society consisting of autonomous and semi-autonomous “social organizations” such as trade unions; the women’s organization; youth organizations; political parties; the Peace, Friendship and Solidarity Organization; associations of teachers, journalists, writers, artists and so on.

Were the United States to desist from arming the terrorist mujahideen, the tragedy of Afghanistan would finally end, and the arduous task of reconstruction and development would begin.

The Tragedy of Afghanistan will be of interest to a wide array of specialists and non-specialists, including those concerned about underdevelopment, women’s oppression, and the role of left-wing political parties in effecting progressive social change.


  1. Beverly Male, Revolutionary Afghanistan (NY: St. Martin’s, 1982). The other analyst is Selig Harrison, who in several personal communications has told me that Amin was basically a nationalist and independent-minded. However, he is more critical than is the late Beverly Male of Amin’s heavy-handed methods.
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  2. See the exchange between Alexander Cockburn and his critics In The Nation, Dec. 19, 1988. Tariq Ali writes: “The events of April 1978 can in no way be described as a revolution.” In “Strategic Aspects of Asia in the Global System,” New Left Review (July-August 1985), he notes that the coup of April 1978 “was a popular affair and was greeted with widespread support in Kabul.” (38) It is true that a coup took place on April 24, 1978, but this does not preclude the presence, or making of social structural transformation–revolution.
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July-August 1990, ATC 27

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