The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   98


The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979--1982

by M. Hassan Kakar

University of California Press, 1995

Incipit Tragoedia

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. It was the last hot war it would fight, and one whose failure played a leading role in its loss of the Cold War and disintegration. Afghanistan is infamous today for being in the grip of the most benighted, fanatical and misogynist government in the world. It was not always that way, but has become so through the superpowers' acts of omission and commission --- mostly commission --- over the last twenty years. Kakar's book is the best available history of the beginnings of the catastrophe.

Prior to 1973, Afghanistan had been a monarchy (originally established in the mid-eighteenth century by Ahmad Shah Durrani), resting atop a much older and notably stubborn tribal power structure. Traditional Afghanistan was a Muslim country but not one run by mullahs (who were rather the butt of jokes), or even by the shari'a, the Islamic law. Rather, affairs were regulated by a ``segmentary'' tribal organization, secular traditional laws and codes of honor, tribal councils known as jirgas (theoretically open to all adult male of the tribe), quasi-feudal magnates, and an implicit if often disconfirmed belief in Heinlein's dictum that ``an armed society is a polite society.''

The first man to attempt to assemble this unpromising material into a modern nation-state was the exceedingly formidable Amir Abdurrahman Khan, who gave the country its modern borders and passed on to his successors a program of modernization and reform which continued, often slowly and sometimes with spectacular set-backs, until 1973. From the early 1964 Afghanistan had been a constitutional monarchy in which the King, Mohammad Zahir Shah, shared power with a parliament elected on the basis of universal suffrage. There was substantial (but certainly far less than perfect) political freedom and respect for human rights, improvements in the status of women (which had in any case been traditionally better than it was to become under the Islamists --- no one could do farmwork in purdah), expansion of education, and so forth. It was still an exceedingly poor, backwards, largely illiterate country, far from being paradise or even Canada, but at least a peaceful, independent country about which one could entertain rational hopes.

In 1973, Mohammad Daoud, commonly called Daoud, a cousin of Zahir Shah and an ex-premier, staged a coup and overthrew the monarchy, declaring himself president and ending the role of parliament in government. Daoud instituted one-party rule (trying to legitimate it with a very dubious jirga), and tried to step up the pace of modernization. (His previous tenure as prime minister, from 1954 to 1964, was probably the period of the greatest sustained modernization the country has seen.) Daoud's party --- and, more importantly, the officer corps --- was infiltrated by the Afghan communist party, or rather, its two separate and mutually hostile factions, the Khalqis and the Parchamis. The former were more rural in background; also more popular, radical, influential in the armed forces, and nationalist. The Parchamis tended to be metropolitan, more educated, more obedient to Moscow, and more influential in the civilian government.

Nineteenth century Afghan history was in large measure a struggle to retain independence in the face of expanding Russian and British empires (hence the incredibly bloody Anglo-Afghan wars, and Abdurrahman Khan's conquests to the north). The replacement of the Romanovs by the Bolsheviks did little to change this. Neither did the dissolution of the British Raj in 1947, since it coincided with the beginning of the Cold War. At this point Afghanistan really did find itself between the devil and sea. It badly needed development aid, which the Soviets were much more willing to give than the Americans, in large part because Afghanistan had a long-standing and often-acrimonious dispute over its southern border, first with British India and then with Pakistan, the regional American client-state. The result was much more Soviet influence than the leaders of the monarchial period, or indeed most Afghans who thought about the matter, really liked, an influence the Soviets naturally did what they could to increase.

Daoud was overthrown by the Afghan communists --- principally the Khalqis --- under the leadership of Nur Mohammad Taraki in April 1978 (``the glorious April Revolution''). This was sparked in part by Daoud's growing unpopularity, but more directly by Daoud's attempts to suppress the communists, in which he called in as consultants SAVAK, the secret police of the Shah of Iran, who were apparently responsible for assassinating Mier Akbar Khybar, a highly intellectual, civilized and patriotic leader of the Left. Daoud, for all his unpopularity, had at least been a good Afghan Muslim. The communists were of course openly atheists, and were (correctly, in large part) seen as stooges of Moscow. The country quickly became ungovernable, with spontaneous revolts --- variously headed by tribal, nationalist-political and religious figures --- breaking out. The position of the Kabul regime (as Kakar calls it, refusing it the dignity of ``state'' or ``government'') was not strengthened by the internal struggles of the communists, in which Taraki was overthrown by Hafizullah Amin. The last straw, from the Soviet perspective, was when Amin began to express desires for actual independence. Accordingly, as they had done in Hungary and Poland in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets invaded to prevent a communist state from slipping out of their orbit. Amin was gunned down in the presidential palace, and the Parchamis installed in place of the Khalqis, some of whom actually joined the mujahideen.

Later commentators, pointing to the long line of invading armies that came to grief and ignominy in Afghanistan, most notably the British, have tut-tutted over the Soviets' lack of strategic perspective. This ignores the facts that many other armies have successfully conquered Afghanistan; and, probably more important from the Soviet point of view, they had long since ``been there, done that, got the seventy million subjects.'' Soviet rule in Central Asia began by crushing tribal and religious guerilla movements, the basmachi, and doing so with exceeding thoroughness. Even during the Second World War, when the Soviets' western territories (the Baltics, the Ukraine, etc.) went into open revolt, Central Asia remained obedient to Stalin. For the military planners in Moscow, the Afghan venture must have seemed very old hat indeed.

It didn't work out that way. This was not, of course, because the Soviets developed scruples, still less because world opinion turned against them, most of the usual voices of outrage being (with a few intensely honorable exceptions) conspicuous by their silence for a decade. (The French Communist Party, that famed moral authority, publicly supported the invasion.) No, the real difference between the fate of the mujahideen and the basmachi seems to have been that the Afghans were simply more determined and vicious than their predecessors had been --- and had logistical support from another superpower.

Here we come to the sowing of the dragon's teeth. US aid to the mujahideen went through the CIA. The CIA passed it on to its counterpart in Pakistan, the ISI (which doubles as the Pakistani secret police). The ISI passed it on to the political parties of exiles in Peshawr, from whom, in turn, it finally made its way, often much-reduced, to commanders inside Afghanistan. The ISI, as a matter of deliberate policy, favored the most extreme Islamist organizations it could lay hands on, plus ethnic separatists --- not because it thought these groups could form a stable government in Afghanistan, but precisely because it hoped they could not. (Recall that the frontier with Afghanistan, including Peshawr, had been disputed since before Pakistan formed in 1947.) The CIA went along, reasoning that the Islamists were the most immovably anti-communist groups available; the fact that they were also the most anti-western does not seem to have entered into their calculations. The net effect --- admirably described by Kakar, in large measure from direct observation --- was to render impotent other political groups, whether traditionalist or, like Kakar himself, nationalist, and to destroy the authority of traditional power-holders and even of jirgas, replacing them with men whose claims to power were force and fanaticism, often coupled to an astonishing ignorance of the Islam they claimed to be imposing. Of course most of the men who took up arms against the Soviets were not like that; but of course over time the balance of power shifted in favor of those who were.

The Soviets were unable to re-establish the Kabul regime's rule over the countryside or even the smaller cities; terrorist attacks on communists became frequent even in Kabul. Under these circumstances, the Soviets tried what most states faced with popular guerillas attempt: they took the war to the civilians and the countryside. The basic method (used in Cuba, South Africa, Algeria, Vietnam, etc., etc.) is to depopulate remote, ill-controlled villages. Whether the villagers go to towns and villages you control, or to concentration camps, or flee the country, or simply die, is at best a secondary issue, particularly if nobody is watching.

The Soviets prosecuted this strategy with remarkable thoroughness. Before the war, the Afghan population is estimated to have been somewhat more than fifteen million people. Over five million --- a third of the country --- became refugees, mostly in Pakistan and Iran; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called this ``migratory genocide.'' Millions more became refugees within the country, swelling the population of Kabul. Another million people were killed, either in fighting, or in massacres by Soviet troops (see Kakar's chs. 13 and 14), or by sheer starvation. Land-mines were very effectively employed to make much of the countryside uninhabitable; also to make tens of thousands of people cripples. In a display of really macabre ingenuity, the Soviets took to scattering brightly-colored plastic toys, which exploded when picked up by children. There is considerable evidence that, at least in some districts, the Soviets engaged in deliberate campaigns of extermination, and a weaker case for their use of chemical weapons. Even if this is not true, there is plenty of deliberate, intent viciousness left over.

Modern states are actually quite good at fighting guerillas, provided they are willing to be sufficiently patient and sufficiently bloody, and the guerillas are not supplied by another modern state; in the long run, organization gives the state an overwhelming advantage in both logistics and terror. Since Gorbachev is probably the single person most responsible for pulling the planet back from the brink of nuclear annihilation, it would be nice to think that he ended the Afghan war because he lacked the stomach for it. If so, he had an odd and slow way of showing it; indeed, during the first years of his rule the Soviets intensified the war. Eventually, however, it became simply too expensive for the faltering Soviet economy, too unpopular for a government lifting repression of its own people, and too humiliating for a state which had so much invested in the invincibility of the Red Army. The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in February 1989, just over nine years after they had arrived.

They left behind a country which promptly began a free-fall into utter chaos. The Kabul regime could not sustain itself and collapsed in the face of the mujahideen, who established an Islamist government in Kabul. (In 1993, the Supreme Court of that government issued an extraordinary ``Fatwa on the veil,'' quoted at length by Kakar, p. 279.) This government promptly collapsed among the factions of the mujahideen, who began to fight each other for control of Kabul, for the establishment of petty statelets, for loot, and apparently for the sheer hell of it. The traditional society and culture effectively no longer exist. The communists had (until their very last years) sought to uproot the traditional ``feudal'' culture in the areas under their control --- principally Kabul, which by 1994 had swollen to three million people. The Islamists were at least equally opposed to that culture, and sought to uproot it in the areas under their control. They also, as noted, displaced the traditional authorities and structure of governance.

Some three million Afghans, mostly rural in origin, lived in the refugee camps in Pakistan: there essentially the only culture available to them were exceedingly harsh and backwards forms of Islam promulgated by the ISI, Saudi Arabia, and similar blights. It was from among those who had grown up in these camps that the Taliban were recruited (again by the ISI, and apparently with Saudi money), and they provided the man-power for the conquest of the country, beginning in 1994 and essentially complete by the end of 1996. The reign of horrors which has followed is so well-known that I shall not rehearse it here; and an analysis of this unholy hybrid between an imported ideology and rural reaction, a sort of Afghan Khmer Rouge, would take far too much space. In any case, the Taliban falls outside the period of Kakar's book; suffice it to say that the Taliban seem singularly unimpressed by the Qur'anic injunction (2.256) that ``there shall be no compulsion in religion''.

A word about the author. Kakar was trained first at Kabul University, and then at the University of London, where he took his Ph.D. in history; he returned to become a professor of history at Kabul University. In addition to this book, and a number of others in Dari and Pashto, he is also the author of a very useful study of the reign of Abdurrahman Khan, and is generally one of the authorities on modern Afghan history. The bulk of the book only covers the period up to 1982, because that is when he was jailed by the Kabul regime as a dissident. (He describes life in the appalling Pul-i-Charkhi prison, where he conducted a number of interviews with his fellow political prisoners.) An epilogue sketches the course of events down to early 1994, when the book went to press.

For the beginning of the Afghan war, there is no source of comparable scope, insight and accuracy. Kakar's political sympathies are quite clear --- he is a modernizing, Muslim, democratic nationalist --- but I can find no point at which they have distorted his narrative or conclusions (and I am a cosmopolite atheist, and looked). His writing --- in perfectly grammatical if unpolished English --- is almost always level and simply descriptive; those who want impassioned rhetoric will have to look elsewhere. Yet the words Tacitus sets at the beginning of his Histories ---

I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors
--- might serve as Kakar's epigraph. Tyranny; invasion; rebellion; cruelty; slaughter; the exodus of a people; the destruction of a country by those who professed to be its saviors (``they make a desert and call it peace''): all this recounted in a level academic voice produces an effect of quiet, mounting horror. The horror has not ended yet; and I fear it will not end for a long time to come.
Disclaimer: I asked for, but did not get, a review copy of this book from the publisher. I'd like to think this didn't turn me against the book. More personally: My grandfather comes from a family which was a fairly prominent element in the tribal power structure, was a cabinet minister during the constitutional period, and was exiled after Daoud's coup. But what I've said here is not a reflection of his views, and I myself have never been involved in Afghan politics, even in the diaspora.
xii + 380 pp., appendices (including a useful set of biographical sketches), end-notes, bibliography, analytical index, map of Afghanistan (much too small, differing in Romanization from the text, and apparently photocopied from some other source), map of Kabul (better)
Central Asia / Islam and the Islamic World / Modern History / Socialism, Marxism, Communism / War
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-520-08591-4, US$40, and as a paperback, ISBN 0-520-20893-5, US$16.95. Also available on-line from the publisher (free). LoC BP163 A95.
29 October 1999
Thanks to Jon Fetter, Mitch Porter, Aryaman Shalizi, Zmarak Shalizi and Danny Yee