Afghanistan: the lynching of a revolution
by Deirdre Griswold
This article is from the United States’ weekly, Workers World (10 October 1996).
Not that long ago, the bourgeoisie could still feel pride in their revolutionary history. They continued to celebrate the 1789 French Revolution and many other great victories in the struggle against feudal oppression.
They even spoke approvingly of the 1917 overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy in Russia. The problem, they said, was that the Bolsheviks had spoiled that struggle for democracy by going too far.
But capitalism in this rotten age of US imperialist conquest of the globe has degenerated so far from its revolutionary roots that it is now, to borrow a phrase from Henry Kissinger, to the right of the Tsar. And it is celebrating the return of absolute feudal rule in Afghanistan.
The powerful media engines, their reach multiplied by the most modern technologies, are presenting the world with instant photographic images of a lynching — that’s all it was — of the few progressives left in Kabul.
To make the deed more palatable, the media use adjectives like “butcher” to describe former President Najibullah and his aides. Dragged out of the United Nations compound where they had sought asylum for the last four years, they were beaten to death and then left hanging for all to see.
But among themselves, foreign policy experts for the US establishment know that the Afghani progressives’ real crime was that they tried to carry out a social transformation in their country in the direction of socialism.
What authority bears witness to this? None other than the US Department of the Army itself.
The Pentagon puts out what it calls country study books on almost every country in the world. They are updated every few years. These books contain basic information for the use of US personnel travelling or working abroad. There’s nothing classified in them. They’re available in most libraries.
Afghanistan — a Country Study for 1986 has of course the anti-communist line expected of a Pentagon publication. But it also contains much useful information about the changes instituted by the Afghani Revolution of 1978.
Freeing women and peasants
Before the revolution, five per cent of Afghanistan’s rural landowners owned more than 45 per cent of the arable land. A third of the rural people were landless labourers, sharecroppers or tenants.
Debts to the landlords and to money lenders “were a regular feature of rural life,”says the US Army report. An indebted farmer turned over half his crop each year to the money lender.
“When the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) took power, it quickly moved to remove both land ownership inequalities and usury,” says the Pentagon report. Decree number six of the revolution cancelled mortgage debts of agricultural labourers, tenants and small landowners.
The revolutionary regime set up extensive literacy programs, especially for women. It printed textbooks in many languages — Dari, Pashtu, Uzbek, Turkic and Baluchi.“The government trained many more teachers, built additional schools and kindergartens and instituted nurseries for orphans,” says the country study.
Before the revolution, female illiteracy had been 96.3 per cent in Afghanistan. Rural illiteracy of both sexes was 90.5 per cent.
By 1985, despite a counter-revolutionary war financed by the CIA, there had been an 80 per cent increase in hospital beds. The government initiated mobile medical units and brigades of women and young people to go to the undeveloped countryside and provide medical services to the peasants for the first time.
Among the very first decrees of the revolutionary regime were to prohibit bride-price and give women freedom of choice in marriage. “Historically,” said the US manual, “gender roles and women’s status have been tied to property relations. Women and children tend to be assimilated into the concept of property and to belong to the male.”
Also: “A bride who did not exhibit signs of virginity on the wedding night could be murdered by her father and/or brothers.”
The revolution was challenging all this.
Young women in the cities, where the new government’s authority was strong, could tear off the veil, freely go out in public, attend school and get a job. They were organised in the Democratic Women’s Organisation of Afghanistan, founded in 1965 by Dr Anahita Ratebzada. Ratebzada’s companion, Babrak Karmal, was one of the young revolutionaries who had formed the PDPA in that same year and would later become president of the country.
Repression and revolution
A revolution was literally thrust upon this young party in 1978. The reactionary government of Mohammad Daoud, which was close to both the Shah of Iran and the United States, arrested almost the entire leadership of the PDPA on 26 April, 1978.
There had been a huge funeral procession just a week earlier for a murdered member of the party and the progressive masses in Kabul saw the new arrests as an attempt to annihilate the party just as the military junta had done to the workers’ parties in Chile in 1973.
An uprising by the lower ranks of the military freed the popular party leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki — the soldiers actually broke down his prison walls with a tank. Within a day, Daoud was overthrown and a revolutionary government proclaimed, headed by Taraki.
This uprising of the soldiers and the city masses, many of them low-paid civil servants in a country with very little industry, was every bit as glorious as earlier revolutions against feudal tyranny in Europe, It held the promise of breaking down the old traditions based on oppression and fear.
The leaders of the PDPA were educated, although some, like Taraki, came from very poor families. But they had been to Kabul University, some had studied abroad, and they yearned to bring enlightenment and material progress to Afghanistan.
Had all this happened 150 years ago, the feudals would have been overthrown and Afghanistan welcomed into the fold of progressive bourgeois nations. But that was before the age of imperialism, and especially before the era of proletarian revolutions and the Cold War.
The US CIA began building a mercenary army, recruiting feudal warlords and their servants for a “holy war” against the communists, who had liberated “their” women and “their” peasants. Washington spent billions of dollars every year on the war.
The only country in the area ready to help the Afghani Revolution was the Soviet Union. The USSR intervened militarily. But it could not defeat this well-armed counter-revolutionary force.1
Every battle was a test not only of Soviet military might but of the political resolve of its leaders. They finally withdrew the troops in 1989 as the shift to the right within the USSR became critical.
The war in Afghanistan began some 18 years ago. It continued long after the last progressive government in Kabul fell in 1992. The recent stage has been an orgy of destruction as rival reactionary groups fought for control of the capital, now mostly destroyed.
More than two million Afghanis have been killed in this struggle and millions more made refugees. Now half the remaining population — the women — have been returned to the status of property without a single human right. A poor man unable to pay his debts can have his hand cut off for theft.
The schools and clinics built by the revolution are in ruins. The Taleban — a fundamentalist group supported by Pakistan that was trained and armed by the US CIA — has taken the capital and is pursuing the war northward, toward the border with what were the Central Asian Soviet Republics. [Since this article was written opposing militias have contained this drive.]
This is the hideous face of counter-revolution. Afghanistan has been dragged back more than 100 years. But it was the most modern weapons and communications systems, made in the US, that killed the progressive dream of a generation of Afghani social revolutionaries.