New Internationalist

From The Top Down

Issue 153

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SOCIALISM | The Afghan experience

Former Afghan President Taraki, leader of the Socialist Peoples Democratic Party.
Photo: Camera Press
From the top down
In Afghanistan local communities have always been used to deciding things for
themselves. But now a socialist government is trying to impose change from above.
Richard Evans shows how Afghan socialism is out of touch with the people.

The most irreconcilable ideological lash of this century is probably taking place in Afghanistan. A Marxist-Leninist government is locked in mortal combat with a devoutly Islamic populace. The regime is propped up by massive Soviet aid and military occupation while the vast majority of Afghanistan’s complex mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups support the Mujihadeen resistance fighters.

‘We will drive the godless communists from our homeland,’ says Mujihadeen military commander, Jaludin Haqqani, ‘Either we will drive them out or they will have to kill us all.’

Yet the Afghans were not always so antagonistic to socialism. Indeed the coup that brought the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to power in 1978 had auspicious beginnings. The previous Prime Minister, Mohammed Daoud, was generally regarded as a tyrant and the national economy was in a shambles. The fighting during the week of the coup was limited to clashes within the armed forces - between loyalist and communist factions; the people themselves did not take to the streets. If anything, there seems to have been a guarded optimism over the arrival of socialism in Kabul.

Afghan people have long lived in a loosely collective society. Unlike Iran, the country’s powerful neighbour to the west, Afghanistan has never been controlled by a strong, centralized government. It was never an empire, but rather a collection of towns and regions, each more or less autonomous, each ruling itself by means of a local council comprised of mullahs, successful merchants and village elders. This situation was partly a result of Afghanistan’s difficult terrain: the nation is criss-crossed by chains of high, and often impassable, mountains. It is also a reflection of the traditional Afghan love of independence.

Regional autonomy led to the foundation of their own kind of socialism. Unable to rely on a king who held only nominal control and who lived hundreds of miles away, village councils assumed collective responsibility for the people they governed. Centuries before the People’s Democratic Party ever existed in Afghanistan, farmers were tithing a portion of their harvests. This food was pooled collectively and apportioned out to those whose crops had failed or who had suffered other misfortunes.

People in the villages banded together collectively because the weak and impoverished kingdom was unable to help them. When the Musahiban family dynasty was deposed in the bloodless coup led by Mohammed Daoud back in 1973, scarcely anyone objected, and the Kingdom of Afghanistan came to a peaceful end. Afghans were willing to accept political change; this was proven again when the nation refused to rally around Daoud when he, in turn, was deposed by the People’s Democratic Party five years later.

When the PDP came to power, nobody out in the countryside really knew what was happening. Nor was very much known about the Party itself. Although well-placed in colleges and in the armed forces at the time of the 1978 coup, its membership accounted for a mere 6,000 people in a nation of some 15 million. Most of these lived in Kabul, the country’s only real city.

The party had little idea of what went on in the villages and farms, where ninety per cent of the pre-war population lived. The socialist education of PDP members was mostly limited to their reading of a handful of pamphlets which had been translated into Persian and supplied by Moscow. Feroz Ahmed, a leading socialist in neighbouring Pakistan. expressed great disappointment in the PDP at the time of the revolution. ‘There has been very little indigenous work,’ he said, ‘a real dearth of analyses of the concrete political situation in Afghanistan. This party did not know about its own rural society.’

In spite of a genuine will to reform, the Afghan revolution was marked by an almost unbelievable level of ignorance. When the villagers grumbled about the seeming senselessness of the reforms, the PDP’s initial goodwill quickly changed to the rampant brutality of a police state. ‘Torture,’ says Abdul Ghafur, former chief of administration for the Afghan Ministry of the Interior in the months following the PDP-led coup. ‘was simply the mood of the day. Everyone was suspected of leading a counter-coup.

Three attempted reforms figure in the failure of the PDP to win the support of the Afghan people: first there was the effort to abolish the usury of high-interest loans given to needy farmers: second, the attempt to abolish traditional bride-prices and third, and perhaps most important of all, a poorly executed scheme meant to bring about radical land reform.

These measures were announced in three official decrees between July and November 1978. By the end of that period, armed resistance to the new Kabul regime had already begun.

What had started as attempted reform was seen everywhere as repression. In its effort to prevent the bourgeoisie from making an unfair living off high-interest loans extended to struggling farmers, the new socialist government practically destroyed the national rural economy. With many back interest payments and loans abolished by decree, the middle and upper classes refused to loan any money at all. Farmers could not raise the money they needed to buy seed and fertiliser. By the spring of 1979 many fields already lay fallow.

Meanwhile, the government was spending much of its limited resources upgrading its armed forces against the first armed clashes with the civilian population. The land reform caused more anger as Kabul bureaucrats moved, seemingly at random, through the countryside, often making administrative decisions of breathtaking incompetence.

They sought to break up ‘feudal’ arrangements involving landed families and tenant farmers. Often given falsified deeds by rural opportunists, these bureaucrats continually handed over land to the wrong people. They alienated owners and tenants alike, for once the land was given to a new owner, the tenants were often asked for more rent or told to leave.

The abolition of bride price also aroused anger, for the tradition is an Islamic one, considered an integral part of the religious marriage ceremony. It also served a social function of which the revolutionaries seemed oblivious. Money was paid by the husband or his father to the family of the bride. This served as a form of life insurance for the Afghan women in the event that their husbands died or divorced them.

Instead, resistance was met with military action. Dissidents were shot or imprisoned. By March 1979 a civil war was already well underway. At Herat, near the Iranian frontier, thousands of civilians and members of the armed forces rose up against the government. Much of the city was bombed by air-force planes, perhaps manned by Soviet pilots. Five thousand people were killed and wounded before the uprising was crushed.

By then it was too late. The prospect for a peaceful transition from tribal collectivism to modern socialism died in the rubble of Herat, nine months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

For their part, the leaders in Moscow had tried to dissuade the PDP from moving ahead too quickly. Radical reforms were discouraged by the Soviet Union, which was sending much economic aid to Afghanistan. Perhaps Moscow hoped to build up popular support in the wake of the corrupt and tyrannical Daoud regime. Strangely enough, the Soviets’ advice seems to have been entirely ignored.

By the autumn of 1979, so many Afghans were fighting the regime that the Christmas Eve invasion had become inevitable. The Afghan army was losing the war on all fronts, with thousands of soldiers deserting to join the Mujihadeen. Since then, six years of bloody war have ensured that there can be no return to the situation which existed before.

The present regime is both ideologically and morally bankrupt in’ the eyes of the Afghan people. Too many villages have been bombed, too many refugees driven from the country. Yet collectivism in Afghanistan is perhaps stronger than ever, encouraged by the ferocity of a common enemy.

Even in wartime, the Mujihadeen continue to make decisions on the basis of collective assemblies. Villages continue to tithe a portion of their crops. If and when the people of Afghanistan are again allowed to determine their own fate, the collectivism which has long been the key to their survival in a hard and arid land is unlikely to be cast aside. The people there are more politically aware than ever before.

Richard M Evans is an American writer whose latest trip to Afghanistan was in the summer of 1985.


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